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Promoting Mindfulness in Kids

One the most exciting recent developments in the modern treatment of depression has been the integration of cognitive behavioral principles with insights from an Eastern tradition that goes back many thousands of years.

The practice of mindfulness is a form of meditation that emphasizes closing down depressive thinking by paying attention only to the present moment and accepting the contents of your thoughts. Instead of striving to change the contents of your thoughts overtly, practitioners of the mindfulness approach develop the capacity to "bear witness" to them in a relaxed, nonjudgmental fashion. Those who develop this discipline are often able to break the stranglehold of the depressed state of mind.

Psychologists have sought to understand why the mindfulness approach can be so effective. They believe that one of the main drivers of a depressive mindset is obsessive "discrepancy analysis"—in other words, a preoccupation with the seemingly insurmountable gap between where you are and where you would like to be. Their suggestion is that the mindfulness approach short-circuits this painful and counterproductive process of comparison by not attempting to change the present or look beyond it, but to accept it for what it is, even if it is distressing or unpleasant.

The reality is that our experience changes moment by moment, but a depressed person usually ignores or edits out anything that might prove neutral or even uplifting. The practice of mindfulness keeps the individual open to experience in a way that runs counter to the habits of a depressed mind. It stops people from getting caught up in cycles of negative thinking by holding everything lightly and helping people become observers of their own thoughts rather than their slaves.

Research evidence shows that the practice of mindfulness really can help reduce relapse among depressed adults, and the key attitudes also likely underpin a mentally healthy outlook.

We can certainly encourage our children to develop some of the hallmarks of mindfulness. Learning to concentrate, to really observe, and to live in the present is a talent that has to be developed. It starts with learning to still the babbling of busy young minds and bring attention back to the job at hand. The modern world leaves us in a constantly overstimulated state: We are awash with a barrage of information from the media and the Internet; our lives consist of constantly changing priorities and roles.

Encourage your child to concentrate, ignore distractions, really observe, and live in the present.

Because we've gotten used to dealing with constant flux and so many competing demands, the simplicity and focus of doing one thing at a time is becoming quite alien to us. If the level of stimulation drops below the cultural norm, many children feel ill at ease. Teach your child to be as comfortable with simplicity and silence as she is with the pyrotechnics of the multimedia age.

No one is designed to multitask all the time. How is your child to learn to attend to the flavors and textures of food if every meal is accompanied by the distraction of the TV set? Take your child out into nature and train him to observe: Point out details and examine the intricate veins on the back of a leaf, the ridges on shells, or the glistening trails left by the snails. Stand on a hillside together; close your eyes together and see whether you can concentrate on listening—really listening—for a whole minute. Start doing these things while your child is young, and you will be encouraging good mental hygiene in later life.

Take your child outside and let her study the tiniest details of nature. Help her learn to be comfortable with simplicity and silence.

It's a shame that the art of collecting things is becoming so neglected. Whether it's stamps, beer mats, or bottle caps, poring over a prized collection trains children to focus their attention in a way not encouraged by the fast-moving world of videos and computer games.

I'm sounding like an old fogey, but I make no apology. The latest health research is telling us that the ability to live fully in the moment and develop a quality of sustained attention has genuine protective value for all of us.

The 17th-century French moralist Jean de la Bruyère claimed that "children have neither past nor future; they enjoy the present." However, although children might have an innate talent for "living in the moment," we need to remember that life has changed, making it difficult to hang on to this valuable ability. If we are serious about protecting our children's mental health, we may need to work a little harder if we want our children to be able to swim upstream against the constant distractions of modern life.

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From How Your Child Thinks Copyright © 2009, FT Press. Used by permission of FT Press, and Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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