More mindful holiday activities for the family

Last week I shared some mindful activities to try out. How did you go? Did the kids enjoy them? If you are interested in some more mindfulness for the kids have a look at our new courses starting up again after the summer holidays.

This week I want to share a bit about ‘flipping the lid’, the topic of the JusTme video in the last article. I think kids and teens will learn a lot from his lyrics – which you can find on the youtube page. This is brain development stuff, something parents should also know about.

We’ve all flipped our lids at one time or another, perhaps often. After all, shit happens and when our lives are too full, too busy and too stressed, flipping the lid may result. In younger kids you may see tantrums or lashing out. But there is a reason for this and it’s got to do with brain development. Knowing why it happens allows parents to work on solutions with their child, and when children understand, they can make better choices.

The Whole-Brain Child, a book by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, explains this well. They use the analogy of  the “upstairs brain and the downstairs brain”.



In the now famous hand model of the brain, developed by Dr Siegel, the upstairs brain includes the prefrontal cortex and controls higher order thinking such as imagining, planning, decision making, and emotion regulation. This part of the brain is under construction and continues to develop until the age of 25 or so.  Whereas the downstairs brain, formed by the more primitive limbic system and the brain stem, comprises parts of the brain that act out of instinct. It is responsible for automatic functions such as breathing, blinking and the fight or flight response, and includes the amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for strong emotions like fear and anger.

The Brain House from Dr Hazel Harrison

So if a child is unable to control his or her emotions, is having a meltdown or tantrum, or simply pressing your buttons, it could be that the fully developed alarm center of the brain – the downstairs brain – has taken over and is in full control. Essentially it has shut down the upstairs brain, hence the term flipping the lid. When this happens the emotion control center of the brain, the amygdala, floods the mind and body with strong emotions and the fight or flight response. The younger the child, the less developed is the reasoning and rational part of the brain and thus the limbic, instinctive part takes over.

Of course this is a simple explanation to facilitate a basic understanding, but you get the drift right?

Sure your kids know you and there may be a little winding up or deliberate pushing of buttons, but actually they may not be in full control of their emotions or actions.  Experts say that if this happens the best thing you can do is comfort them and help them calm down so that their more rational upstairs brain can come back online.

What can we do to calm down

Stopping and paying attention to breathing is a sure way to move the focus away from the difficulty for a few moments, or minutes, to calm your child’s mind and body. Focusing on the breath is useful because it is generally a neutral feeling, and the breath is always with us.  If the child’s breathing is labored from crying, screaming or anger, then focusing on breathing allows them to notice how their breath can change, how it becomes calm as they also calm down.  Noticing this relationship helps kids to understand how they can use breathing to calm themselves down at any time.

We’re always being told to “breathe” whenever we are anxious or upset. Knowing  why can allow children to turn to breathing without being told, and therefore they can make better choices. Breathing deeply causes our nervous system to switch from the fight or flight state, triggered when the mind and body are stressed – when the downstairs brain has taken over the controls – to a relaxation state. In short, stopping and taking a few deep breaths and focusing our attention on the act of breathing will cause our body’s systems to calm down and relax.  This is the beginning of the relaxation response.

Using the right language can also help children notice this calming process. Learning how to pay attention to subtle things like the breath may not be so obvious to young people.  It’s a good idea to use visual and imaginative references such as:

Think of your attention like a spotlight. Now shine that spotlight inside onto your belly and see it rising and falling as you breathe. Put you’re your hands on your belly to feel your breath coming in and out of your body.

A word of caution. For children who suffer from asthma or other breathing difficulties, it probably isn’t a good idea to focus attention on deep breathing.  As an alternative you can suggest placing that spotlight of attention at the feet.

Feel your feet touching the floor, notice all the sensations in your feet; noticing what parts of  your feet are in touch with the floor; noticing how it feels with socks or shoes touching your skin; wriggling your feet to feel the sensations even more, and so on. Again the point here is to move attention from the difficulty, in this case to the furthest place from the mind, the feet.

The second element in this calming-down process is to comfort the child with a hug.  Hugging releases the hormone oxytocin. It reinforces the connection between parent and child, allowing the anxiety and stress to melt away. At this point you might be ready to talk to your child about what happened with flipping the lid.

Now, back to the mindful holiday activities

Spend some time in a nature

mindful nature

Reconnecting with nature when we are away on holidays and busy with touristy things, can be a great relief for everyone.  Nature energizes us and is great for children’s health, especially if you have been spending time in busy and polluted cities. To incorporate a mindfulness experience, encourage your kids to focus on what they are seeing or hearing as you walk. Try a silent walk or one you can take turns leading – like mindful explorers.

Letting go

This one is for the parents and carers. Do you have expectations of what the holidays should involve; how much you and the kids should get done; the prepared plan and schedule that simply must be met? Are these expectations exhausting you and the family?  Last week I mentioned that often holidays can be so busy that parents can feel in need of a holiday  upon returning home.

So you might like to let go of the plans and schedules for some of the time and see what happens. You might not get to everything on that schedule, but you might all feel better for it. Also important is to acknowledge that not doing is ok, that you have all done your best with the time available.  In other words, being kind to yourself for recognizing that slowing down was needed, rather than beating yourself up for failing to meet expectations.

I know, self-kindness doesn’t come easy, but give it a try.

Being grateful

When the holidays are busy and full of activities we can often forget to acknowledge the simple things that touched us. In all of the mindful activities I have talked about, we can complement  the feel good effect through practicing gratitude.  A simple yet memorable way to do this is keeping a gratitude journal at night.

Source: Pinterest

Source: Pinterest

I love the practice of recalling three things from the day that you are grateful for and writing or drawing about them.

Why three? You may have heard the term the brains is like velcro for negative experiences but teflon for positive one’s. This refers to our human tendency to recall, and often ruminate over, negative things that happen, as these stick, whereas positive experiences tend to wash over us.  Researchers have found that we need three positive experiences to offset one negative to experience positive well-being. So with all that in mind, even if you had a bad day, recalling three positive things that happened, for which you are grateful, can change our perspective and beneficially affect well-being.

In relation to the other activities, the kids might like to reflect, through writing or drawing, how they felt after calming-down from a difficulty and what they might be grateful for in this experience. Perhaps noticing that breathing helps to calm them down; receiving a hug from mum; that they were listened to; that they were able to work out a solution to the problem with the help of mum or dad.

Spending time in nature in a mindful way can reveal so many things to be grateful for, from the sounds and smells of the forest, park or wherever you might be, to the beauty of the trees and animals.  There is so much we can thank mother-nature for.

Letting go of our expectations occasionally, is also cause for gratitude.

And gratitude need not be about the big stuff. Kids might be grateful for the person who served them ice-cream on a hot summer’s day, or to the elderly lady who smiled and waved at them on the train in a foreign country.  We can always be grateful for the people who serve us and make our experiences all that much more memorable, and we can be grateful to ourselves as well.

I hope you and your family enjoy the activities in this series. Slow down, take in the good and know that you are all doing the best you can, even on holidays.

Feature Image source: Pixabay