Infants and very young children have a natural ability to spontaneously relax and let go of tension. This ability is usually lost by the time a child reaches school age, where habits of tension, apprehension and anxiety can lead to the experience of ‘stress’. In teaching young children the art of stillness, as a form of meditation for children, we are helping them to reconnect with the natural stillness and strength within themselves. For the management and prevention of stress, the earlier this new learning takes place, the better. It is unlikely that children under the age of 7 years will be able to sustain any lengthy time of stillness but the seeds of stillness can be reasonably planted in early childhood, in preparation for later stages of development and further children’s meditation training.
These are the years when ‘stress’ may become a reality. In these years, the introduction of stillness as a positive life-skill may intercept otherwise potentially dangerous outcomes. Naturally at this age, there may be resistance to adopting children’s meditation therapy which, to them, may not qualify as being ‘cool’. However if stillness is introduced into a school or class situation, it is more likely to be accepted as the norm. The practice of stillness in adolescence can assist with confidence, resilience and independence (especially from substances and alcohol) and bring serenity to a time of life when the need for productivity and achievement is at a premium.
Family modelling is the first and most significant point of learning for any child. If tension is accepted as normal within a family, then it is likely that individual members will react with tension and suffer the consequences. On the other hand, if families are aware of the detrimental effect of tension and take steps to replace tension with ease and tranquillity, the home environment will remain reasonably relaxed. So, bringing Stillness Meditation into the home is an obvious step to better living and something that will contribute to happier, more capable children who are less likely to succumb to stress. The less tension is generated, the less anxiety will be felt and the less stress will be experienced.
School meditation programs
Education as it is generally known covers many aspects of learning and provides a magnificent start to our children’s lives. However within the framework of education there is little to empower young people with the gentle discipline of calm control, mental relaxation and stress relief. There is little in formal education that can assist in averting tension and anxiety and the many symptoms that accompany it. The discipline of stillness and its acceptance at school can achieve this. Within school meditation training, children can also be led to a new sense of care and respect for themselves which in turn may lead to greater respect for others and for all of life. The practice of stillness could therefore be recognised within the classroom as a priority life educational tool.
As a form of therapy
Wherever there are emotional problems in young people there almost certainly will be high tension. It is probable that the benefits of any form of intervention being practised (counselling, psychotherapy, behavioural modification, medication etc.), can be improved if the child is more relaxed. With the letting go of unnecessary tension and the empathic interaction between therapist and client that takes place in the experience of stillness, increased trust, better communication and gaining of insight can help lead to an ability to understand and deal with issues of importance.
- Teaching children stillness supports their natural ability to relax
- Stillness in adolescence may intercept potentially dangerous outcomes
- A tranquil family means a tranquil child
- The acceptance of stillness in the classroom fills a major educational need and reinforces awareness of the values of discipline and respect
- A more relaxed child will respond better to other forms of therapy
Why teach Stillness Meditation to young people?
Most children and adolescents are essentially happy, contented with their lives and apparently stress-free. However, many of these happy young people still have problems to deal with which may include facing their homework, interacting with family and friends, speaking publicly or making presentations, learning new arts or skills, succeeding at competitive sport, worrying about people they love and just generally leading very busy lives. Happy people also experience stress! Since prevention can be better than cure, it makes good sense to keep anxiety and tension to a minimum before the likelihood of the stress reaction becomes too firmly fixed and remains like a flawed thread within the fabric of such lives.
But even more than this – we need to remember too, that there are also numerous children who face greater issues such as separation, loss, abuse, illness, learning difficulties or worries beyond their years. These are living with high-risk stressors where instability, unpredictability, assault, injustice or negative change will disturb the individual. We know also of children who are diagnosed with disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder (O.C.D.), attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.), and more. These conditions, too, are symptomatic of high anxiety and tension, and such children have need of good communication and professional counselling. However, for significant relief from these symptoms and for the prevention of further stress reactions, anxiety and tension must somehow be effectively reduced and skills for stress management be put in place.
As they develop, children learn both positive and negative ways to cope. Obviously, it is desirable to teach and encourage the positive. Stillness Meditation is a positive and very easy way to empower young people from all walks of life. Clearly it can help them to manage stress – from the natural reservoir of strength within themselves.
1. To reduce anxiety
As outlined earlier, anxiety is a normal human response. But as also explained earlier, if there is high anxiety, symptoms will arise. The symptoms of anxiety are many and varied. Common symptoms of anxiety may include breathlessness, sweaty palms, clumsiness, thumping heart, nausea, vomiting, ‘butterflies’, blushing, stuttering, shyness, fidgeting, teeth grinding, sleeplessness, restlessness – even bullying. More severe symptoms may appear as nervous rashes, insomnia, eating disorders, attention deficit disorders, fear of death or non-specific fears, compulsions, mental overload and ‘scary’ thoughts, panic attacks, periods of depression and obsessive or phobic reactions. Any of these symptoms and more, may eventuate in and beyond childhood.
When children are observed experiencing headaches, tummy aches or recurring nightmares … or displaying bitten fingernails, bed wetting problems, outbursts of frustration, anger or regular tantrums, it is certain that these children are in need of anxiety reduction. The practice of stillness can provide this.
2. To reduce nervous tension
As already explained, tension is the major negative coping strategy used to fight the feelings of unease that come from anxiety. Lack of personal confidence can be enough to cause someone to react with too much tension. If a child is taught to strive hard, do his or her best, always win and aim for high achievement, this is a noble ideal. But some people also teach – and learn – that increased tension is the right way to reach these ideals.
Muscle tension is a necessary component of daily life. The body cannot move effectively without some measure of tension. But when tension is used as a defence against anxiety, tension becomes a problem. So, too much tension may cause chronic pain, sore muscles, gripping in the stomach, headaches, tight shoulders, nervous twitches and general dis-ease and discomfort. Stillness learned and practiced in early life can assist in recognising and releasing tension.
3. To manage and reduce stress
Anxiety and tension are pre-cursors to the stress reaction. When potentially stressful life events (stressors) arise they are just one more factor to deal with over and above existing anxiety and tension and everything else that is happening in life. Therefore if anxiety is kept to a minimum and tension is calmly reduced, events that might otherwise cause stress may be managed resourcefully and well. In this way the practice of stillness is a preventative health care measure for young people, replacing stressful reactions with self-containment and composure.
4. To gain wider benefits
As a result of reduced anxiety, tension and stress, wider benefits may include:
- improved resilience and coping ability
- less psychosomatic illness
- better general health
- increased energy
- higher tolerance of pain and discomfort
- surprisingly, the fast, effective relief of hiccups!
- improved concentration and competency
- higher productivity
- positive attitudinal change
- improved behaviour and relationships
- greater self-confidence
- new respect for self and others
- increased insight and creativity
- a higher quality of life reflected in ease, calm, tranquillity, serenity
- awareness of the inner self and potential spiritual awakening
Extract from “Let’s be still – Teaching Manual” a useful resource for parents and teachers. Other recommended resources are Quiet Magic, a children’s fictional story and Let’s Be Still CD. All resources by Pauline McKinnon