Mindful Living for Kids

UWindsor Blog Post by: Carlin J. Miller, Ph.D

Goldie HawnMindfulness is a hot topic in the media. Football players do it. Hollywood types do it. Kids in Vancouver Public Schools are even doing it. Yet, many people really don’t know what mindfulness training entails. Mindfulness training is about learning to meditate, which means paying attention to thoughts and feelings and behaviours as they happen without getting caught up in them. The goal is to not ruminate over the past or plan for the distant future, because both block our ability to experience what is happening right now. Most of the time, mindfulness is an “anchored practice,” which means you learn to focus on a specific aspect of your experience, such as your breath or the sounds you hear around you. There is no intention to block other thoughts or to change thinking. It really is about noticing.

Mindfulness training might sound very mystical but it isn’t really. It came from a Buddhist practice and was transformed into a secular activity in 1970s by a researcher in Massachusetts who wanted to help people with chronic pain to live more full lives. Since then, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and the many related interventions designed for special populations have been taught to hundreds of thousands of people. There are even forms of it for women during childbirth, people undergoing cancer treatment, and survivors of trauma and other potentially overwhelming experiences. Programs also been developed for children in classrooms, parents, and teachers.

Mindfulness in SchoolsOver the last year, my research team and I have been teaching parents and teachers of children with ADHD to meditate in a program called Mindful Living. We hoped that as these adults, who spend time with somewhat more challenging than typical children, learned to be present in their daily lives they would be less stressed and more effective in their interactions. We also hoped they would experience greater life satisfaction and more joy. Although we have only worked with 20 people thus far (too few to present any real statistics), our participants enjoyed the 8-week intervention and many continued to meditate following their completion of the program. It also appears that they are less stressed, more mindful, and have a better understanding of ADHD. We are now working with one of the local school boards to expand this training to more teachers this spring and next fall.

Because so many of our participants suggested these strategies would be helpful for the children and adolescents with ADHD in their lives, we developed a program called Mindful Living for Kids. Our first round of 6-sessions starts on May 13th and the sessions are 1 hour in length. We will have a group for children in grades 3-5 and another for preteens in grades 6-8. Unlike meditation training with adults, this program will be very hands-on with crafts, activities, and movement-based meditation, rather than emphasizing sitting quietly. If you would be interested in hearing more information or having your child participate, please call Dr. Carlin Miller at the University of Windsor (519-253-3000, x.2226).

About the Author:

Carlin Miller is a faculty member at the University of Windsor in the Department of Psychology. As a clinical psychologist with extended training in developmental neuropsychology and school psychology, she has spent the last 20 years trying to improve the quality of life for people with ADHD and learning disabilities. Prior to her doctoral work, she was a public school teacher. She found her passion for advocacy and research through her experience of growing up in a family with multiple people diagnosed with both disorders. In addition to her long resume with many publications and presentations, Dr. Miller has also been meditating for the last decade and brings to her research on meditation the positive experience of trying to live in the present. In addition to her work with the local chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association, she is also a provincial appointee to the Board of Directors of the Windsor-Essex Health Unit. When not at work, she is a mom, a wife, an avid gardener, and someone trying to be the person her puppy believes her to be. 

Lonely

The other day I was at an Ontario Early Years centre for work. The place was packed with parents, Grandparents and kids. Some moms sat back and let their kids explore, others stayed right with their child. What I didn’t see was a child that was like my first. I didn’t see a child that moved from thing to thing, hitting and pushing and crashing other kids toys along the way. I didn’t see a kid that was swearing up a storm and finding a way to escape. I looked around and I felt longing, I wished that I had experienced what these parents were experiencing (I did experience a little with our youngest son, J, but I was also in the midst of trying to parent a very complicated child).2002 09 08 Hardhat02

Early years being a mom were quite honestly extremely lonely for me. I had (and still have) one truly great friend in town and she listened to so much of my angst during that time.I don’t know how she was there day after day. Meanwhile, people I thought were friends just cut me right off. One friend was a Psychometrist (a Masters degree in Psychology) and though we hadn’t been friends for long I was hopeful the friendship would blossom once I had a son the same age as hers. We hung out a couple of times and at some point my son taught her son the word “bad” as in “bad boy”. She was really upset about that and we didn’t really talk after she witnessed one of my son’s meltdowns. I really expected more from her, I thought because of what she did for a living that she would have understood our struggles. But this was not the case. The other friend to cut me off was someone I would have professed to be my best friend. We were friends for years and we were godparents to all 3 of her children. She co-hosted my baby shower with the Psychometrist. She watched my son for me when no one else could/would but she became convinced that we were not parenting him properly because if we were he wouldn’t be acting the way that he was. In a fit of exasperation one day after watching him she completely cut us off. It was a painful break up and I missed our godchildren but I had no idea how to make it better so I let the friendship go.

So there I was,with a swearing, kicking, screaming 3.5 year old and I had 1 friend in town. All my friendships from work fell by the wayside – that was as much my fault as anyone else’s. Reaching out to people seemed like so much work and I just didn’t have the energy after dealing with C all day. It wasn’t until years later that I really understood how lonely I was during that time. It’s amazing how it still hurts after all this time. I wish I could go back and change how I managed those early years. He still would have struggled and I still would have been exhausted but it would have been good to not have been so lonely.

6 months

I just finished with our 6 month checkup with the Psychiatrist for both my boys.  For the first time ever I had nothing really to report. Home is good, school is good, day to day living (self help skills, friendship, extracurriculars) all good. At the end of our visit the doctor shared that he wished his medical resident was with him today because so often he sees kids with diagnosis like my boys (and C has even more than most) and those other kids are struggling and their parents are struggling and for many the school is struggling.

Then he asked me what I thought made the difference for my boys. I answered humbly, but truthfully – we work like crazy as a family to give the boys what they need (like structure and routines) and we work closely with the schools – including making sure our boys have the accommodations that they so desperately need.  In turn the schools have really risen to the challenge and both are doing a great job. C just recently received  an 81% in Science and J received mostly all B’s with an A in Gym. We also have a lot of support for C outside of school as well.

It makes me sad though for other families that struggle – where one or both parents have their own issues attributable to ADHD or LD or mental health concerns. Parents who just don’t know what their rights are when it comes to school or who are afraid to try to work with the school because they just don’t know how. I feel bad for parents who get schools that, for whatever reason, do not want to work with the child and parents to make school a better experience for all. I feel bad for parents who don’t get the help they need for their child – for example just having ADHD in this city will not get you services.

It’s amazing to me that despite years of research we don’t have a parenting class for those parenting a child with ADHD and/or LD, a place where parents can learn various strategies (and choose what works for their families) as well as a chance to mingle with other parents and perhaps forge new friendships.

In the end my boys are doing well and for that I am eternally grateful.

To Tell or Not to Tell

Over the years I have given a lot of my time and brain power (as diminished as it might be on many occasions) to this question:

When faced with a situation in the community where my child has been struggling or done something to bring attention to himself – do I TELL that person or persons about his complex needs?

Which then inevitably lead to more questions:

If yes, then how much or how little do I say?

Do I give the correct DSM label? or just give layman’s terms and references?

Am I violating my child’s right to privacy by telling?

Will the person honour what I have told them or use it in some way against my child and/or me?

WHY should I even care what other people think about my child?

Am I wanting to tell them to alleviate my own feelings about this event (embarrassment, anger, frustration) or am I truly doing it to assist my child in some way?

Even if I am doing it because the person has pissed me off and I want to wipe that know it all smirk off their face then isn’t that ok sometimes? Aren’t I entitled to be less than perfect?

And on and on and on.

You get the picture.2011-01-22-153132

There have been many times I have shared with individuals and groups (some more successful than others) and times where I have chosen to remain somewhat silent. In the end there is no clear cut rule or answer, at least not for my family. There are times where explaining to other people will undoubtedly help my son and/or our family. There are times where it is clear that all the explanations in the world will not change the other persons or groups assumptions about my son.

The biggest thing that I have mulled over the years is this: In so many ways we should not have to divulge private information about our son or our family just to gain understanding, compassion and acceptance from the community. In an ideal world people would not be quick to judge and condemn. People wouldn’t assume that a child “acting out” is the same as a child “being bad” or that the parents are doing a bad job. In an ideal world we would all be happy to accept and acknowledge that everyone is doing the best they can do. That people would be willing to cut fellow parents some slack and to not condemn each other.

The world is not ideal.
However, I must say that, in almost EVERY instance where we have chosen to share some of our son’s story we have made a difference. A difference to him, to our family, to the individual or group that we shared with and many times we have either witnessed or been told about how this new understanding of our son and one or more of his disorders has now lead to increased understanding/awareness in our community beyond our son. It is like its own “pay it forward” scenario.

I often tell service providers involved with our son that I hold near and dear to my heart the philosophy that compassion is key and knowledge is power. Building awareness leads to increased understanding and, in some instances, to change for the better for more than just my son. It sometimes means making us somewhat vulnerable and it means choosing to believe that there is inherent good in humankind. I am always asking people involved with my son to extend to him the courtesy of understanding that he is doing the best he can. What kind of hypocrite would I be if I didn’t follow that same practice?

I choose to believe that people are doing the best that they can and if I take the time to share and explain that they will then use that information, even in the smallest of ways, to do even better the next time.