Meditation is an ancient practice that’s been used to increase your energy, relieve stress and ‘clear your mind’. In contemporary society, meditation doesn’t require you to give up your daily lifestyle, it only requires a few minutes of free time, making it an accessible form of anti-stress practice. The founder of the American Mindfulness Movement, Dr. Jon Kabat, describes mindfulness as, “using the wisdom of the body and mind to combat stress, pain, and illness”. Its viewed as the constant awareness that comes with paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. As a stress reliever, yoga and meditation reverse the molecular reaction in DNA, resulting in higher levels of dopamine and serotonin (better mood). Since meditation has some added benefits to one’s well-being, what if these contemplative practices become part of a child’s daily routine during early development?
Below, Dr. Melson discusses the research associated with applying contemplative practices, such as yoga and mindfulness meditation, into a child’s daily routine. If you would like more information on the effects/benefits of contemplative practices, I recommend reading Dr. Melson’s article: “Young Yogis Rock: Mindfulness Works For Kids Too”
I noticed you specialize in child development and family studies, I was wondering what inspired you to focus on this branch of psychology? How does research on child development influence the field of psychology?
My Ph.D. is in developmental psychology, which is the branch of psychology that focuses on how we change and develop from conception to death. Within this field, the study of child development particularly attracted me. Childhood is a time of dramatic change. What occurs during childhood lays the foundation for how we as adults develop and change throughout the rest of our lifetimes. The study of stress and coping in childhood is an important research area. Anything that might address these issues should be the focus of scholarly attention.
In your article, you discuss how the contemplative practices of yoga, mindfulness meditation, and relaxation breathing aid with the emotional and physical responses to stress, anxiety, and depression. Do you mind elaborating more on how these practices improve an individual’s mental growth and well-being?
Research in this area is not extensive, and many of the studies are small-scale. We must be cautious in drawing premature conclusions about the benefits of contemplative practices. However, both clinical and research evidence points to the ways that contemplative practices can aid focus and concentration. When one slows down and deepens breathing, this can counter the rapid shallow breathing that occurs when one becomes anxious. Many contemplative practices emphasize non-judgmental acceptance and compassion for self and others. This can help counter negative self-thoughts and can boost self-esteem. There is hope that practicing compassion through contemplative practices would increase empathy and compassionate behavior toward others.
What areas of the brain become more stimulated during yoga/mindfulness meditation? And are the effects different among children and adolescence?
It appears that the prefrontal cortex, which regulates focused attention, is involved. Some small-scale studies have found that there is increased blood flow in this region by experienced meditators (adults) and more brain activity as measured by EEGs. We don’t have enough evidence to identify specific differences in children and adolescents.
How does the emotional response and/or coping mechanism to stress differ among children and adults?
Among many other things, a child’s developmental level, individual personality, and life circumstances all affect emotional responses and coping with stress. Children are of course, dependent upon adult care and are learning how to identify, express and manage emotions from their caregivers and significant others. Patterns of “emotional intelligence” are being laid down. These can and do change with development, but they remain predispositions.
Are there any negative effects to exposing children to these contemplative methods?
As with any enrichment or intervention, contemplative methods should be introduced only by adults who are well trained. For example, introducing children or adults to yoga requires the aid of a trained instructor in order to avoid injury and to get benefits from the stretching and poses. Programs should be well adapted to the developmental level of the child. For example, an adult might be able to sit still and engage in a sitting meditation for 30 minutes, but for most children, this would be inappropriate.
Do you believe that if children continue to use meditation on a day-to-day basis that forms of anxiety or depression among children, teens, and adults will likely decrease in the near future?
One would hope that regular contemplative practices might decrease stress and anxiety/depression. But, we need more research to verify this hope. There are many structural societal problems, such as poverty, racism, extreme income inequality, and lack of health care, to name a few. It is perhaps unrealistic to assume that any single self-help routine could counter these stresses.
Since various forms of contemplative practices have yet to be fully explored, which do you find will be beneficial and popular among children?
Gentle yoga, guided imagery, relaxation breathing appear to be the main contemplative practices that are gaining traction in school programs, especially in the elementary grades. All of these practices can be easily adapted to various grade levels. There has been less attention to helping parents and caregivers incorporate these practices in the home or as family activities that adults and children could do together. Having a “down time” in which family members disconnect from technology, spend time together in a relaxed, non-judgmental way and just slow down – that seems like a promising idea.
Do you find that yoga, mindfulness meditation, or deep breathing relaxation will benefit children who already suffer from serious mental illnesses?
Contemplative practices might be part of a coordinated treatment approach for children with serious mental illnesses. These practices are not panaceas. But they are a low-risk addition to other therapies and/or medications.
Should schools apply these methods of yoga, mindfulness, and/or tai chi into their routines, in order to assist students struggling with mental health?
Personally, I would love to see contemplative practices integrated into the school day and into the curriculum. However, teachers face many challenges and pressures. We know that some schools are eliminating recess, arts, music, and theatre, in order to concentrate more on drilling for mandated exams. Restoring these essential parts of the curriculum should come first. Also, we need good research that documents the benefits of contemplative practices for academic achievement in core subjects, such as reading and math. Such research would help justify to parents, teachers and school administrators the need for contemplative practices.
Based on studies related to stress, anger, and anxiety, the practice of mindfulness meditation and tai chi has become quite popular in research. If any, what kind of breakthroughs do you anticipate for studies using contemplative practices as coping mechanisms?
Hopefully, we will see larger scale studies that have the “gold standard” design of randomized experimental (doing contemplative practice) and control groups. This requires funding from government sources such as NIH. We also need more work on the various components of such practices. For example, what effect does the movement component of yoga have on children’s physical health, such as flexibility and strength? We need more research on ‘matching’ individual children to different practices. Which children benefit more from a sitting meditation versus a movement one, such as yoga or tai chi?
Many thanks to Dr. Melson for being generous with her time and insights. Dr. Melson is a professor of family studies and child development at Purdue University. She currently has a blog on Psychology Today called:“Why the Wild Things Are”(www.psychologytoday.com/blog/why-the-wild-things-are), and for more information on her work in child development and developmental psychology visit her website: www.gailmelson.com.