By: Erin VanLuven, a licensed clinical social worker with Kaiser Permanente and director of Behavioral Health Services for Kaiser Permanente in Maryland.
From concerns about grades and college admissions to social pressures at school – teen years can be stressful. In fact, an American Psychological Association survey found that on average, teens reported their stress level was a 5.8 out of 10 with 30 percent of teens reporting feeling sad or depressed because of stress.
After an abrupt end to in-person learning for teens during the last school year, many teens have just embarked on another pandemic-impacted school year that will often involve online learning. While some adolescents are focused on the physical supplies they would need to support online learning, many may lack the necessary emotional tools to combat stress and develop emotional resilience during a challenging time for everyone. Mindfulness might be what teens need to help them thrive during a school year that is very much be part of a new normal.
Why Mindfulness? Teenagers feel a strong pull to be socially connected, and in the absence of social gatherings, sports and other activities – teens may choose to disappear into their devices, such as phones or computers, instead of recognizing and coping with feelings of loneliness, anger or stress. With their usual structure and social circles disrupted by the pandemic and the need to social distance, developing a mindfulness practice offers teens a healthy way to cope with these feelings and take control of their emotions.
By helping kids develop these skills at a young age, parents can empower children to better handle challenges going forward. Mindfulness also offers a host of health benefits like reducing anxiety and depression, boosting mood, improving sleep, lengthening attention span, controlling pain and maintaining a healthy blood pressure. It can help your child develop resilience and offers them a sense of control during this uncertain time.
What is mindfulness? Mindfulness involves intentionally focusing on one thing at a time, while letting go of judgments and distractions that wander into our minds. Mindfulness means being in control of your mind rather than letting your mind control you.
Most people think of mindfulness as meditation, which is beneficial, but is not the only way to practice mindfulness. You can do any activity mindfully – like running, listening to music or doing chores – so long as you intentionally focus solely on that activity or sensation in the present moment and remove other thoughts.
How to Get Started. For parents and teens who are new to mindfulness, it is helpful to practice together – modeling is the most effective form of teaching. You can start by asking everyone to turn their phones off while eating dinner to focus on your time together. Show your child that you can step away from distractions, by setting aside time each day to sit, walk, take a drive or read a book together – silently and non-judgmentally.
Eventually, you can build up to a more advanced mindfulness activity, such as focusing on a specific sensation like your breath. Here is a great mindfulness practice to try at home, as a family:
- Set a timer for 3 minutes
- Close your eyes
- Focus on the sensation of your breath as you inhale and exhale
- Place one hand on your belly and notice the rising and falling motion as you breath – imagine that you have a balloon in your belly that you are inflating and deflating as you breath
- If your mind wanders, simply bring your focus back to your breath
- Continue this exercise until the timer goes off
You can practice this activity with any sensation such as something you’re tasting, hearing, watching or smelling.
For a teen who struggles with being still – try having them focus on walking, dancing or yoga. You can also try mindfulness apps like Calm, which offer guided mindfulness activities for kids and adolescents. Remember that mindfulness is a practice – both parents and teens will improve over time. Be sure to create an open dialogue about what’s working or not.
Mindfulness offers teens a sense of control over their emotions and circumstances and will help them experience more joy because they are more focused on the present moment instead of worrying about past or future stress. And couldn’t we all use a little more joy these days?