Mindfulness and meditation are effective alternatives to medication for many mental disorders like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). This is one such disorder with many studies showing that focusing on the here and now can improve impulse control and focus while reducing hyperactivity and aggressive behavior. 1, 2, 3, 4
But how exactly do mindfulness and meditation help with ADHD? Mindfulness is based on Vipassanā, a meditation technique from ancient Buddhism.
Its two main principles are simple:
- Be attentive to the present moment—now, and now, and now.
- Be open, accepting and curious about the present moment, no matter what is happening, within or without.
The best way to cultivate mindfulness is to focus on breathing. You and your child can both benefit by building the following mindful breathing habits.
Using Meditation Techniques for ADHD
Practicing mindful breathing as a strict, structured activity may be too difficult for your ADHD child, so it’s best to start simple.
First, teach your child to take one deep breath before starting an activity. It sounds simple, but even concentrating on one deep breath can improve focus on the task at hand.
Once your child has mastered that, you can occasionally remind your child to take a break to focus on breathing while doing everyday activities.
For example, while doing her homework ask your child to stop to take a breathing break. They should inhale deeply, pause, and then exhale slowly. Tell her to concentrate on the pause between inhaling and exhaling. Repeat this process four or five times.
The S.T.O.P. Technique
The S.T.O.P. technique is similar to a breathing break, but it involves a few more steps to help further strengthen your child’s mindfulness.
S.T.O.P. is a four-part mindfulness technique that allows your child to be more attentive to what’s happening, and to make better decisions. The four parts:
- S = Stop. Stop whatever she’s doing or intending to do.
- T = Take a few breaths. The best breath is a deep breath, filling the abdomen, and exhaling completely. Tell her to count as she breathes: 1…2…3 on the inhale, feeling the abdomen as it expands. 1…2…3 on the exhale, feeling the abdomen empty and relax.
- O = Observe. Observe what’s going on, internally and externally. She should ask herself what she is doing and what is she about to do. There are no “good” or “bad” answers. Finally, tell her to ask herself if what she is about to do matches what she wants to be focused on at the moment.
- P = Proceed. Now she has an opportunity to go in a purposeful direction—to do the action she intended to do.
After your child has mastered simple breathing breaks and the S.T.O.P. technique, he can try focusing on his breathing while walking.
This simple form of meditation can be done indoors or out, but find a place that is safe and free of distractions. If your child is trying it indoors, the space doesn’t necessarily have to be big. He can simply walk in a straight line back and forth.
Instruct your child to focus on a point in the short distance. Then, as he walks, pay attention to every breath. Tell him to try to feel every sensation of inhaling and exhaling.
He should walk slowly. It may help to synchronize his breathing with his steps. For example, he could inhale when he steps with his right foot, and exhale when he steps with his left.
If your child is not too restless to sit for some time, she can try seated meditation. This form of meditation is similar to walking meditation. The main focus is on breathing.
It is important to truly concentrate on every breath. Tell your child to pay attention to every part of the body involved in the breathing process, from the rise and fall of the abdomen to the way the air feels and it enters and exits the nostrils.
If her mind wanders away from the breathing or you notice her start to get fidgety, it is fine. Just gently encourage her to move her thoughts back to her breathing.
At the end of the meditation, guide her attention away from her breath and back to the space around her. When she’s ready, bring the exercise to a close.
Non-Breathing Based Mindfulness Techniques
While many mindfulness exercises focus on breathing, many other methods increase a person’s self-awareness. Here are just a few.
#1. Body Scan
People with ADHD often have a complicated relationship with their bodies. It can be frustrating for your child when they just can’t concentrate on the goals they want to achieve. The body scan technique will help your child feel more comfortable in his skin while increasing his mindfulness at the same time.
First, have your child find a comfortable resting position, either lying down or sitting in a comfortable chair.
Then, with eyes closed or open, he should note the sensation on the very top of his head. Tell him to label this feeling, if there is any, and release any tension in that part of his body.
Then repeat the process for every part of his body. Move down the face to the shoulders, down each arm to his fingers, down the torso, and finally down each leg to his toes.
He should imagine that his attention is like a flashlight, and he is pointing his attention at each section of the body to illuminate it.
#2. Mantra Meditation
In this technique, the object of meditation is a mantra, a word that is thought of repeatedly. In the most popular form of mantra meditation—Transcendental Meditation, or TM—a meaningless word like eng or shirim (two official TM mantras) is thought recurrently, without trying to concentrate on it.
As with mindfulness meditation, when the mind wanders you simply bring it back to the mantra without concern.
Some types of yoga use deep breathing exercises and concentration meditation (concentrating on a specific thought, like the word Om).
In one study, ADHD children aged 6 to 11 participated for one year in a program involving yogic deep breathing and concentration meditation.5 They had “remarkable improvements in…school performances that were sustained throughout the year,” reported the researchers in the journal ISRN Pediatrics.
Invest in Your ADHD Child’s Mindfulness with Meditation
The best treatments for your child’s ADHD are ones that the whole family is involved in. You can also benefit from the mindfulness and meditation exercises I’ve mentioned, so why not do them with your child?
I strongly feel mindfulness is an important method in alleviating ADHD symptoms. For further reading, please see Chapter 11 in my award-winning ADHD book, Finally Focused.
Yours in health,
James M. Greenblatt, MD
Founder, Medical Director, Psychiatry Redefined
Did you know that poor sleeping habits also exacerbate symptoms of ADHD in children?
- van de Weijer-Bergsma E, et al. The effectiveness of mindfulness training on behavioral problems and attentional functioning in adolescents with ADHD. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 2012 Oct;21(5):775-787.
- Zylowska L, et al. Mindfulness meditation training in adults and adolescents with ADHD: a feasibility study. Journal of Attention Disorders, 2008 May;11(6):737-46.
- van der Oord S, et al. The effectiveness of mindfulness training for children with ADHD and mindful parenting for their parents. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 2012 Feb;21(1):139-147.
- Singh N, et at. Effects of samatha meditation on active academic engagement and math performance of students with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Mindfulness, 2016;7(1):68-75.
- Mehta S, et al. Multimodal behavior program for ADHD incorporating yoga and implemented by high school volunteers: a pilot study. ISRN Pediatrics, 2011;2011:780745.