Stuck in a cave

Thai Cave Rescue Highlights the Value of Teaching Children to Meditate

The coach of the rescued boys taught them techniques to stay calm, and any parent can use meditation to help their children deal with stress

Meditation techniques can help children manage stress.
Meditation techniques can help children manage stress. Photo: IStock

The miraculous rescue of the Thai soccer team this past week left many of us wondering: How did those 12 boys manage to stay so calm while trapped in a cave for over two weeks?

One answer is that their 25-year-old coach, a former Buddhist monk, reportedly taught the boys to meditate, to help slow their breathing and quiet their nerves. He credits the practice with helping them to ride out the long days of confinement and discomfort.

One particularly effective technique that they are likely to have tried is mindfulness meditation, a practice widely used in Thai Buddhism. Practitioners train their attention on the present moment, dispassionately observing their thoughts and feelings without judging or reacting to them.

“For the boys trapped in the cave, practicing mindfulness could have helped them stay calm in a very stressful situation, by keeping them focused on the present rather than fretting about the past or worrying about what might happen in the future,” says mindfulness researcher Kristen Lyons, an assistant professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Dr. Lyons points to research on adults that suggests practicing mindfulness helps people to stay centered in moments of stress. It dampens our fight-or-flight response, so that we can respond to emotional situations constructively rather than reactively.

Our children may never know the terror of being stuck in a cave, but all of them will have moments of feeling trapped and threatened, whether it’s taking a math test or dealing with a bully on the playground, says Amy Saltzman, a holistic physician and mindfulness coach in Menlo Park, California. “With mindfulness, the intention is to have your feelings—whether it’s sadness, fear or anger—without those feelings having you,” says Dr. Saltzman.

Even toddlers can be taught how to be mindful. A good place to start is with a feelings meditation. Begin by lying down together and bringing the child’s attention to their breath. Place a small object on their stomach and have them notice how it goes up when they fully inhale and down when they fully exhale. Next, help them to label what they’re feeling, and ask them to notice where those feelings manifest in their body: Is there a warmth in their chest, a pain in their head or a tight feeling in their stomach? Explain that mindfulness is not about erasing those bad feelings but about acknowledging them, even befriending them, and then choosing how we respond.

Teenagers can start by downloading apps like Insight Timer, Headspace or Calm, which offer guided meditations. You can explain how mindfulness will help them respond to stressful situations in ways that will make their lives simpler and make them less likely to be buffeted by events. It will leave them with less of an emotional mess to clean up later, says Dr. Saltzman.

Even moments like putting on shoes, taking a shower or brushing teeth can serve as informal practice in mindfulness. For example, ask children to pay attention to how it feels when they squeeze the toothpaste tube, how the toothpaste tastes in their mouth and the sensation the bristles make on their teeth and gums.

Families can carve out small moments to be mindful together, says Dr. Lyons. At dinner, pay attention to those first few bites of your meal, or when you’re all walking to the car, notice how the sun feels on your skin.

Be aware of moments of distracted parenting, too. When you greet your children in the morning and before bed, practice being fully present for 15 minutes without distractions: no electronics, no cleaning up, no making a to-do list.

The more we incorporate mindfulness into our daily lives, the better it will serve us when we need it most. For some of us perhaps, it may also be a lifesaver someday.