It was the ball that started it all.
Two kids. One toy. No sign of de-escalation in sight. Both rooted in their own desire to play, and neither willing to play together.
And then, like a little wild animal whose primitive brainstem was on full alert, my two-year-old attacked my oldest. Weapon of choice: a mouth full of teeth.
I jumped into action, standing in the middle like a referee, validating emotions and holding firm in my boundaries. My four-year-old was mad and hurt - both physically and emotionally. His body shook and his fist clenched. I was certain a retaliation swing was approaching. But instead, he channeled his rage into a loud scream. And then, with tears streaming down his face, he looked at me and said, “I want to hit him back, mom. But I won’t. Because I am like Red Bear (his favorite SnuggleBuddies plush toy), powerful and gentle.”
In the midst of his rage, my son was able to override his reactive instincts (to counterattack his brother), realizing that true power is not in hurting another but in noticing and managing one’s emotions. Big stuff for a little one. Heck, big stuff for us big ones, too.
I might have thought this a unicorn experience but then, the next day when my youngest accidentally broke my oldest’s favorite toy, I watched my son pause before responding yet again. In the past, my oldest would have clobbered his brother but this time he turned to him, took a deep breath, and said, “I love you Z, and I won’t break your toy even though you broke mine.” And then they went off to play, leaving me behind to process the beauty of my witnessing.
We had been practicing mindful rituals for the past several months, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure how much they were actually sinking in until these two experiences happened. But there it was (twice in one week!) that my kiddo inserted impulse control in the face of his overwhelming emotions.
This didn’t mean that we were free of meltdowns, sibling quarrels, or reactive moments. They still happen. But, together through daily mindfulness rituals, we are nurturing the parts of the brain required for learning. And each time these behaviors are reinforced, the more often my boys can access this part of the brain, even when dysregulated.
Impulse Control And Mindfulness
Impulse control is a skill, a function of our higher-level learning brain, the pre-frontal cortex. The cortex is folded into hills and valleys that involve intricate firing patterns that move beyond the survival reactions of the brainstem and the emotive nature of the limbic system, pulling in ideas and concepts that develop mindful maps to our inner world.
Unlike the other two parts of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is not activated at birth, but rather comes online around age three and is fully developed between the mid to late twenties. Our children are very early in this development, meaning skills of self-awareness, empathy, problem-solving, impulse control, and behavior management require training wheels along the way from those they feel most secure with - aka us - through a process of co-regulation. This is for all brains, however, children who have unique learning needs and/or diverse brain development may require increased tools, more time, and specific guidance.
One way to do this for children and adults of all neurotypes is through mindfulness practices. Mindfulness allows us to be with and in the present moment with joy and ease.
According to Elizabeth Sautter, M.A., CCC-SLP, licensed speech and language pathologist, author of Make Social Learning Stick, and co-founder of the Make It Stick Program, “Staying in the present moment strengthens our ability to pause before we react so that we can assess the situation, the people around us, and most importantly, our own feelings. This ability helps us stay in our bodies and control our impulses. It’s in the space of the pause that we are empowered to notice our emotions and decide how to channel them.”
Each time we create space between how we think and feel and how we respond, we create new neurological pathways that link our reactive brainstem to our prefrontal cortex in moments of big, unpleasant emotions. In doing so, we override our fight, flight, and freeze responses to integrate our emotional and logical brains.
10 Daily Mindfulness Practices To Build Emotional Intelligence
We are unable to learn when we are dysregulated, so the best time to teach these higher-level learning skills is proactively, during regulated moments via connection. Here are 10 ways:
1. Wake And Smile
Science tells us that how we spend the first 20 minutes after waking influences the tone for the rest of our day. This is because, during this time, our brain is in an alpha stage, which is when our subconscious mind is most impressionable.
What better way to start the day than to start with a smile. When we smile, it generates positive emotions. Even if you don’t feel like it, the gesture itself will shift energy to ward off stress by releasing feel-good hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. So, first thing, when you and your child wake, plant your feet on the ground, take a deep breath and give each other a toothy grin.
2. Give Thanks
Gratitude is a form of hygiene, just like showering, but for your brain. When we give gratitude, it shifts our attention to what we have and brings a strong awareness of the present moment. When we operate with intention and a knowing that what we ask for is delivered, we begin to draw in more of what we want. This all happens through the power of our attention.
At the beginning or end of each day, ask your child to recall one friend, family member, person, or experience that they feel thankful for and why. Provide a model by sharing, “I feel grateful for _ because _” and then allow your child to do the same.
3. Mindful Toothbrushing
When we take a task that we often complete instinctively, and bring focus to it, moving as slow as the slowest parts of ourselves, it rewires the mind to be present in that task. As we become comfortable with this, we erode old conditioning and learn how to be present in all things.
Help your child practice this by slowly breathing in and out while brushing their teeth. Count to 50 as they brush, and have your child relax their neck and jaw as they feel the bristles on the teeth, gums, and tongue. How does it feel?
4. Create Mantras
Mantras increase awareness and anchor concentration. Together, create a family mantra or invite each member to make their own, sharing aloud.
PeaceMakers mantra cards help parents and children connect by sharing ideas and feelings through unique, affirming messages. To add to the playfulness, each card is designed with a PeaceMakers pal. I personally have Red Bear to thank for helping my son regulate during elevated moments with his brother. Through pulling the card several times and having a family discussion around it, my son learned that he is gentle, powerful, and free.
5. Handmade Thoughtfulness
When we help children see and feel with their hearts, they become aware of the abundance in their life. Help your child make friendship cards or draw a picture for a family member or friend. Ask them to think about the colors the person likes and write something kind that is specific to their relationship with that person. Afterward, help your child reflect. How did they feel before the activity? How do they feel now?
6. Touch The Sky, Touch Your Toes
Body movement helps to boost mood by nourishing the spine and increasing blood flow to the brain. In between daily tasks such as getting dressed and eating breakfast, invite your kids to take 30 seconds to stretch their arms up high to the sky, bend down to touch their toes, and then finish with a kiss or hug from you. In a few short moments, this activity boosts moods and increases family connection.
7. Listening Walks
Nature has a synergist relationship with the human body. And when we pause to notice with our senses, we receive the benefits of enhanced mood and energy. Together, with your child, slowly walk through nature. Begin in silence to touch different textures. Then shift your focus to what you hear. Try to identify the sounds of the birds chirping, cars honking, dogs barking, and the wind. What do you see, feel, and hear? What does your child? In doing this activity, it trains the brain to focus on one thing at a time, which helps with self-regulation and impulse control.
8. Dinnertime Rituals
Dinnertime is a great time to come together as a family to connect and share. Put all distractions away so you can focus on each family member. Model the activity by saying, “What I love about you is …” to each family member and end with “What I love about me is …”. After you finish, the next person goes, until all family members have shared. When we are intentional in this way, it allows each person to feel seen and loved in the here and now, and is a way to teach “waiting” - aka impulse control.
9. Body Scans
For an interactive activity, start at the top of the head and help your child notice the sensations there. What do they feel? Achy, awake, calm, clenched, energized, strong, sweaty, throbbing, etc. Have your child write down or say aloud their response. Continue to scan the body, imagining a trail from the brain to the ears, eyes, mouth, shoulders, arms, and so forth until they get to their feet, pausing at each body part to describe the sensations there.
For a relaxing activity, encourage your child to lay in bed and close their eyes while you draw attention to each body area with your words. Invite them to send focus and breath to that area, relaxing that space before moving to the next. Guide your child for a full-body scan. This is the way my oldest falls asleep each night.
10. Feelings Inventory
As a close to the day, gather to chat about when you and your kids felt happy, sad, calm, and mad that day. Older children may be able to expand on additional emotions such as excited/brave/proud, tired/disappointed/embarrassed, relaxed/peaceful/reflective, and frustrated/scared/determined.
One way to explore this ritual is by using a Time-In space with feelings posters and SnuggleBuddies plush toys, which have four mood emojis as a visual and tangible reflection of the mood states. Noticing, verbalizing, and sharing emotions attached to experiences helps the brain integrate, increases connection, and is an effective way to bring awareness to the day.
For even more mindfulness activities, download this Free printable!