Mindfulness and ADHD: Living in the Fun House

Raising a child with ADHD can be like living in a fun house…you never know what is around the corner.  There are thrills, there are laughs, there are screams. Things are not as they appear and it is scary, wonderful, and exasperating all within 5 minutes.  Without strategies for juggling all the changes and challenges, parenting a child with ADHD can feel overwhelming to say the least.  For me, finding mindfulness for myself and my children gave us the tools to weather the challenging times with more compassion, patience and resiliency, while also allowing us the awareness to be able to enjoy the great times.  I mean, my kid is hilarious and amazingly empathetic and I need to be in the right frame of mind to be able to really connect with and enjoy her.

Currently, there are numerous studies being done showing improvements for those with ADHD in many areas, when they are trained in mindfulness.  A study out of UCLA found a marked decrease in hyperactivity and increase in executive functioning.  A study by Lydia Zylowska (UCLA) showed 78% of participants noticed a reduction of overall ADHD symptoms when they regularly used mindfulness practices, even practice sessions as short as five minutes.  Nirbhay N. Singh, a professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University and Director of the Commonwealth Institute for Child and Family Studies, Richmond, Va., and his colleagues performed a study where both mothers of children with ADHD and their children were given training in mindfulness.  They found that compliance increased as did positive interactions and happiness in both mothers and their children.  Many more studies show the same thing – a mindfulness practice supports children with ADHD and their families in more productive and positive experiences and interactions.

When we first started a mindful practice as a family, we had one very specific goal and that was to be able to make a transition (any transition) without screaming and crying (by her or us)! From this one simple goal, our practice grew and changed to meet the very evolving needs of our growing child.  We have tackled bedtime, mornings, meal time, classroom work, homework, and sibling interactions to name a few.  One thing that has remained constant is  a mindful practice as the anchor that we come back to over and over again.

Practicing mindfulness has many benefits for a child with ADHD and is a practice that the child can use through his or her life as different challenges present themselves.

Emotional Regulation

It is an exciting time to be a brain researcher!  Studies have shown that the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, shrinks and is less active in someone who has a regular mindful practice.  Children with ADHD often have great difficulty regulating their emotions and have emotional changes that are fast and furious.  Mindfulness gives them the ability to have more awareness and better control over their feelings and responses.  As a parent, mindfulness gives us the ability to recognize our own emotional triggers (such as half the contents of the refrigerator on the counter after she “made” breakfast), so we are able to take the time to respond to what we are feeling in a productive manner, rather than a knee-jerk, often fly-off-the-handle, reaction.

Attention and Focus

Trying to keep the attention or focus of a child with ADHD is about as easy as herding cats. Practicing mindfulness supports a child with ADHD in bringing focus back to the present and “being in charge” of the attention. Mindfulness teaches us how to pay attention.  Over time, the child is able to notice when attention has wandered and can bring it back.  A child with ADHD has many thoughts and feelings that can change rapidly.  With mindfulness, we are able to focus our attention more on these ideas and emotions, and are thus better able to help our child navigate through everything going on in his or her mind and body.

Executive Functioning

FMRI studies have shown that a regular mindfulness practice increases the grey matter in the prefrontal cortex.  In fact, a recent study out of Harvard University showed an increase in grey matter after only 8 weeks of participation in a mindfulness program.  The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for executive functioning, which includes planning, critical thinking, problem solving and impulse control.  All of these tend to be very difficult for children with ADHD. When children have a mindful practice, they are able to take a pause and respond to a situation rather than react.  When they can choose a response, they have better control over their actions and have the mental time to plan and problem solve rather than react impulsively.

Self-Esteem and Confidence

Children with ADHD often struggle with self-confidence.  They are often given negative feedback at school, in sports, and at home about things that are simply very hard for them to control.  These negative loops can cause children to have low self-esteem and feel different than their siblings or peers.  According to CHAAD, the National Resource on ADHD, 10-30 percent of children with ADHD also have a serious mood disorder, such as depression or anxiety.  Dr. Amy Saltzman, a holistic physician and mindfulness coach, conducted a study with 4th through 6th graders.  After 8 weeks of mindfulness, the students reported a marked decrease in anxiety.  Mindfulness researcher Kristen Neff has found that mindful self-compassion helps to decrease depression, lessen self-judgement and improve emotional well-being. Children are able to learn that thoughts are just thoughts and have no real power. They are able to acknowledge their emotions and feelings without over-identifying with them. Doing this supports children in being able to address the feelings of depression, anxiety or sadness and move on.  Mindfulness also supports us as parents in cultivating self-compassion.  It is not always easy.  We are not perfect and will lose our patience, say something we didn’t mean, or react to our child in a way we wish we hadn’t.  Practicing loving-kindness in these moments helps us treat ourselves with compassion and reconnect with our child in a more positive manner.

Mindfulness is not a silver bullet for ADHD.  It will not alleviate all the challenges.  What mindfulness will do is give you and your child tools and experiences that help emphasize the positives and more skillfully address the challenges.  It will make the fun house of ADHD a little less unpredictable and a lot more enjoyable!



5 Ways to Mindfully Manage Power Struggles

Picture the scene: Your child comes home from school, dumps his backpack on the ground and starts rummaging through it looking for the new Pokémon eraser his friend had given him in a trade. Books, papers, pencils go flying around as he looks for his beloved item. When he’s unable to find it, tempers go flying.

Child: “MOM, where is my eraser????!!!! Did you take it? I can’t find it anywhere! I NEED it!”

You (feeling a bit surprised and maybe a little annoyed that he’s so upset over such a little thing): “I’m sure it’s here somewhere. Now come pick up this mess!”

Child: “No! I have to find it! You don’t understand!!!” (As he storms off in a fit.)

Sound familiar?

powerstruggleboyThis is an example of a common scene I play out when I teach my workshop on power struggles. I ask the parents how they would typically respond to such behavior. After a “Oh, yes, I know that behavior well” chuckle from the group, they invariably say they would follow their child upstairs and insist they clean up the mess they made; that the behavior is “irresponsible” and/or “unacceptable.”

Upon further discussion, we get to the crux of the issue. Namely, these well-meaning, well-intentioned parents worry (and fear), among other things, that if they don’t “nip (the behavior) in the bud,” it will only get worse.

When I ask parents what they really want from their kids, the vast majority says, “I just want my kids to LISTEN!”

Can you relate?

As a parent of two very strong-willed kids, I understand, first hand, what it feels like to be constantly negotiating and simply wishing my kids would just listen the first time I make a request!  This constant frustration over what my kids weren’t doing and how triggered I was becoming, led me to Positive Discipline as well as to the study and practice of mindfulness and mindful parenting.

According to Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., author of Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family, mindful parenting is about “making a choice to focus our attention on the present moment, with kindness and curiosity, so we can make a thoughtful choice about how to proceed rather than react out of frustration or confusion.”

Happy smiling kids doing yoga relaxation at home with their mother - focus on the little girl

In studying mindfulness, I came to understand how often we are either worrying about the future or ruminating over the past. When thinking about the past or the future, we are anywhere but in the present moment! That worry, fear, anger, disappointment and stress over past and/or future greatly impacts our thoughts, decisions and behaviors. When under stress, we lose the ability to think clearly and rationally; to see our child’s behavior as a cry for help versus manipulation. On top of that, we have our own histories of how we were raised or treated as children, which greatly influences our reactions as well! Oh my!

Becoming aware of this process (without judgment) is key – with awareness, comes choice and opportunity. Namely, the ability to choose an appropriate response and the opportunity to model the very behavior we want to instill in our kids as they grow. Almost 95% of what kids learn is through modeled behavior. Those little eyes are always watching and pay much more attention to what we do versus what we say. So, as they say, let’s “be it to teach it.”

Taking all of this into account leads us to the million-dollar question…”So what do I DO the next time I’m faced with a power struggle??”

With the above in mind, here are 5 ways to more mindfully approach and manage power struggles:

1.) Stop, drop and roll – When you feel annoyance or anger arise, STOP what you are doing, even if you are mid-sentence. With compassion, recognize that you are lost in thoughts and emotions that are not constructive and that the only thing you have control over is yourself and your reactions. Take 3 deep, calming breaths.

Next, DROP into your body and the present moment – notice sensations in your body (tightness, shortness of breath, tension); notice and name the emotions you are feeling (“anger,” “annoyance,” “frustration”) and any self-talk (“What’s the matter with him?” “I’m sick and tired of this behavior!” “She’ll grow up to be a spoiled brat!”); continue breathing.

Lastly, using this intentional, compassionate awareness, ROLL out a more calm and connected response. Understand that what you’re feeling may also be what your child is experiencing. Reframe your self-talk (“He’s having a hard time and needs my help.” “I can handle this.” “She’s acting like a child because she is a child.”)

2.) Acknowledge and validate feelings, while limiting inappropriate behavior (a.k.a. “Connect before you Correct/Redirect”) – Our kids are not out to get us, they are simply still learning appropriate ways in which to get their needs met and need our calm presence to guide them. What they are feeling is not good or bad, right or wrong. It just is! Without judgment, acknowledge what your child is feeling, limiting any inappropriate behaviors. For example, in the case of hitting, “I can see you’re having a really hard time right now. I love you and it’s never ok to hit me. Hitting hurts. It’s ok to feel angry, it’s never ok to hit. I’m here to help. What words can you use to tell me what you need?” Recognize your child may need time to calm down before he can problem-solve.

3.) Acknowledge and validate needswhile offering limited choices – So often, power struggles happen when there’s a mismatch in parent-child agendas – we want one thing, our child wants another. We want them to take a bath; they want “5 more minutes” of playtime. And so, the “struggle” develops when we put our agenda ahead of theirs. Instead, realize that our child’s agenda is just as important to them as ours is to us.  Drop the desire to “win.” Focus on staying connected to your child and understanding the need beneath their behavior. Adding a limited choice offers a sense of power during a time they may feel powerless. For example, “I can see you are having SO much fun building your Legos. You would probably build your Legos all night if you could, huh? I see how much fun you’re having AND it’s bath time. Would you like to bring some Legos up to the bath with us or keep them here for when we’re done. It’s up to you, you decide.”

4.) Search for “win/win” solutions – When in the midst of a power struggle, take a step back. Check in (with yourself and your child). How might you be “showing up” in that moment? Is your tone of voice and body language inviting cooperation or resistance? Next, recognize that your child is most likely feeling powerless in the moment. Look for ways to join together to come up with a solution that can meet both of your needs. For example, “Seems we have a problem here. I would like help setting the table for dinner and you really want to keep playing your game. Mmm, I’m wondering how we can make this work for both of us? What are your ideas?”

Keep in mind that involving children in this process meets their hardwired need to feel a sense of belonging (connection) and significance (that they matter/have something meaningful to contribute), while also modeling respectful communication. Searching for solutions with your child is also one of the best ways to build problem-solving, decision-making and critical thinking skills.

5.) Take care of YOU – Self-care is imperative to cultivating open, connected and loving relationships (with yourself as well as others) and is a crucial component when it comes to mindful parenting. Despite knowing this, many parents continue to put themselves at the very bottom of their “to do” list. They say, “yes” to everyone but themselves. The airline analogy is an important one, “Secure your own mask before that of your child.” The reality is, we can’t pour from an empty cup. Be mindful of how you’re feeling and what your own needs are. Make sure you are doing something kind, compassionate and nourishing for yourself as often as possible, no matter how little it may seem.

There is no doubt that parenting is hard work and there is simply no such thing as a perfect parent. Be kind to yourself. You are learning right alongside your child. Just know that you’re not alone – we’re all on this incredible journey together!

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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