Photo: Trevor Owen Photography
When teacher Trina Markusson noticed that her son Zachary’s worrying was beginning to give him stomach aches, she realized that he needed some techniques to help him cope with stress and anxiety. The two began practising a daily mindfulness routine that consisted of six tools used to calm the physical symptoms of stress. These six exercises now comprise her debut children’s book, Good Morning, Sunshine! A Story of Mindfulness, which teaches children and parents alike how the practice of mindfulness can stop the stream of stressful thoughts and help you regain power over your emotions.
“Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment,” says Markusson, who has been studying mindfulness and stress reduction for the past 15 years. She has been sharing what she’s learned about living in the present with thousands of adults and children through classrooms and conferences. Markusson believes that, though Good Morning, Sunshine! A Story of Mindfulness is written for kids, it’s equally helpful for parents, caregivers and teachers.
“We have so many perfect moments we miss each day because we’re stuck in thoughts that can take us away from the present moment,” she says. Markusson describes these as “past thoughts,” in which we replay something that has already happened, and “future thoughts,” the what-ifs and worries over things that are yet to come. “If we spend our time thinking about the future or replaying past hurts, we’re missing what’s going on in the present moment,” she explains. “Our bodies react to those stressful thoughts with headaches, tummy aches and tense muscles.”
As a teacher, Markusson notices how these stressful thoughts can snowball and how the physical symptoms that accompany them are becoming more prevalent in children. “In the classroom, you definitely see more kids worrying about things,” she says. “Just look at the statistics for mental health right now and kids that are turning to drugs and suicide. Those anxieties and worries had to start somewhere.” According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, 70 percent of mental health cases are reported to begin during childhood. The Canadian Institute for Health Information has found that one in 12 Canadian children is prescribed mood, anxiety or antipsychotic medication. Markusson believes that the trick to reducing those numbers is to teach kids how to understand and manage their emotions.
“It’s about making those little changes now so that we see less anxiety in adults later on,” she says. “If we teach kids how to deal with their thoughts and emotions, I think we’re going to see some pretty healthy young adults.”
Belly breathing, focusing on our five senses, expressing gratitude and befriending our emotions and their physical symptoms are some of the strategies Markusson recommends for getting back into the present moment. Something as simple as placing your child’s favourite stuffy on her stomach and having her breathe deeply to “rock it to sleep” can be an effective way to relax your child before bed and allow her to have a more restful night. Asking your child to name three things she is thankful for can also help her move away from negative emotions and back into the present moment. Allowing your child to feel those negative emotions can be helpful, too.
“I grew up being told ‘Don’t be scared, don’t be worried, don’t be nervous,’” she says. “I never had permission to feel that way, so I always pushed those emotions away. But what happens when you keep pushing them away is that they never really go away. They stick to you and build up.”
Instead, Markusson encourages having your child treat her feelings like a guest on her doorstep and invite them in! “If we take care of our feelings, they don’t stay in our bodies very long,” she says. “We don’t have to be angry for a week or for a year. We don’t have to be afraid. If we just take care of our emotions and give them attention, usually they start to dissipate after 90 seconds.”
The mother of three suggests that beginning and ending your day with a few moments of mindfulness practice can be really helpful at reducing the physical symptoms of anxiety. “Right before bed, ask ‘What are you most grateful for?’ or practise some belly breaths in the morning to pull them into the day,” she says. “The important thing is to practise these techniques every single day.” Even on your busiest days, taking a few minutes to do nothing can help you move more calmly through your life.
“It’s all about modelling this [practice] for our kids,” says Markusson. “The more we model it as they’re growing up, the more automatic it’s going to become for them. Even if your children are too young to understand the concept of being in the present moment, modelling it for them on a daily basis can really set them up for success later on. It can set them up with resilience for the future.”