Mindfulness or MBSR for Treating Child Anxiety

What is Mindfulness and MBSR?

Mindfulness finds it roots in Buddhist philosophy and meditation. The father of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, established mindfulness as a constituent of the noble eightfold path, one of his most important teachings. Mindfulness, at its very core, is simply focusing on a single thing at a time. The concept refers to extended awareness of the mind that doesn’t seek to judge the items being contemplated. This moment-to-moment observation may extend to things like physical sensations, insights, emotional states, thoughts, and a whole host of other issues.

Mindfulness involves letting go of both the past and the future in order to concentrate on the things occurring in the immediate surroundings or within oneself. The aim of the practice is to achieve a state of mind where elements outside of the focal point being contemplated cease to matter completely. Since mindfulness relies on the ability to maintain focus on a single thing, eliminating distracting factors is vital in achieving meaningful sessions. This is usually done through isolating those partaking in the exercise in designated environments and focusing on breathing, listening to soothing music, or other such exercises.

Though mindfulness was inspired by Buddhist teachings, there isn’t anything fundamentally religious about the practice. In the late 70s, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, attended a retreat where he was first introduced to mindfulness. The experience led him to believe the practice could be medically beneficial. As a result, Dr. Kabat-Zinn created a program designed around mindfulness that would go on to aid chronically sick patients cope with the pain and changes occurring in their lives. The practice pioneered by Dr. Kabat-Zinn has since spread through much of the Western world where it has become a staple among complement treatment for a wide range of alignments and conditions.

In the Western medical world, mindfulness is usually referred to as mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR. This technique refines and applies mindfulness for therapeutic treatment purposes. This treatment is based around the calming effects of MBSR. Though Dr. Kabat-Zinn originally created his program to treat illnesses, MBSR can be used for an incredibly diverse range of things, the simplest of which is basic stress relief.

MBSR in Adults

There exists a wealth of documented proof that mindfulness-based treatment benefits people suffering from an exceeding array of conditions. MBSR is frequently subjected to meta-analysis, a type of study that looks at available research and forms evaluations and conclusions based on the findings of these studies. These analyses concerning MBSR and its usefulness in treating psychological conditions conclude that the usage of MBSR is beneficial for the management of depression, chronic pain, stress, anxiety, eating disorders, psoriasis, fybromyalga, substance abuse, and cancer.

Despite the wide range of applications for MBSR, the technique remains commonly used for alleviating depression, anxiety, and psychological distress. A meta-analytical study found that of these three, MBSR was most useful in treating psychological distress. Though less effective for those suffering from anxiety and depression MBSR was still found to beneficial. MBSR has also been found to aid individuals suffering from substance abuse problems. A study published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy found mindfulness to be particularly useful in relapse prevention, a cornerstone in ensuring lasting benefits from substance abuse treatment. Another study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found a link between MBSR and an increase in natural killer cells. This greatly benefited the immune systems of the participants in the study.

Another thing to note about MBSR is that it is often paired up with other forms of treatment. Since MBSR often only takes a small window of time, it goes well as a compliment to other forms of treatment. Cognitive therapy is a common partner of MBSR. Together, they provide greater relief than when provided separately.

How can MBSR Help my Child?

MBSR has an exceedingly long history of helping adults. There are, however, only a handful of studies that show that this method is useful for children simply due to how new the idea is. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that the results experienced by children after successful MBSR therapy would be any different from those felt by adults. It may take longer for children to learn the vital concepts of mindfulness such as remaining calm, being acutely aware, and focusing on a single issue because such concepts are seldom taught to children.  Once children learn the skillset necessary for MBSR, this practice might benefit them even more than adults: Since so many negative effects and alignments are linked to stress, possessing the capacity to quickly eliminate stress at a young age will likely reduce the risk of developing such chronic, stress related conditions as hypertension later in life.

Much like in adults, MBSR can help children achieve many things. Possibly the most important of these is basic stress relief. Though simply worrying about school may sound simple for adults, children can get incredibly worked up over exams and keeping their grades up. This is especially true for high-achieving students that are being pressured to maintain their record. Trouble with friends or facing bullying can also have a deep impact on how appreciated and safe a child feels at school. The responses we exhibit to stress during childhood will likely follow children into their adult life. A child that gets worked up over peer-pressure, for example, is at risk for having similar responses towards colleagues and friends later on. Though regular MBSR exercises can help alleviate much of this unwanted stress, it can also help improve a child’s concentration.

Mindfulness also carries the benefit of allowing children to appreciate the moment-to-moment treasures of everyday life. Even children have regrets about the past and worry about the future. Children can build lots of anxiety over negative instances. Let’s say a child was laughed at by his peers during a physical education class. Next week, he or she may feel anxious about partaking in the scheduled activities and has no feasible way of avoiding the class. MBSR can help place instances and worries such as these in the past and allow children to truly view only the present.

Explaining MBSR to Children

One of the most important things to keep in mind while considering MBSR as a potential method of curbing your child’s stress is that it was originally intended for adults. Concepts like focusing on oneself and trying to contemplate only a single item at a time can be demanding to children. Without proper guidance, it’s likely that children would simply get distracted, bored, or annoyed and simply cease to focus on the therapy. These are important limitations that you must understand before attempting MBSR therapy on your child.

Fortunately, children are prone to getting excited over new things and generally love receiving attention from their parents. Using their natural desire for play and fun can turn into a useful avenue towards stress relief. The concepts involved in MBSR aren’t too difficult even for children to understand. With the right preparations, you might be able to get your child not only to partake in MBSR but actually enjoy it.

In simple terms, explain to your child that the negative emotions and physical symptoms that they experiencing are the result of stress and anxiety. Make sure they understand that there is something they can do to help themselves. This will make it likely they will be gravitated towards partaking in MBSR. Suggest trying the treatment for a week or two and explain it may seem very strange or even useless to them in the beginning and that it might take some time to get used to. Tell them that if they just stick with the program they are very likely to experience less negative stress symptoms such as headaches and stomach pain. When it comes to explaining concepts like awareness or being non-judgmental, proceed slowly. Most MBSR programs directed for children are identical to those used by adults. The only notable difference is that the sessions designed for children don’t usually last longer than thirty minutes.

After your first session, ask your child how they feel and try to make them be as descriptive as possible. Be aware that children don’t always have the capacity to vocalize these experiences. In fact, participating children in a study reported feeling dead to describe the stillness and calmness they felt. It’s important you schedule MBSR sessions on a regular and consistent basis. Children like routines and are more likely to stick with the therapy and want to participate in it if they can anticipate sessions.

MBSR in Daily Life

Our daily lives impose all kinds of stressful things upon us. We must worry about our work, our children, our homes, making payments, and whole host of other issues. This list seems to stretch on with no end in sight. Living with a child suffering from anxiety or stress also adds to the pressure you feel. Even worse, the moment you start exhibiting stressful behavior around your children, their conditions may worsen. Luckily, MBSR is rather easy to squeeze into an already hectic lifestyle with proper planning.

Unlike adults, children aren’t usually bombarded by stress-inducing factors. Instead, they are easily worked-up over certain issues. If you learn what is causing your child to behave anxiously, you can time the frequency and hour of your MBSR sessions to suit their needs. For example, if it’s school-life that’s stressing your child, you may want to hold sessions during the evenings. This way, your child will have had the time to become comfortable at home and should be preparing to go to sleep. Timing your sessions during the evenings will help your child calm down and attain much needed, stress-free sleep. This will make the effects of the session extend well after your child falls asleep and will help him face the troubles of tomorrow as they come. Most importantly, keep in mind your existing schedule. If you have to stress about making stress-relief sessions, chances are they won’t have much of an effect. Plan around events by prioritizing and know that missing a day of MBSR won’t collapse your child to total anxiety.

Because children often have a hard time keeping concentration, you may want to place them in the quietest room in the house. Make sure the TV is turned off, the dryer in the next room isn’t banging, the door is closed, and that all possible sound is removed before your session. It’s also a good idea to remove your child from their own rooms. Their belongings, posters, and other items may serve to distract them. The ideal setting for MBSR sessions is a calm, non-threatening environment with all external distractions removed. This synergizes incredibly well with the focusing aspect of the therapy, as well as with the general idea of removing oneself from past regrets and worries about the future.

The post was written by Clinical Psychologist Dr. Marie Cheour. Dr. Cheour has worked as a Professor of both Pediatrics and Psychology at the University of Miami where she received a 2002 Research Award, as a Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Turko in Finland, and as the Head of the Developmental Brain Research Laboratory, Cognitive Brain Research Unit (CBRU), at the University of Helsinki.