DEBATE: Do our children need training to deal with stress?

Do children need mindfulness? Diana Skalkos and Karen Funnell discuss...

YES

For some children, mindfulness really can help reduce stress and improve concentration, says Diana Skalkos

DEBATE: Do our children need training to deal with stress?

I BEGAN studying secular mindfulness about 25 years ago. I live with social shyness or anxiety and addressed the issue at that time by being first to the bar in social situations.

I knew I was on a slippery slope and was lucky enough to have an open minded group of friends who were willing to support me in this different approach.

I have practised with my young son for a few years now. Like every child he has faced life’s ups and downs. I see the benefits on a daily basis, in his approach to school work and his thoughtfulness and ability to respond to various circumstances.

Most especially, I saw the benefits when he was the victim of some nasty bullying in his first year in primary school. He was able to forgive and move on, limiting the long term effects.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still an old fashioned girl who has taught my child to stand up for himself and fight back. The difference is he has learned to leave the justifiable anger of a bullied child right there, at the point of defending himself, and avoid the negative self talk that can torture children into adulthood.

I’m not claiming that mindfulness is a cure-all or silver bullet. We were lucky enough to be able change schools. Our child is now attending a great school with competent, caring teachers and that has certainly also added to his personal growth, but I believe mindfulness played an important part.

If you put your hand across your forehead, beneath your fingers in your lower forehead is an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This area is responsible for emotional regulation, intuition and realistically discerning levels of danger. It is the area of your brain associated with the primal fight, flight or freeze mode. When the prefrontal cortex perceives danger, it prompts an area of the brain called the amygdala to release stress chemicals in the body.

This was an essential survival tool in early man but in today’s relatively predator free world, this could probably go a long way to explaining aggression, or lack of emotional regulation in children and adults.

Studies have shown that when the amygdala was activated and subjects were asked to identify the emotion they were feeling, deactivation occurred. Mindfulness caused a positive physiological shift within the body.

Connecting to present awareness is also key to building positive social awareness. Activation of the amygdala results in areas of the brain responsible for learning being less accessible.

In other words, when a child comes to school stressed or is stressed at school, the child is not in a learning state.

Mindfulness is an essential tool of the worlds leading sports psychologists. It is present in the kick of Johnny Sexton and the stride of Sonya O’Sullivan.

A short daily mindfulness practise strengthens the pathways in the prefrontal cortex and teaches our children to focus on their breath in response to stress. This slows the heart rate and overrides the alarm systems which are on alert, allowing them to regulate their emotions and respond reflectively instead.

When adults don’t have this means of regulating emotions, this can often lead to a state of stagnation or depression, or a sense that life is meaningless. Mindfulness is simply about noticing what’s happening, an awareness of the here and now, without judgement or need to modify. It is a valuable life skill and a gift to our children.

The scientifically acknowledged side effects of mindfulness in children are reduced stress, improved sleep quality and heightened focus.

Diana Skalkos divides her time between ceramics, being a mother and helping out at Yoga Republic Cork, the yoga school founded by her husband, Sackies. Diana and her husband teach mindfulness to children on a voluntary basis. She has been designing a ‘Mindfulness and Yoga for Children’ teacher training course which she hopes to launch soon

NO

Good, honest parenting should equip children to deal with life, without the need for any formal mindfulness training, says Karen Funnell

DEBATE: Do our children need training to deal with stress?

JUST to clarify, I’ve nothing against mindfulness. We could all do with being a little more mindful about how we act, what we say to others, how we take in the world around us, and deal with the stresses of modern-day living. Anything that helps us to be calmer, more relaxed and a little less frazzled is a good thing — I just don’t think our children need to have formal training in it.

Admittedly, today’s youngsters have it tougher than our generation, but the issues haven’t really changed, just the medium in which they are delivered. Bullying, peer pressure, low self-esteem, eating disorders, anxiety were all around when I grew up, just without Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

The ’80s bully pulled your pigtail or called you fat; the 2016 one posts something derogatory online and sits back smugly, waiting for the viral onslaught. It was always a nasty world, but now there’s a digital footprint of every act of cruelty.

So where does mindfulness fit into all of this? According to Mindfulnessmatters.ie, it’s the space where adults and children learn to build inner resources for dealing with modern-day life, a gentle way of being present and seeing clearly what is happening in our lives — freeing us from the “mindless automatic pilot” and unhelpful ways of thinking and responding.

That’s all hunky dory and I wouldn’t argue with any of it — but can’t we teach this to our children ourselves, without the need for classes? Isn’t that what good honest parenting should be? Surely our children have enough schooling and after-school activities without adding mindfulness classes to the equation. It’s all a bit too much.

It’s one thing getting them to be in touch with their emotions but aren’t there small things at home we could do instead? We are all guilty of racing against the clock but we need to take time to actually sit down and talk to our kids about how their day was, and how they are feeling.

From an early age, children need to learn about coping mechanisms because invariably they will encounter baddies and bullies on the rocky road to adulthood. We can’t wrap them up in cotton wool but we can give them the tools so that they learn to respect themselves, take pride in what they do even if they are not top of the class or the fastest on the team, and, ultimately, be kind to others and mindful — yes I’m using the word — of the feelings of others.

Life is going to be tough for tomorrow’s teenagers — as it is for today’s and as it was for yesterday’s — exacerbated by the pressures to have the latest gadget, the best body, the highest marks. It’s our job, as parents, to prepare them for all that. To teach them to stand up for themselves, and not to be afraid to say no — and for us not to be afraid to say no to them either, so that they don’t grow up expecting the world to fall at their feet. They’ll need tools to cope and I’m all for that, but unless they are a particularly nervous, anxious, or under-confident child, I really don’t think there’s a need to sign them up for a course in mindfulness.

A childhood is painfully short, and those few precious years should be spent kicking a ball, riding a bike, or combing Barbie’s hair — whatever floats their boat — not sitting in a room trying to get in touch with their inner peace. There’ll be plenty of time for all that when they head into the real world.


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