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Mindfulness over matter? Hot trend’s effectiveness unproven

Kate’s 5-year-old daughter, Lilly, slept in her arms while her jovial pediatrician addressed her from across the desk. “When they’re like this, you just want to eat them, don’t you?” He grinned in anticipation of his punch line. “And when she’s awake, I bet you sometimes wish you had.” Although aghast, Kate had to admit that it was often tough-going with Lilly. There were equal moments of sheer bliss and tear-your-hair-out frustration.  She wanted more bliss. The doctor suggested a mindfulness program.

Mindful parenting

Kate was on board with this idea because she and her husband had completed a mindfulness parenting course and they’d found it helpful. For many years, developmental and social psychologists have emphasised that child rearing is a two-way street. It’s often the way a parent reacts to a child’s challenging behaviour that will determine the child’s behaviour pattern. The mindfulness course encouraged Kate and her husband to be more attentive to their and Lilly’s emotions in the difficult moments. As a result, they became more aware of the importance of their emotional self-regulation when confronted by their young hothead. It would be great if Lilly learned similarly.

Child mindfulness

Mindfulness programs are just about the coolest gigs for kids right now, so it’s not surprising that their popularity is increasing. Type ‘child mindfulness’ into an internet search engine and it reveals one article after another (of the 26,000 or so) proclaiming the benefits of child mindfulness, even for preschoolers. The search also reveals that this 2000-year-old Eastern, Buddhist practice has been implemented in thousands of schools in its new home, the Western world.

Defining mindfulness

There are almost as many different programs for kids as there are internet articles on the subject. But in one way or another, they all seem to encourage young people to focus their attention on the present moment; to tune in to the mind-body experience by attending to unfolding emotions, thoughts and sensations. They’re also taught to remain emotionally neutral when they tune out of distracting thoughts about the future or the past. This sort of non-judgemental, sustained focus apparently improves a child’s attention, memory, decision-making and emotional regulation, among other things (from curiosity to social relationships).

The mindful program

Lilly’s particular course was conveniently offered at school, after school hours, and once a week for 16 weeks. And almost each week, her qualified trainer reported that she was a mindfulness maestro. Kate agreed, because when she picked Lilly up, she seemed more content.

Until, that is, Lilly made an unsuccessful plea for something she wanted. That’s all it took to throw her into the human mind’s default mode, ‘mindlessness’, as she played out a temper tantrum. And as she did, it dawned on Kate that this pattern of behaviour occurred irrespective of the parent and child mindfulness programs.

How effective is it?

Lilly’s not alone. There are abundant reports of short-term gains for children in mindfulness programs, but there’s very little research to show long-term positive effects. And while the research on short-term gains in mindfulness shows signs of early promise, very little of it is valid or reliable. As a number of academics point out, this is because much of the research is of poor quality. To illustrate, at the conclusion of Lilly’s course, Kate completed a research questionnaire in which she agreed that Lilly was calmer after the sessions. But, then again, Kate strongly believed in the value of the program from the start, and Lilly enjoyed the sessions. So, Kate’s response may have been based on the expectation that Lilly would benefit, rather than the fact. This would be an example of a well-established phenomenon in psychology known as cognitive bias. This possibility could confound the research results and render them, for the most part, invalid.

The jury’s out

Child mindfulness is a relatively new, growing phenomenon, so there’s a good chance that the quality of the research on it will improve with time. When it does, we’ll be in a better position to separate the effective programs from the futile.

There are certainly some early signs that those good programs exist. But at present, the research jury’s still out on the effectiveness of mindfulness training for children.

Dr Jennifer Smith is a Sydney-based educational, developmental and counselling psychologist.

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