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As the pandemic continues, kids are turning to meditation to manage anxiety

Experts say kids who feel anxious about the COVID-19 pandemic or have trouble falling asleep may benefit from developing their own meditation practice.
Unrecognizable little kid meditating in Lotus position at home.
Kids may be feeling anxious about returning to school or the COVID-19 pandemic, but parents and experts say meditation can be a big help.skynesher / Getty Images

As mask mandates and talk of vaccines continue, it's unsurprising that kids may feel anxious about what's happening in the world around them.

Coupled with heading back to school, parents may wonder how to help children manage feelings of worry and anxiety.

Amy Drauschke, a mom from Maine, said her 10-year-old son, Alex, has always had trouble falling asleep at night. When the 2020-2021 school year began, Alex struggled with adjusting to a different school setting, one that included smaller class sizes, mask mandates and eventually, virtual learning.

"He had constant stomach aches and, very often, nausea," Drauschke told TODAY Health. "After a lot of dietary and allergy testing, we finally figured out it was anxiety over the pandemic: separation from his friends and family and a lot of fear that people he loved would be taken from him."

Drauschke, an avid user of the Peloton workout app, suggested that Alex try meditation programs within the app. The result was life-changing.

Alex Bevan, 10, received a "century club" T-shirt from Peloton for completing 100 meditations within the app.
Alex Bevan, 10, received a "century club" T-shirt from Peloton for completing 100 meditations within the app.Amy Drauschke

"I like calming down and listening to a nice voice and relaxing in my bed," said Alex, whose favorite Peloton instructor is yoga and meditation expert Chelsea Jackson Roberts. "I like the way she tells the meditation — she sounds calm and makes me feel safe."

"I do the meditation every night if I can't fall asleep," Alex added, "and if I wake up and don't feel good, I do another one and that helps me go back to sleep."

Alex recently completed 100 meditations within the Peloton platform and received a "century club" shirt in the mail, an award granted to Peloton members who complete 100 of any type of workout. Drauschke said receiving the shirt in the mail made her son beam with pride.

Why should kids meditate?

Sue English, a licensed family therapist who practices in Illinois, calls meditative practices "a toolbox of new ways for kids to calm themselves down when they get upset or scared."

"Meditation and anxiety are polar opposites," English explained. "Anxiety is defined as ruminating over the past or worrying about the future, but meditation offers children the ability to calm their racing thoughts, ease the tension when they feel overstimulated and be present in the moment, which provides them a sense of safety and control in their ever-changing environment."

How are kids meditating?

Melissa Pheterson's 12-year-old son, Sam, began meditating after finding himself frequently anxious over school assignments and grades. Pheterson said a therapist taught her son how to use visualizations to calm his mind and think clearly to avoid getting "sucked into the vortex" of anxiety.

When anxiety creeps in, Sam, who lives in New York, visualizes being in his favorite place doing something he enjoys.

Sam Pheterson, 12, reduces anxiety by visualizing a place that makes him happy.
Sam Pheterson, 12, reduces anxiety by visualizing a place that makes him happy.Melissa Pheterson

Sam's preferred visualization? Eating a cheeseburger at Five Guys with his dad.

"Because this technique was accessible and appealing," said Pheterson, "Sam was able to tap into this meditative state to nip his anxiety in the bud before it grew wildly out of control. Once he made it a daily practice — before he opened his laptop on remote school days, for example — he was better able to respond to challenges and frustrations with a rational and more clear-headed approach."

Janell Frontone works in health system management and saw her son, Collin, 10, grow anxious about her safety during the pandemic. When Collin began displaying symptoms of panic attacks, the Illinois mom encouraged him to try meditation.

"I started by leading Collin through guided meditations myself," Frontone explained. "To him it was just like me telling him stories: I would have him lay down in a quiet comfortable space ... I would talk him through visualizations of situations and locations that made him feel calm. This naturally progressed to him feeling comfortable listening to others doing the same thing before bed and then to him seeking out this sense of calm when he started to feel anxious."

Collin Frontone listens to guided meditations in the Calm app when he feels like he's getting close to a panic attack.
Collin Frontone listens to guided meditations in the Calm app when he feels like he's getting close to a panic attack.Janell Frontone

Today, Collin meditates using guided meditations through the Calm app.

"I feel like whenever I get a panic attack or feel really scared about something, meditation helps me to calm down and gets the scary thoughts out of my head," said Collin.

Kentucky mom Rachel Ellsworth also enlisted the app Headspace to help her 10-year-old daughter understand how to manage anxiety.

"Headspace has sleep stories that begin with either a guided body scan or breathing exercise followed by simple stories to drift off to sleep to," said Ellsworth. "We started in the evenings, and this regular practice when she wasn't feeling anxious taught her the necessary skill. Then when she would be feeling anxious, she could call upon these techniques to regain control."

Where should kids (and parents) start?

English said a successful meditation practice begins with mom and dad.

"Kids are by nature little sponges," said English. "They absorb all they hear and see, so parents can model body-based mindfulness and meditative techniques like closing their eyes and taking deep cleansing breaths after a work call or listening to a guided meditation while they are making dinner."

"One of the most important things we can offer to our children is the knowledge of how to regain a sense of safety and stability during uncertain times," she added. "If a child starts to have unwelcome thoughts that can result in anxious feelings, they can turn on a guided meditation to take them out of the negative headspace and create a welcoming environment where they are imagining themselves walking through an enchanted forest or playing in the sands of a beautiful beach."

And there's an added perk for kids who meditate.

"Mindfulness practices also spark natural creativity and foster imagination in children of all ages," said English.