OMG teens are stressed these days, amiright?
According to the latest research from the American Psychological Association, teens report higher levels of stress than adults do (at least during the school year). And almost half of teens say they’re not doing enough to manage their stress. In fact, the two most common “strategies” teens use to cope with stress are playing video games and surfing the Internet.
Mindfulness (present-moment, nonjudgmental awareness) is a powerful tool that teens can use to manage their stress. Research indicates that when teens consistently practice mindfulness, it lowers rates of anxiety and depression, and leads to better sleep, stronger relationships, and increased self-awareness, all of which can go a long way toward ameliorating the impact of stress.
Mindfulness for Teens: Getting Them Engaged
If you’re interested in learning about getting “buy-in” from teens, you can check out this article I wrote a while ago that summarizes the research on mindfulness, and highlights some helpful tools and resources for engaging teens in this practice.
Mindfulness for Teens: Practices
Once you’ve got their interest, here are some mindfulness practices you can introduce to teens:
1. Expect Stress
I always tell the teens and adults that I work with that
stress is a given, but being stressed-out is optional.
We all face stress-inducing moments throughout our day, whether it’s a presentation at work or a test in Biology. Stress is a normal reaction in the body that creates the necessary nervous system activation to handle a challenging task. It becomes a problem when we never allow that stress to be discharged (either through exercise, or some of the practices listed below).
Research shows that people who expect stress are actually less stressed — when we disabuse ourselves of the silly notion that things will always be easy and our day will generally go as planned, we are more prepared to handle the curveballs life likes to throw at us.
Let teens know their stress is an entirely normal reaction to a challenge. It’s not their fault or something they’ve done wrong. And the best part? There’s lots of things they can do about it in order to feel better!
2. Breathing Meditation for Teens
Guide your teens in a gentle mindful breathing exercise — you can use the script below (approximate time — 5 minutes, allowing time for pauses):
Sit in a comfortable posture, with your spine upright and your shoulders rolled down and back. Close your eyes, if that feels comfortable for you, and just allow your breath to be natural….
As best you can, bring your attention to your breath, noticing when you are breathing in…
and when you are breathing out….
See if you can notice what your breath feels like in your nose, as the air goes in your nose, and then comes out over the lips…. (pause)….
See if you can notice what your breath feels like in your chest, perhaps sensing the gentle expansion of the chest on the inhale, and the fall of the chest on the exhale…. (pause)….
You may find yourself thinking about breathing, but see if you can focus on the actual physical sensations of breathing…. What does it feel like, right now, in your body as you breathe?
If you’d like, see if you can notice what your breath feels like in your belly, noticing how the belly expands as you inhale, and softens as you exhale…. (pause)….
You may also be able to notice the sensations of the breath elsewhere in your body….
For a few more moments, just try to let your attention rest on your breath, wherever YOU notice it most….
When you’re ready, you can open your eyes.
Spending a few moments deliberately attending to the breath can lower the heart rate, and often has a calming effect on the mind and body.
3. What’s the Story?
A big part of what stresses us out is the story we tell ourselves about what’s happening. Encourage your teen to stop when she is stressed, and ask herself, “What’s the story?” Is she telling herself she’ll fail the test, or that no one likes her? Ask if she can drop the story, and just notice what is actually happening.
Thoughts are incredibly seductive, making us think they are completely true and vitally important. Teens, given their intense, developmentally-appropriate focus on the self, often believe the negative stream of self-critical thoughts in their heads. You can guide your teen through a helpful graphic for working with thoughts, called “Thoughts are not facts,” here.
4. Notice the Good
When we’re stressed, it puts the brain in a fearful state, and therefore we start to pay more attention to threats, which only makes the stress worse! Encourage your teen to notice the things that are good, or even just okay, right now. Challenge her to go through her day and notice ten things that are beautiful, helpful, kind, or pleasant.
5. Mindful Music
Ben Sedley, author of Stuff That Sucks (a great book for teens!), encourages teens to practice mindfulness by listening to music and “get[ting] inside the song.” Instead of focusing on the lyrics (which may not be very appropriate for stress reduction), have your teen pay attention to the music itself: what instruments do you hear? is the song loud or soft? fast or slow?
How do they feel when they listen, both mentally and physically: what emotions does the song create in you? where in your body do you feel them? can you feel the beat of the music in your body?
Mindfully listening to music is a great stress reliever, AND a great way to practice being completely in the present moment.
6. Give Yourself a Hug
The teens I work with tell me this is the saddest thing they’ve ever heard, but you can ALWAYS give yourself a hug! Your neurons don’t know it’s you — they’re just dumb neurons, and when they get squeezed they activate and think, “Someone loves me!” and then oxytocin and other happy hormones start swirling in the brain and bloodstream. I once heard a speaker call this “legal blood doping.” So go ahead and hug yourself — it will make you feel better!
7. No Emotion Lasts Forever
A major component of teen angst is the feeling that “I’ll ALWAYS be miserable.” With mindfulness, we come to understand that no emotion lasts forever. When you pay close attention to it, an emotion is actually a constantly shifting combination of sensations and thoughts and feelings and memories. No two seconds of your emotional experience are identical.
In Amy Saltzman’s A Still Quiet Place for Teens, she encourages teens to “graph” their emotional experience. For example, anger may spike quickly, and then fade slowly, while sadness is more of a gentle sine wave. By tracking their emotion, and attending more to the contours of the experience (how long it lasts, if it’s intermittent or continuous, etc,), as opposed to the content of it, teens come to understand the way that emotions play out in their own bodies. They can actually experience (as opposed to just “knowing”) that emotions are impermanent.
8. Tech Detox
Devices contribute to our stress in numerous ways: they distract us from our direct experience, the emails and notifications aggravate our worries, and social media contributes to FOMO and lots of unhelpful comparisons. Encourage your teen to pay attention to how spending time on his devices makes him feel. Invite him to take frequent breaks (minimum 20 minutes at a time) when there’s NO technology — no phone, no TV, no computer, no iPod. Disconnecting from technology reconnects you to your experience!
9. Mindful Poetry
Reading poetry can be a safe way for teens to discuss emotions and experiences. The two mindfulness-related poems that I find resonate the most with teens are:
- “The Guest House” by Rumi: Read the poem together and talk about what it would be like to welcome each emotion. Have you ever had emotions that felt like unwelcome visitors that trashed the place? Have you ever had difficult experiences that you ultimately learned something from? What things do you do to avoid feeling your emotions? What happens when you avoid them? Can you try to welcome even your unpleasant emotions?
- “Autobiography in Five Chapters” by Portia Nelson: Read the poem (and watch the video at the link, if you’d like) and discuss: What holes do you often fall into? Why is it so easy to make the same mistakes over and over? What new streets do you think you could walk down? What changes could you make that will help you better take care of yourself?
10. Mindfulness Resources for Teens
There are lots of great mindfulness books and resources for teens. Here are a few of my faves:
- A Still Quiet Place for Teens: A Mindfulness Workbook to Ease Stress and Difficult Emotions by Amy Saltzman
- Stuff That Sucks: A Teen’s Guide to Accepting What You Can’t Change and Committing to What You Can by Ben Sedley
- Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Dan Siegel
- Change to Chill (website for teens)
- TEEN Breathe Magazine
Breathe (a mindfulness magazine published in the UK) has now launched a TEEN version! The first issue just came out last month, and it’s full of mindfulness practices for teens, including articles on yoga, screen time, working with worries, meditation, eating healthy, gratitude, happiness, self-care, and more! (And, you may recognize one of the authors 😉). You can find it in the United States at select Barnes and Noble stores.
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