Your Child’s Brain on Mindful Meditation
A parent’s guide to using mindfulness meditation to strengthen a child’s attention, manage symptoms of ADHD, and control your own stress.
Research suggests that anyone can improve attention by practicing mindfulness — cognitive fitness training aimed at building real-time and compassionate awareness of our lives rather than remaining lost in distraction, on autopilot.
When people hear that attention is trainable, they wonder about using this form of meditation to treat ADHD. But ADHD and mindfulness affect more than attention. The processes involved in ADHD and mindfulness mirror each other. ADHD is characterized by difficulties with executive function, not just attention, and mindfulness is an avenue to developing interrelated cognitive skills, many related to executive function, not just attention.
Future directions for ADHD care may incorporate approaches based on mindfulness. After all, if you train attention with mindfulness, attention improves. This alone is a valuable treatment approach through which anyone, with or without ADHD, can benefit. While nothing published to date suggests that mindfulness, on its own, can overcome the genetics of ADHD, practicing mindfulness develops a larger set of traits, including responsiveness, flexible thinking, and compassion. With ADHD, mindfulness supports improved resilience and a capacity to manage the challenges of life.
Build Cognitive Traits
For all of these reasons, mindfulness affects the lives of families who commit to practicing it together. The number of research papers dedicated to mindfulness has increased dramatically over the past several decades, and the results consistently point to the same exceptional fact: We have the capacity to build cognitive traits that advance both physical and mental health. Mindfulness benefits everything from stress and anxiety to mood disorders, sometimes after as little as a week of practice.
Research shows that the brain responds to mindfulness training with physical changes. Thinning of the brain’s outer surface has been described as an inevitable part of aging, yet one Harvard study showed that long-term meditators experienced no loss. Studies have shown that some areas of the brain, including areas related to emotion regulation, grew during an eight-week mindfulness program. And studies involving both imaging and patterns of activation in the brain have shown alterations correlating with greater emotional control, wellbeing, and happiness.
While research in children isn’t as extensive as that in adults, it has generally shown the same benefits, with improvements in reducing stress, increasing attention, and sharpening executive function, in addition to other behavioral measures. In one UCLA study, children who lagged behind their peers in executive function at the start of a mindfulness program experienced larger gains than their classmates.
Children may also engage in more acts of compassion after mindfulness practice. In one study, preschool children were asked to give stickers to kids in a group that included children they identified as liking, not liking, or not knowing. Initially, most were given to friends. After participating in a mindfulness program, the same children handed out the stickers more evenly among all the groups.
Research is now zeroing in on mindfulness and ADHD. In one study, both adolescents with ADHD and their parents reported decreased stress levels and fewer ADHD symptoms after a mindfulness program. Mindfulness has been correlated with improvements similar to those with medication for several aspects of attention and cognition. And traits inherent to ADHD, such as impulsiveness and emotional reactivity, respond to mindfulness practice, as do some aspects of executive function.
Stress, uncertainty, and being a parent all go hand in hand. This stress affects how you live, how you relate to others, and how you manage your child’s ADHD. Just as you’ll benefit from seeing your child’s challenges through the lens of executive function, it’s helpful to understand how your own neurology may be affecting you — specifically, how you experience stress and its effects on your behaviors.
Some amount of stress keeps us motivated and safe. When we feel threatened, our nervous system is wired to produce the physiological reactions known as the stress (or fight-or-flight) response, readying us to protect ourselves or flee from danger. We spring into action without thought — a good thing when dodging an oncoming car. Our bodies pour energy toward muscles and away from the digestive system. Reflexes control our arms and legs, and rational thought stops.
These reactions can be lifesaving when we’re in actual danger. The problem is, our response to stress isn’t subtle. The same physiological reactions arise after anything rattles us, including thoughts: I’m late. I’m bad at this. They don’t like me. The cycle revs up the body and shuts down cognitive skills, since there’s no time for thinking when we’re in acute danger. The brain sends out signals that a crisis looms, but in most cases, these aren’t life-threatening situations; there’s no lion about to eat us.
Most often, stress starts with a perception, perhaps outside our conscious awareness, that something isn’t as we think it should be. We’re just running a little late or worried about our to-do list. Yet an intense stress reaction occurs. Nothing will ever completely eliminate stress. In fact, some amount of stress may even keep us motivated. However, our bodies aren’t wired to withstand overly frequent or intense stress. And because excessive stress undermines both physical and mental health, it affects not just you, but the people around you. Among other things, it can make it hard for you to stay on top of your child’s ADHD care.
One of the most exciting developments in neuroscience over the last decade is the discovery of neuroplasticity. The human brain rewires itself based on any behavior, or even a thought, that we reinforce through repetition. When you work on increasing your focus, or consciously adopt new habits, neurologic change follows. You can’t erase genetics, but by adjusting how you live, you can change many traits that may otherwise seem ingrained.
You can elect to cultivate traits that will be helpful in managing whatever life brings your way. That typically starts with devoting more attention to your real-time experience, and finding more space between what you observe and what you decide to do next. Setting aside a few minutes daily for a mindfulness practice will help you build this capacity.
Recent findings in neuroscience have revealed that neuroplasticity — influencing how the brain is wired — is possible throughout the life span. Change is always possible. You should take note of any tendencies to believe otherwise, particularly by categorizing you or your family, and thereby circumscribing your life, with thoughts like, I will always have a temper. My child will always be scattered. We will never be able to stick to that new routine.
Let go of assumptions about where you should be with ADHD or mindfulness right now, and instead focus on your intentions. Commit to building the traits you’d like to develop — as a parent and in your child. With persistence, growth inevitably follows.
Change Is Good
Everything changes when you start paying attention. You can pause long enough to see your mental and emotional habits and typical patterns of reacting. You can notice tendencies to get lost in the future or past, and return yourself to the moment. You can see life more clearly, as it is, and bring more intention to facing whatever is happening. You can choose to respond to your experience, instead of reacting, and in those inevitable moments when you fail to do so, you can give yourself a break. Along the way, you rewire your brain: That’s me avoiding conflict again. I need to pause and revisit my intentions. This time I’m going to try something different.
The reality is that your child has ADHD, and you and your family are living with it. It affects your child’s experience and your own, and challenges you by disrupting daily activities, relationships, and your child’s education. But through practical and compassionate decision-making, you can overcome these problems and forge a new path forward for yourself and your child.
Mindfulness gives you tools for overcoming ADHD and living a happy life. At any moment you may feel happy or sad. You’ll continue to have both positive and negative experiences. But as you find it easier to settle yourself, manage your stress, and live life more fully, you, your child, and your family will experience the happiness, ease, and wellbeing you all deserve.
Adapted from Mindful Parenting for ADHD: A Guide to Cultivating Calm, Reducing Stress & Helping Children Thrive, by MARK BERTIN, M.D. Reprinted with permission: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2015, by Mark Bertin