Surfing a Growth Mindset With Mindfulness

Author and mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zin states, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”  Being so close to the beach, we love a good reference to the ocean, but we love the sentiment so much more.  Life is full of waves. Happy waves, unsuspected waves, frustrating waves, confusing waves, sad waves, funny waves…the list goes on and on.  When we are faced with these waves, we have the opportunity to choose how we will respond, or surf, them.

A long, long time ago, when we were cave dwellers fighting every day for food and survival, the amygdala in the brain became very important.  The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain, the one that screams “fight, flight or freeze” when we are faced with a stressor.  The stress hormone released from the amygdala takes over the rest of our brain.  In fact, the people with a really active amygdala were the ones who survived, moved out of the caves, and went on to build generations of offspring.  The problem now is that stress is everywhere and it is usually not life threatening, yet our amygdala still has that same strong response.

As a society we are faced with more pressures and expectations than ever before and so are our kids.  They are expected to get the best grades, be on the “A” soccer team, get the lead in the dance performance, be the top reader, have good friends, excel in math, be starting pitcher in baseball, play the violin, be in honors band…the list goes on and on.  Their amygdalas can hardly keep up!  We also talk about wanting kids to have “grit” and embrace a growth mindset.  Well, this seems extremely challenging when their brains are in a constant reactive state.  Every minute is choreographed for them and leaves no space to respond to their emotions or understand how to grow or learn.

Author and psychologist Carol Dweck states, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”  A stressed brain can’t learn.  A stressed brain can’t be resilient.  A stressed brain can’t work hard.  A stressed brain can only fight, flight, or freeze.  This is what creates the fixed mindset.  A calmer brain, however, can learn and can be resilient through responding thoughtfully  to stressors and emotions rather than reacting.

A keystone of a regular mindfulness practice is taking the time to pause, and in that pause, having the ability to choose the response.  FMRI studies have shown that a mindfulness-based practice actually decreases the activity in the amygdala, effectively allowing the rest of the brain to better do its job.  Mindfulness fosters a growth mindset in many ways:

  • Mindfulness allows for a pause, and in that pause the person can choose how to respond to a situation rather than reacting emotionally.
  • Mindfulness allows for the person to know that thoughts are just thoughts and have no power.
  • Mindfulness allows for a better understanding of one’s emotions or feelings without assigning one’s value to those emotions.
  • Mindfulness develops self-compassion which allows for facing thoughts or emotions with non-judgment and loving-kindness.
  • Mindfulness supports the ability to cope in a productive way with difficult or challenging emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down.
  • Mindfulness allows for time to observe thoughts and feelings without getting stuck.  This empowers people to bounce back.

Mindfulness is an organic and productive way to foster a growth mindset while also empowering our children to approach situations and feelings without judgement and with loving-kindness.  With these skills, life can throw some big waves at them, even knock them off their boards, but they can get back on over and over and keep surfing.

Mindful Snoozing



“I need some water!” “Just one more book?” “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.” “I am NOT tired!” “Just five more minutes!” “Something happened at school today and I need to talk to you about it, right now.”

For so many, these are the words heard over and over and over again at bedtime. You can do the whole routine perfectly, bath, teeth brushing, books, but as soon as the little heads hit the pillow a switch in the mind is triggered and procrastination hits hard. Little minds start to churn into a frenzy of emotions: anxiety about school, fear of being alone, or worried about friends and family. Many times children aren’t even able to communicate what they are feeling or thinking but they know it doesn’t feel right or good and are not quite sure how to make it better.

At these times no amount of water, night lights, or book reading is going to help your child identify his or her feelings or calm his or her mind to slip into sleep. Even if your child begs and pleads and hopes and dreams. And no amount of sitting on the floor in their room, threatening your child to stay in bed, rocking or bribing your child will do it either.  There is something that can be incorporated  into your bedtime routine that can support recognizing emotions, calming mind, and relaxing into sleep: a mindful practice!

Supporting your child in a bedtime mindful practice is not hard, only takes a few minutes, and can result in many benefits including less anxiety, a calmer mind, falling asleep faster and a more restful night’s sleep!  Here are three practices to try to help your little one (or tween or teen) relax into sweet dreams.

1. Body Scan

Supporting your child in checking in with his or her body and becoming more aware of physical feelings and sensations is often enough to help your child calmly drift into slumber.  Body scans are easy and don’t require anything other than a few moments and attention.  Have your child lie down on his or her back and take 3 deep breaths through the nose, noticing the breath going in and out.  Invite your child to bring attention to his or her feet, noticing any sensations and sending calming energy and gratitude to the feet for working hard all day walking and running.  Move up to the ankles, calves, knees and legs.  As you work your way up the body, periodically invite your child to take a couple of deep breaths.  After you have invited your child to scan his or her entire body, take a moment to have your child feel all body parts and any sensations that still may be present.  Encourage your child to continue to be present with his or her breath as sleep is welcomed.

2.  Sense Visualization

Another easy mindful exercise you can invite your child to participate in at bedtime involves becoming aware of his or her senses.  Again, have your child lie down in a comfortable position.  Lead your child in taking three to five deep breaths through the nose, noticing where the sensation of the breath is felt.  Next, have your child visualize a favorite place.  It can be a beach, the baseball field, New York City, or anywhere that brings your child joy.  Invite your child to mentally list everything that can be seen in that place.  After a few minutes move on to what can be heard, then smelled, then felt and tasted.  Between each new sense have your child take a couple deep cleansing breaths.

3. Floating Thoughts

Bedtime is often the magic hour where children’s anxieties, fears, or worries pop up and like little monsters, take over the child’s thoughts and minds.  This rumination in thought can make sleep very difficult.  When this happens, have your child start by taking some deep breaths and blowing out extra long.  When each thought or worry pops into your child’s head, have him or her name the worry and picture putting into into a balloon.  Your child can then take a big breath and blow the balloon, imagining it floating away into the blue sky.  This will help your children not only identify their emotions, but also become aware that thoughts are just thoughts and have no real power.

Whatever the thoughts or feelings your child is having, never force mindfulness or make it mandatory.  Mindfulness should be an enjoyable part of relaxing into sleep.  And just maybe you will reap some benefits too!

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