Dear Mr. Dad: My seven-year old is very stressed. He’s constantly worried, can’t seem to focus in school, and almost always seems to be on edge. A friend suggested that we get our daughter to meditate. Sounds kind of kooky to me, but my friend insists that it’s a good thing. What do you think?

A: Despite having spent a good portion of my life either in Berkeley or just a few miles away, I used to be very skeptical about meditation and all the supposed benefits. It’s always sounded a bit too good to be true. After all, how could something so simple reduce stress and anxiety, lower your blood pressure and your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, cure insomnia, reduce chronic pain, help you fight off illness, combat depression , improve your memory and your grades, and make you taller, smarter, and better looking? But the reality is that with the exception of the taller and better looking parts, there’s actually scientific evidence behind all of the claims (and one could argue that reducing your stress, anxiety, and depression might make you walk a little taller and smile a lot more, which could improve your looks). Oh, and just so you know, these benefits have been found in children as well as adults.

While there’s little argument that meditating produces some pretty spectacular results, the problem has always been to explain exactly why it works. Some recent research has found that meditation helps open blood vessels, which in turn reduces blood pressure. And that reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke. Other studies have found that meditators are able to control certain brain waves that help brain cells communicate with each other and make it easier to concentrate. But does it really matter why it works? Bottom line is that it’s not going to hurt to give it a shot, and it could very well help a lot.

Okay, now that you know that meditation isn’t as kooky as you’d thought, let’s talk about how to make it part of your child’s life.

  • Start by making it a part of your life too. Young children learn by imitating and if you’re doing it, they’ll want to join. The steps below will work just as well for you as for your child.
  • Don’t get bogged down by the name. There are all sorts of meditation styles: Transcendental, Zen, Mindfulness, to name just a few.
  • Block out some time. 15-20 minutes at a stretch is good for adults. For kids, 5-10 minutes is plenty, especially when you’re just starting.
  • Find a quiet place. The fewer outside distractions (TV, radio, conversations, etc), the better.
  • Get comfortable. You don’t have to be twisted into some painful pretzel-like pose or levitate a foot off the ground. You can meditate sitting in a comfortable chair, lying down, walking, or even swimming.
  • Focus on something. That could be a “mantra” (a word or phrase) or an object. But my suggestion is that you start with the simplest thing of all: your breath. Slowly count “one” for the first inhale, hold for two seconds, then exhale. Then “two” for the next set, and so on. I’m betting you won’t get to “three” before your mind starts heading off in 127 different directions at the same time. When that happens, resist the urge to criticize yourself for losing focus. Everyone does, so just observe that your mind has wandered and gently bring yourself back to your breathing and start counting again.