People often ask me about my work with curiosity; how do you know what you know? (I never intended to be a knower).
When I started working with youth, I knew I wanted to help them make good choices and avoid risky behaviors. It became my mission to understand the root causes of their actions, instead of putting a band aid on the problem. I learned that most risks are a product of the developing brain that is wired for just that – independence, and subsequent bad decisions. I learned that many of our kids have experienced trauma, which manifests itself in a number of negative, unhealthy behaviors. Finally, I learned that our kids lacked skills for self-awareness and emotional regulation.
I realized that for me to raise children (both biological and borrowed) successfully, I had to turn down the noise and listen. I needed to give myself a time-in where I could think, process, and/or not-think, in silence. Once I made this shift, I found answers to the questions I didn’t know I had. I acted in compassion, instead of frustration. I chose understanding over judgement, and resolution over reluctance.
I spent a great deal of time in thought, pondering how I could help kids in a way that was real, rudimentary, and replicable. Incredibly, the answers came to me to in the silence – in the times that I wasn’t thinking. This is the space where my personal mindfulness practice folded into my professional life, resulting in magnificent realizations. I was finally able to see the big picture – people need time to “just be.” Our kids (and adults!) have many demands, expectations, and goals, so much so that they don’t know how to enjoy the simple moments. As a society, we’ve spent so much time filling the silence for our kids with technology, activities and school work, that they don’t know how to “just be.”
A few years ago, I ran a summer wellness program for girls in my community. I wanted to provide these young girls with a fun, safe, and healthy option for a summer activity. We spent some time in the silence by laying on yoga mats in a dimly lit auditorium. I asked the girls if they had ever done anything like this, and they looked at me dumbfounded. However, the feedback was resoundingly positive and heartwarming. Here I was, a local police officer, laying on the floor with teenagers teaching them how to relax (something that took me a lifetime to learn). I hoped they would use this as a healthy coping skill, or a daily wellness practice, and years later I’m told they often do. Sometimes we need to think outside of the box… and it works.
Below are a few simple ideas to integrate silence and contemplation into your children’s daily lives (and hopefully yours too!)
1. When you wake up in the morning, take 2-5 minutes to remain in bed and just breathe. When you notice a thought come to mind, allow it to leave (just until you’re done). You can picture the thought opening your bedroom door, and you can gently send it back out. This is YOUR time and it’s only a few minutes. Be kind to yourself; the mind is active and is used to thinking! For this reason, it’s great to try this in the morning when the mind is a slightly less consumed with thought. You can set a timer for yourself if you wish.
2. When you are asked a question, take a few seconds before you answer. Often, our brain is working hard to formulate an answer and we sometimes speak before our brain has finished its cognitive process. This is particularly useful in peer pressure situations.
3. Stop filling the space. During our conversations with others, we are uncomfortable with silence. Our minds quickly work to formulate something to say, but for what purpose? This is akin to our need to be occupied constantly by noise. It’s great training if you can practice being comfortable with moments of silence.
There is a significant amount of research that outlines the benefits of this type of mental training. Contemplative practices physically change the brain! These changes aid in stress reduction and increased focus and attention, as well as the cultivation of self-regulatory skills and social competencies such as compassion and empathy. These are crucial skills for today’s youth!
I wonder what would happen in our world if we all practiced a little bit of silence? See if you can try some small steps to harness the “power of quiet in a world full of noise” (Thich Naht Hanh) and then teach it to your kids. The answer is in the silence, I assure you.