I Meditate With My Toddler (Really!)

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That title contains two things that sound like polar-opposites; meditation and toddlers. One is centering, calm, and often quiet. The other is loud, messy, and could be described as a Tasmanian devil. I’ll let you guess which of those descriptions goes with which each of those very different things.

Toddlers are obviously fast-paced, and boy, do they have some BIG emotions. Toddlers don’t settle down easily. They can easily go from 0 to 60, or from 60 to a catastrophic wreck unless we as caregivers catch them before they do and either put them down for a nap or refocus attention. Sometimes they melt down anyway. They are toddlers, after all, and we as parents don’t possess fool proof toddler taming superpowers (though I’d wager just parenting is a superpower in and of itself!). But something else I’m finding helps prevent or interrupt the crash we call tantruming is meditation.

Yes. I meditate with my toddler.

Meditation practice is something I’ve implemented in my high stress and fast-paced life, because it gives me a few minutes to stop, breathe, and refocus. The chaos has nearly broken me in the past, and I’ve made a commitment to do everything I can to never be in that place again. One of the changes I made in my life was beginning to meditate regularly (a practice that, when applied in specific protocols, we know has positive outcomes on stress levels, anxiety, and even health). Especially with the current crisis, we are faced with, meditation practice has been an essential grounding technique to help me cope with a tragic situation I have little control over.

You may have seen meditation-like practices in preschool or elementary classrooms. Maybe you do something similar when your little one needs to decompress, too. As a former preschool teacher, I became accustomed to giving decompression time to toddlers. Sometimes with quiet music, sometimes without. Sometimes with a big hug, sometimes with physical space. We did something similar when I taught first grade when recess or a class period got the students riled up. Quiet music and a bit of time lying on the floor with eyes closed worked wonders. You don’t have to have experience as an educator to know the value of quiet time. I’m certain anyone who has spent any time with children knows how vital decompression time can be.

My child is less than 2 years of age. You know the age; where kids have no clue what they want, and it constantly feels like you are teetering on the edge of a raging pit of fire while covered in gasoline. The slightest wrong step proves explosive. My parenting philosophy is authoritative (not to be confused with authoritarian!) and evidence-based. Part of this means I know the best way to deal with a tantrum is to prevent it, providing logical expectations in advance, and nurturing appropriate choice making works wonders. But sometimes that tantrum is inevitable because, well, toddlers.

A method that works well for me when I feel like I am going to spontaneously combust is taking a few minutes to do deep breathing exercises, or if possible, do a full meditation. One day it hit me; what if I tried this with my child? I started playing my meditation music and laying down with my eyes closed. My curious little sponge quickly joined in. We practiced daily while calm. This is not full meditation, of course, but it is a good foundation!

One day, when a tantrum hit, and when my other efforts failed to calm my little honey badger, I turned on my meditation music again. I gave a choice, “Do you want a hug, or do you want to lay down by yourself?” A hug it was. A big bear hug on my lap, actually. I quietly held and rocked my little one, back and forth, while the tears and screaming slowed. And slowed. And stopped. It worked.

I’ve been using similar methods during tantrums and to re-center now for some time. Sometimes my little sits on my lap and needs a hug. Other times he wants physical space. We’ve gotten to the point where my toddler closes his eyes and copies my deep breathing for a short period during our practice meditation sessions. We are starting to form a solid foundation for what can become true mediation as he gets older.

While participation is short-lived, I continue to model how to meditate as he goes off to play again (he usually comes back several times to practice with me during these sessions). Sometimes he even asks to meditate now, asking for “night night.” The fact that my little one enjoys building skills for meditation warms my heart. We are building up to longer and longer stretches of “meditation.” And the best thing about it? I get a few moments of decompression time while helping teach this healthy habit to my child; time that is valuable in helping me be the best mom I can be.

My toddler doing “night night” (meditating)

I’m grateful that I began working on meditation, individually and with my child, prior to the requirement to engage in social distancing. As with anything, meditation takes practice, and building a new skill that requires calm can be challenging during a period of intense stress. With the inability to leave our home, to take my child to normal activities, to go to the playground, or generally find much novelty other than that which we can create in our home or the occasional trip to one of the local trails, my entire family can feel like our walls are closing in on us.

Our community is being impacted by intense tragedy. Whether we choose to turn on the news or not is irrelevant. We know it is there, outside the safety of our home. And our normal schedule, something we all relied on for stability, is gone. Our entire way of life has been disrupted. Thus, meditation has become even more essential.

Stress can cause me to ruminate, to dwell on the negative, to project worst-case outcomes, or simply to focus on the ongoing crisis. Negative thoughts like these can bring me down emotionally, heighten my anxiety, and in turn, affect my ability to parent effectively. Ultimately, I have very little control over the current crisis (other than staying home), meaning the best choice for my mental health is to accept our circumstances. The only alternative would be futile attempts at controlling the uncontrollable. Meanwhile, my child is also picking up on these challenging times. Schedule disruption and monotony are both triggering for big toddler emotions. The ability for both of us to take a mental and emotional break has been a vital lifeline during this challenging time.

Mediation is, of course, not fail-safe. Not at all. I’m still talking about a toddler here! It doesn’t work 100% of the time. And I certainly can’t promise that this will work with your little one. But I do know that it works for us. It is one more tool in my toolbox of effective parenting strategies. So yes, I can and do meditate with my toddler. And it has changed the way I parent for the better.

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Erin is the mother of one sweet, rambunctious toddler and wife to a talented chef. Professionally, she is a former special educator and preschool teacher, and is currently a cognitive neuroscience researcher and Ph.D candidate in Cognitive Science in Education with specializations in neuroscience, cognitive development, and neurodiversity/autism. She holds masters degrees in cognitive science, and neuroscience in education, from Teachers College, Columbia University, and undergraduate degrees in special education (with an additional concentration in elementary education and a minor in English) and early childhood education. As the wife of a chef, food is a huge part of her family culture, and she enjoy both cooking and baking. Some of her other hobbies include hiking, traveling, jogging, meditation, animal rescue, playing piano and guitar, crafting, reading, and of course, writing. You can follow her parenting journey and pick up tips on great kids activities here on Westchester Moms Blog, as well as her website (www.themindfullyscientificmama.com), Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest accounts.