Mindful Strategies for the Stressed Teen

As part of Stress Awareness Month, it is important not to overlook one population that is particularly in need of tools to cope with stress, teens. Teens today face more and more stress than generations before. These stressors include:

  • Academic success
  • Cyber bullying
  • Body image
  • Peer relationships
  • Parental separation/divorce
  • Sense of self or self-esteem
  • Identity formation

Many of these challenges are similar to what adults face, and just like adults, stress can affect a teen’s happiness, health and overall sense of well-being.

When teens run into stress they typically:

A) Don’t know how to identify that they are stressed and B) don’t know how to cope with the stress they’re feeling.

We are using mindfulness to help adults tackle these challenges, among others; however, these tools aren’t as readily available for teens as they are adults. Not only do you not have to be a monk on top of a mountain to practice mindfulness, but you also don’t have to be an adult. Mindfulness is for everyone. And why wouldn’t we want to help teens access their inner resources for awareness and self-control?

Mindfulness Research & the Teenage Population

If you are wondering if mindfulness and meditation has the same effects as those shown in research on adult populations, then the answer is yes. Studies are showing that mindfulness approaches are producing benefits of increased feelings of well-being and self-esteem, less anxiety and depression, and less emotional reactivity (Biegel et al. 2009;Burke 2010). Other studies have incorporated gentle yoga along with meditation and breathing exercises over a 10-week period for PE class. In this case, teens who participated in the yoga class scored lower on tests for mood problems and anxiety and reported less negative emotions than teens who participated in regular PE.

Mindfulness & Breath Meditation

For those of you who are new to mindfulness, it is a non-judgmental, sustained attention to your immediate experience. Mindfulness often includes a breath meditation, which involves non-judgmentally observing your breath by redirecting your mind to refocus each time it wanders off to other thoughts.

3 Key Elements of Mindfulness for Teens

1.     Acceptance

Teen issue: The acceptance piece is particularly salient for teens, who are trying to figure out who they are, if they are “normal,” if they fit in and so on.

Mindful strategy: A mindfulness practice is essentially about cultivating acceptance of elf, others and life. Acceptance is cultivated by our attitude each time we refocus our attention. Teens can work towards accepting thoughts, feelings and distractions with kindness and compassion. The more teens can learn to accept whatever the mind is doing, the greater possibility for acceptance of self and others.

**This attitude of acceptance can spill over into other areas, such as body-image, judgments about self and others and relationships with parents, teachers, peers.

2.     Decision Making 

Teen Issue: Decision-making. Teens can often be impulsive and quick to make decisions. This is in part due to the fact that their frontal lobes (responsible for executive functions, like decision making) are still developing and maturing.

Mindful strategy: By situating ourselves in the present moment, mindfulness helps us become aware of body sensations, thoughts and feelings. By practicing observing oneself, teens can learn to slow down, weigh their options and improve decision-making skills.

**Mindful awareness can also trickle over into helping teens understand and manage their emotions. Teens can learn to surf the waves of their emotional experience without being pulled under by it.

 3.     Thinking is not believing

Teen issue: For teens, thoughts are often taken as truths or facts. One of the most challenging parts of being a teenager is feeling like your thoughts and emotions are out of your control. Adolescents spend much of their time and energy thinking about themselves, their peers and themselves in relation to their peers, which can trigger a slew of thoughts and judgments.

Mindful Strategy: The observer stance of mindfulness reminds teens that thoughts are just thoughts, they are not truths or facts. By not attaching to thoughts or chasing them down a long and windy path, teens can more easily move from thought to thought without becoming emotionally reactive or overly focused on a problem.

**In learning to watch and observe thoughts rather than attaching to them and re-direct attention back to their breath (or other mindful activity), teens can become less preoccupied by their thoughts and more engaged and focused on what they are presently doing.

For teens and adults, the goal is not to live a stress-free life. That is unrealistic. The goal is to change our relationship with our thoughts, feelings and body sensations so that we can live and engage in the present moment.

“What you do for yourself—any gesture of kindness,any gesture of gentleness, any gesture of honesty…will affect how you experience your world.”

References & Resources

Teen Mindfulness Group in Beverly Hills

Mindsight and The Whole Brain Child by Dan Seigel

http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/mindful-teens

Noggle, J. Steiner, N.J., Minami T., Khalsa, S.B., (2012) Benefits of Yoga for Psychosocial Well-Being in a US High School Curriculum: A preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 33(3), 193-201.

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