Think About This for a Minute (Or More)

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.

Coming Home. Okay, Now What?

Dear Mr. Dad: Now that our troops are coming home from Iraq, my husband is thinking about getting out of the Air Force. We’ve heard a lot about all the benefits that are supposedly available to veterans and their families, but how do we find out about them?

A: When I got out of the Marine Corps I started looking into this, but the process was so cumbersome and overwhelming that I gave up. Big mistake. By not thoroughly investigating, I missed out on a lot of benefits. Fortunately, things are much, much better today.

I recently interviewed representatives from a number of agencies within the Veteran’s Administration, which should be your first stop—specifically their eBenefits program (ebenefits.va.gov). This is where vets (and soon-to-be vets) can register for health benefits and investigate many others. If you start registering now, the system will tell you what programs you may be eligible for and the documentation you’ll need to access them. Here are just a few examples:

Your husband may receive hiring preferences for certain government and civil service jobs. He may also have an advantage when bidding on government contracts. If he has a service-connected disability, check out vetsuccess.gov, which provides counseling, education, vocational training, and a number of other services. “Disability’ now includes Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), which don’t leave visible scars but can be just as damaging.

Today’s GI Bill (gibill.va.gov) is fantastic, paying full tuition for in-state schools and up to $17,500/year for private. If the vet can’t or doesn’t want to use them, these benefits can be transferred to another family member.

If you’re looking to buy a house or refinance your current loan, the VA guarantee allows for higher LTV (loan-to-value) ratios, meaning you may be able to get qualified with a smaller down payment. Funding fees can be a little steep, though, but there are other advantages.

National Cemetery Administration. We all know we need to talk about this at some point—we just don’t want to do it today. As uncomfortable as it might make you, visit cem.va.gov, read up on the benefits and eligibility, and then store the information away in the back of your mind. Hopefully you won’t need it for a long, long time. But knowing where to turn is better than not knowing.

Check into non-government organizations such as the VFW and American Legion. They can help vets negotiate the VA system and provide support in a variety of other ways. In addition, most states provide some kind of benefits for veterans. Check to see whether yours has a Department of Veterans Affairs or something similar.

There is a dizzying array of other organizations offering services to veterans and families—way more than I can go into here. The Military Family Network (emilitary.org) has a ton of resources and a comprehensive directory of providers that’s well worth exploring.

Your husband currently has life insurance through the military (Servicemembers Group Life Insurance—SGLI), which he can convert to a veteran’s policy (VGLI) but it has to be done soon after discharge.

One more idea: Look into the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. This wonderful program lets veterans tell their stories (orally, in writing, or in pictures), which then become a permanent part of the Library’s collection. If your husband has stories—and everyone does—have him visit loc.gov/vets.

Finally, I recorded in-depth interviews with a number of VSOs. You’ll be able to hear them on the military version of my radio show, “Positive Parenting.” Check militaryfather.com – Coming Up – for the schedule.