Shh … How a little silence can go a long way for kids’ mental health

These ideas to help children find some quiet time can boost emotional intelligence and brainpower.

Amy Carson’s four-year-old daughter is ignoring her—and she doesn't mind one bit. Pushing Isa in her stroller, Carson is opting for a walk instead of a drive after a playdate to give them both a break from the thrum of life. The 15-minute soundless sojourns make a big difference.

“This silent time is really helpful for Isa after an outing,” Carson says. “She’s calmer watching the world go by while resting her head against the stroller than after a car ride, where we typically talk or listen to music.”

Any parent will tell you that that silence is golden in the orchestra that is family life. But it can also be good for a child’s mental health.

Silence works like a buffer between external stimuli and emotional processing. In other words, the lack of noisy distraction can help kids’ brains better understand the world around them. And in fact, multiple studies have shown that silence might boost feel-good oxytocin levels and therefore decrease stress, help focus and streamline thoughts, and promote a general calmness that allows their brains to learn to regulate their emotions.

“Children need an opportunity to strategically and safely disengage from a complex social world, step back, assimilate, and build a story of who they are,” says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California.

Of course, children and silence don’t exactly go together. One study published by a team of researchers at the University of Virginia and Harvard University showed that college students would rather administer a minor electric shock to themselves than sit in utter silence for 15 minutes.

“Life, especially with kids, is full of sensations and motion,” says Meghan Fitzgerald, co-founder and chief learning officer at Tinkergarten, an early education program focused on outdoor learning. “Anyone who has worked with children knows that asking for total stillness or silence is futile at best.”

Luckily, you don’t need to force kids to sit mutely in a corner to get the benefits of silence. Experts say quiet time—fusing soundlessness with calming activities like puzzles or painting—works just as well. Likewise, daydreaming can act like a staycation for children’s thoughts. Even focusing on calming sounds, like nature or hums, can center children.

Basically, adding a daily dose of silence into a child’s life by creating pockets of low-volume space is like giving them a mental health multivitamin. Here’s how to get started.

The science behind the silence

For kids, silence is more than a mental time out. “A child needs silence to stay sound,” says Eric Pfeifer, professor for aesthetics and communication at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in Freiburg, Germany. “It’s highly important to a child‘s development. Just imagine an orchestra and all its musicians playing non-stop without a pause. It would be an unbearable cacophony.”

Basically, silence minimizes distractions, which helps children relax. And relaxation helps activate the brain’s hippocampus, which is important for building memories that support life skills like decision-making and empathy. As a result, during silent moments kids can streamline their thoughts, make sense of their emotions, and rewire their stress response.

Silence also provides space for kids to reflect internally and think deeply about ideas. And according to research from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, teenagers with the ability to do that actually grow their brains more than those who don’t. “This growth, in turn, predicts the youngsters’ self-liking as well as satisfaction in friend and work relationships,” says Immordino-Yang, who coauthored the findings.  

Even focusing on “mostly silence” might also boost kids’ emotions. Though not yet studied in children, research has shown that the melodic sounds of singing bowls might activate the brain’s reward region and give off dopamine, the feel-good hormone. And researchers from the University of Sussex found that when the brain hears natural sounds like water flowing, it shifts attention outward, which stimulates the parasympathetic system (associated with calm and well-being); artificial sounds like car horns trigger the same threat response in the anterior brain that’s observed in depression and anxiety.

How to add silent moments to your kid’s life

Exposing children to different versions of silence can make it easier to rediscover those moments later in life, Pfeifer says. Here’s how parents can make time for those quiet moments.

Model silent behaviors. “If parents don’t like to be silent, it’s tough to tell your children to be silent,” Pfeifer says. Approach modeling silence as you would reading—if your child sees you with a book, she’s likely to pick one up herself. Likewise, if you take five minutes to gaze out the window, it signals that this is a salient option. “Children have a highly sensitive antenna,” Pfeifer continues. “They consciously—and unconsciously—sense what comforts their parents.”

Play the Quiet Game. Deep diving into monastic silences is setting up for failure. Start small. Quiet—those flexible, meandering moments of soundlessness—settle us and then can make room for more focused silence, says Jane Brox, author of Silence. Playing the Quiet Game (maybe a parent’s favorite car game) is a way to transition “quiet” into silence. The goal: Everyone stays mute for a set time, or until you see some landmark. The child who stays silent the longest wins.

With teens, simply embrace the naturally quiet moments. Resist the urge to turn on the music or ask shallow questions like the anticlimactic, “How’s school?” “Adults think of silence as something you have to do away with,” Brox continues. “Silence almost always makes you uncomfortable if you aren’t accustomed to it.” Give in to the awkwardness; you might be surprised what you hear afterward.  

Tune in to nature. While silence is beneficial both indoors and out, Pfeifer’s research shows that when participants experienced silence in a city garden compared to a seminar room, they felt less bored and significantly more relaxed.

To help kids embrace outdoor silence, have them play sound cartographer by drawing a map of their favorite silent spaces. For a twist, have a scavenger hunt of sounds—ranking them from quiet to quietest. Engaging with nature through forest bathing can be fun as well; this article shows you how.

Take (sound) baths. A DIY riff on singing bowls can take the form of singing glasses. Fill wine glasses with water, then run a wet finger over the rim to explore high and low pitches. In a pinch, let kids experiment with humming sounds and feel the vibrations in their body. “The vibration effect works like a massage,” Pfeifer says. “As mind and body are linked to each other, if the body relaxes, this also affects the mind [and vice versa].”

Alternatively, Jaime Amor, co-founder of Cosmic Kids, uses bells to focus children inward. Have your child sit cross-legged as the bell sounds and listen to the sound with their hands on their knees until the tone goes silent. Then have them place their hands in their lap.

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