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When your child is struggling to maintain focus

Connect

When your child is struggling to maintain focus, a challenging aspect of the problem is often a persistent feeling of being disconnected from others and from the present moment. Your child may find that his mind is always wandering, sometimes without him even being aware of it. It can be startling for a child to suddenly realize that he has missed an important part of a conversation, or that his teacher has been calling his name and he didn’t hear it until the third or fourth call. We’ve all had times when we feel fragmented, ineffective, and overwhelmed—when we can’t remember what we were thinking about, or realize we are listening to someone talk but have no idea what he or she just said. The stimulation of modern life increases these moments, and for many children this sense of disconnection is frequent and frustrating.

struggling to maintain focus yoga

In this chapter we will explore activities that can help reorient your child to his present-moment experience, as well as train the mind to stay tuned in to what is happening physically, mentally, and emotionally.


Why Does Connecting Matter?

The inability to stay connected to present-moment experiences has an impact on many areas of your child’s life. In social settings it may be hard for her to connect with friends as she struggles to maintain conversation; she may often miss the pauses and nonverbal cues that indicate it’s her—or someone else’s—turn to participate. As a result, friends might think she is tuning out or not interested in them.

In academic settings, the refrain of pay attention is likely to be something your child hears all day. You may have heard teachers tell you that your child is so smart and could be so successful in school if only she would “apply herself.” We will discuss strategies in later chapters that can help your child focus on what she is trying to learn (and that can help you communicate with her teachers), but first we need to recognize that if your child is expending all of her energy on simply trying to remain present and aware (and even awake) in her classroom, then she may not have much mental energy left for learning.


Children in class


The emotional consequences of this sense of disconnection can vary substantially from child to child. When so many things are pulling at your child’s attention, the nervous system never gets a chance to rest. Your child isn’t getting any downtime. This can lead to an increase in anxiety and a sense of constant worry. Noted physician Gabor Maté (2000) describes the feeling as being akin to always worrying that you have something that you are supposed to be doing but never being able to remember what it is.

This frenetic feeling is like a constant companion that serves to distract children away from the other emotions that they are experiencing. This overlay of anxiety colors their emotions, heightening some and damping others. In this context, it can be very hard for your child to make meaningful decisions and take appropriate actions, because what she is experiencing emotionally is not necessarily connected to the reality of the present moment.


Connecting to External and Internal Experiences

This article explores activities that help your child tune in to both the external environment, and the emotional landscape of internal experience. Both types of connection are crucial for experiencing the richness of life and navigating successfully through it. Becoming more aware of your external experiences, and practicing staying connected to those experiences, will, over time, contribute to your capacity to more accurately recognize your inner emotional experience and lessen the stress and anxiety that come from constantly wrapping your mind around the past, present, and future all at once.

mind brain



The Practices

The following activities will help your child connect to what is around him and tune in to the most essential aspects of his experience. Practicing these activities will develop a habit of slowing down, increasing awareness, and experiencing life in a more complete way.

Don’t worry about your child understanding the activities in a cerebral way. Instead just let him actually have the experience. When we practice mindfulness we are working on rewiring the brain. The experience itself does the work. It’s not important for the child to get it or make some sort of larger connection to his life. Just allow the activities to unfold and, through repetition, become a part of your child’s life.

Keep in mind that while some of these activities may seem simple, they will be a challenge for any child. It is your job to cultivate a sense of exploration and playfulness during these practices. Your child should not feel any pressure or judgment. You will want to internalize the idea that there is no one right way to practice mindfulness and yoga. The activities are all experiences and explorations. The success is in the trying, and each repetition strengthens the mind and contributes to developing a habit of awareness.

It is very useful to try these practices yourself before introducing them to your child so that you can better understand the experience and anticipate your child’s challenges and questions.

child experience


Connecting with Life Experiences


The first three activities in this article—Layers of Sound, Walking Meditation, and Mindful Eating—are about learning to slow down and experience the complete fullness of daily life. Staying connected to what is happening in the present is the first step toward developing more control over your attention. (Please read our another articles)



Connecting with Your Self


When children (and adults) are overwhelmed it can be hard for them to stay connected to their emotional experience. Actions become automatic responses to input, and self-control becomes harder. The first step toward regulating your own behavior is recognizing your emotions, but when your attention is always being pulled outward, your own emotions often go unnoticed. 

Rapid changes in emotional state are common for many children. For children with ADHD, this tendency is even more pronounced, and because their impulse control is not very strong, rapid changes in behavior are also common. The first step toward self-regulation and meaningful decision making is learning to tune in to your emotions and feelings as they are arising.


child overwhelmed
child overwhelmed


The following activities all support the development of a healthy inner life for your child: both Checking In and Emotion Jar work to develop the habit of noticing the inner experience, Caring Feelings deepens and expands that inner awareness to others, and the I Am In Charge Mantra is a practical and easy exercise that creates a regular reminder to your child that she is the boss of her actions.


Checking In


Sometimes the most challenging part of connecting to how we are feeling is actually recognizing the feelings. Sometimes we are just so busy that we don’t notice our feelings; sometimes feelings blur together and we only notice one of them (such as when we feel sad and angry at the same time but only notice the anger); and sometimes our feelings are just very confusing. Filling out the Checking-In Worksheet is a way to start becoming more aware of what you are experiencing in your body during different emotional states. 

Every person is different, and each person’s body sends different messages to help him or her understand him- or herself better. Once you learn what your body’s messages are, you can start to listen to those messages, reading your own body’s clues to help you figure out what is happening with your emotions.

Before you introduce this worksheet, talk to your child about the idea of noticing emotions in our bodies. Provide examples such as clenching your fists when you are angry, or feeling butterflies in your belly when you are nervous. Ask your child if he has noticed any other ways that his feelings show up in his body.

Make two copies of the worksheet on the following pages, and during some quiet time introduce your child to the idea that if we can figure out what messages our bodies are sending us, we can understand ourselves better. Spend some time reading through the worksheet with your child; start with filling out just one emotion that he seems interested in.

Both you and your child should fill out worksheets during this activity. Discuss any similarities between the messages your bodies send, and any differences. Don’t assume that your child will experience the same physical manifestations of emotion that you do.

Encourage your child to fill out the worksheet with words; also give him the option of drawing himself experiencing the emotion in the space available.

Don’t worry about filling out the whole worksheet at once. It can take time to learn your body’s messages. Keep the worksheet in an accessible place, and work on it during a week or two. If emotions come up that you want to explore that aren’t on the worksheet, feel free to add them.

Follow-up: As your child learns more about his response to emotions, you can help support this development by compassionately pointing out situations when his body is giving him a clue that he doesn’t notice. For example, you might say, “I can see that your eyebrows look scrunched.” Being noticed in this way is very validating for your child. It tells him that you are tuned in to his experience and that you think his feelings are worth noticing.

Challenges: There may be some emotions that are harder than others to figure out, and there may be times when your child is too upset or too frustrated to notice what is happening. Take this activity slowly, and, especially in the beginning, don’t ask your child to fill out the worksheet if he is having an intense emotional experience. See the A Guide to Compassionate Parenting in article for guidance on communicating with your child during times of intense emotion.

Daily Practice: As you start to get into the habit of noticing your body’s response to emotions, you will discover more nuances, and a richer emotional landscape will develop for you. Try printing a large version of this worksheet and hanging it on a wall where your child can access it. Throughout the day as he experiences different emotions, he may find that walking over to the worksheet and checking in can help him make sense of what he is feeling.

Checking-In Worksheet

Please photocopy the following pages or use them as an example to complete in your child’s journal.

When I feel HAPPY what do I feel?

My body:
My breath:
My belly:
My face:


When I feel FRUSTRATED what do I feel?

My body:
My breath:
My belly:
My face:


When I feel EXCITED what do I feel?

My body:
My breath:
My belly:
My face:


When I feel ANGRY what do I feel?

My body:
My breath:
My belly:
My face:


When I feel SAD what do I feel?

My body:
My breath:
My belly:
My face:


When I feel NERVOUS what do I feel?

My body:
My breath:
My belly:
My face:
Emotion Jar

The Emotion Jar activity is a simple way to help remind your child to stay connected to her own feelings throughout the day, and to show her how feelings change over time. Creating opportunities for your child to check in with her feelings also shows her that you think her feelings are important and worth taking time to note. This validation strengthens your relationship and your capacity to help your child thrive. This activity was inspired in part by the work of Linda Lantieri. Her book and companion CD, Building Emotional Intelligence, is a great resource for more activities to help your child connect to her feelings.

child emotional
child emotional

Choose several clear containers to use as emotion jars. You can start with just a few, and then add to your collection as additional feelings become needed.

Gather some materials to create feeling labels for your jars. Large mailing labels work well, but you can also use paper and tape.

Think about some of the things that you feel during the day: happy, sad, tired, peaceful, excited, frustrated, angry, et cetera. Try starting with four or five emotions (some positive and some negative), and then adding to them the next time you work on this activity.

Make a label for each emotion. Write the name of the emotion and optionally draw a picture that goes with the feeling. Put one emotion label on each jar. Make one jar that reads “other” so that your child has an option if the emotions you’ve chosen don’t fit at any particular time. Choose a place in your home where the jars can be displayed and easily accessed.

Now choose an object to represent yourself. (One good choice is a colored ping-pong ball—your child can even draw her face on it. If you have more than one child, you can use different objects or balls of different colors to represent each child. The adults in the home can participate as well.)

Close your eyes, take a full breath, and check in with your feelings. Choose the jar that best represents how you are feeling, and place your object in the jar. If there is no jar that represents how you feel, place your object in the “other” jar or make a new one.

Now comes the tricky part. As you continue on with your day, try to pause every once in a while to check in. If you notice that the way you are feeling has changed, take the time to move your object to a different jar.

Follow-up: You child may have questions about this activity as she begins to pay more attention to her feelings. Make sure that you are available to talk; let her know that all emotions are important, even the ones that don’t feel so great.

Challenges: The greatest challenge of the Emotion Jar activity is that sometimes it can be hard to know what you are feeling. Make sure your child knows that this is something you struggle with also—our feelings are complicated things, and it’s possible to be having more than one feeling at the same exact time. If this is the case for your child, let her use more than one object in her jars.

Daily Practice: Emotion Jar is an activity that is best used on a daily basis. You want to reinforce the habit of tuning in to emotions and figuring out the names of less-familiar feelings. Make sure that you encourage your child to move her object to both positive and negative emotions. Remember, the goal is not to change your or your child’s emotions or try to feel any particular way. The important part of this activity is to learn to notice all of your feelings, and to learn that you are still loved and accepted by your family when you have negative feelings.