Editor’s note: This post was updated on Feb. 1, 2023.
The last few years have had many of us feeling more emotions and moving less. Cultivating a strong connection between our emotions and physical sensations is more important than ever.
For myself, and many other adults, the idea that persistent feelings of stress could lead to pain in the shoulders or the hips was something we didn’t learn until adulthood. Yet being able to feel how your body responds and holds onto emotions—what’s known as mind-body awareness—is an invaluable skill for people of all ages.
Fortunately, mind-body awareness can be taught and strengthened from a young age, through mindfulness games, meditation, and other activities.
Here are four of my favourite techniques to cultivate mind-body awareness and encourage self-regulation.
1. Notice the coin
This is an adaptation of a mindfulness activity that I invented on the bus with my agitated preschooler one day. In simple terms, mindfulness is a simple kind of meditation in which you focus your attention on one thing—in this case, a coin—in your child’s hand.
We used a coin because that’s what I had, but any small tactile object would work. If you have something edible, like a raisin, that would be even better so you could incorporate taste.
- Ask your child to close their eyes and put out their hand. Place the object in their hand.
- Without looking, have them describe what they feel. If your child is young, you may need to guide them with some questions: “Is it small or big? Is it warm or cold? Is it bumpy or smooth?”
- Guide them to use their other senses. What do they smell? Does the object make a sound? If the object is edible, what do they taste?
Often you can notice a sense of calm in your child’s face as they continue this practice. Continue this for as long as they seem calm and relaxed.
2. Squeeze and release
You can do this with your child sitting or lying down. Have them close their eyes and you can also close your eyes, if comfortable.
- Guide your child and yourself to bring awareness to your feet and ankles. Feel any sensations there—any tingling, stretching etc. After a few moments, inhale and squeeze your feet. Then exhale and release.
- Continue this working your way up the body, naming big and small body parts. If your child is young, or you or they are feeling dysregulated—being unable to control your emotional response—stick with naming the large body parts (legs, tummy, arms and hands, head). If you feel you can slow down to notice more body parts, do.
- Finish with the face and head. Then ask your child and yourself if there’s anywhere you’re still holding on to tension. If there is, try to bring your awareness there. Hold for a breath and release.
Once this is done you can lie in stillness for as long as you like and then start moving again slowly.
This is also a great bedtime activity—just continue being still until your little one falls asleep!
3. Act your emotions
This is a current favourite with my son. I’ll name an emotion and ask him to act it out—not just with his face but with his entire body. I usually start with something low-key, like “happy” or “sad” before getting into more complex emotions like “frustration” or “worry.”
If you have older kids, you can add another layer to this activity. For each feeling you name, ask them to notice and describe how they’re standing. What happens to their shoulders when they’re sad? Where in their body do they feel “happy?”
4. What’s on your back?
This simple activity is similar to the “notice the coin” game but is better played at home. I use this game a great deal if I’m trying to distract my child from a meltdown, or when trying to comfort my son after a tantrum.
- Ask your child to lie down and guess what you’re pressing against their back. It can be anything—a toy, a piece of yarn, a book.
- Repeat this for as long as your child likes. This game can go on for quite awhile in our house. Sometimes he’ll also want to put things on my back, which can help him continue to self-regulate.
Being able to notice how you feel in your body can help with mood regulation, stress reduction, and feeling better physically and emotionally.
All of these activities can be adapted to the specific ages and needs of your child or yourself. You may even discover that many of them become regular activities and you start incorporating some of the self-soothing techniques into your own self-care practices.
Emily Gold is a yoga therapist and teacher, doula, and public health specialist. She is currently living abroad, in Brussels, Belgium.