Is Mindfulness an Alternative to Meds for Children with ADD and ADHD?

An alternative to immediately treating the symptoms of ADD and ADHD with medication

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Research shows that mindfulness can train our minds to direct and sustain attention, shifting us out of perpetual distraction. Neuroscience now supports what ancient yogis have known for centuries ~ that personal growth and evolution happen from the bottom up, through consistent amounts of inner reflection. 

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s innate capacity to rewire itself through intentional life choices such as our chosen home and work environments, people we surround ourselves with and if we have a mindfulness practice. The emergence of mindfulness-based approaches to treat mental health disorders such as attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) offers us an alternative to immediately treating the symptoms of ADD and ADHD with medication. This a particularly powerful shift for children. It’s true that some children absolutely need medication to manage their attention-deficit symptoms, however, when prescribing meds becomes the automatic mode of treatment, we overlook the innate healing power of our minds and bodies.

To utilize mindfulness as a treatment modality for attention challenges, executive functioning deficits, and other cognitive skills is to train the mind from the inside out. It’s empowering for children to cultivate internal skills that can increase their capacity for sustained attention. Reaching within opposed to reaching without for ways to elevate mental health is a powerful paradigm shift for children. I see this frequently in my mindfulness-based psychotherapy practice ~ if a child can see their ability to elevate executive functioning through easy-to-implement mindfulness exercises, they begin to believe in themselves at a core human level. This lesson of self-efficacy is invaluable on the journey of life.

Here are three mindfulness skills that can ease ADD and ADHD symptoms in children:

1 – Mindfulness Meditation

Meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying close attention to the present moment, intentionally and without judgment. A UCLA study shows that children who lagged behind their peers in areas of executive functioning at the start of a mindfulness program experienced larger gains than their classmates. When families embrace a consistent, collective mindfulness meditation practice…whether that’s 10 – 15 minutes in the morning or evening, stress, hyperactivity, and inattention decrease while emotion regulation, concentration, and inner confidence increase.

2 – Self-Compassion

As we contemplate how our children relate to the world around them, self- compassion becomes an essential inner resource that can help children meet difficult moments of perceived failure, weakness or stress with equanimity. Compassion is the feeling that arises when confronted by another’s suffering. When we practice self-compassion, we’re acknowledging the truth of our imperfections with a heart of self-love. It’s important for children to learn how to pause, drop in and acknowledge their suffering with objectivity and an open heart. I encourage parents to engage their children in a daily evening ritual of “Compassion Convos,” where each person in the family identifies a moment of compassion or self-compassion they experienced during that day.

After each family member voices their chosen compassionate experience of the day, I instruct the family to drop into a short lovingkindness meditation repeating these words aloud five times as they breathe into the center of their hearts:

  • May we all be happy
  • May we all be healthy
  • May we all be free
  • May we all live with ease and peace

This ritual shines awareness on the intention of living life with a compassionate heart, accepting our growth areas rather than feeling shameful for having challenges ~ such as coping with ADD or ADHD.

3 – Befriend the Breath

Our breath is a reflection of how we walk through the world. Often, children who have ADD or ADHD experience high levels of stress, which means their breath flow is constricted. To teach your child how to breathe properly can be one of the greatest gifts for stress-relief, focus and emotion regulation. Invite your child to sit in a comfortable position either on the floor, a chair or their bed. As they inhale, have them imagine a balloon inflating in the center of their belly. Instruct your child to inhale deeply and slowly but not to force the breath in any way. As they exhale, invite them to draw the belly in and up, creating a gentle pump with the belly with each inhale and exhale. Continue this mindful belly breathing for at least 5 minutes.

Mindfulness is the portal through which our children challenged by ADD and ADHD can become empowered to increase their executive functioning from the inside out. Utilizing the seeds of mindfulness, children can become self-actualized through the power of their presence. 

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