Mindfulness for teens: 5 tips to get them to try it
Let’s talk about mindfulness for teens. I’ve written before about teaching mindfulness to kids, but what about the door slamming, eye rolling, hormone fuelled inhabitants of our homes and classrooms? How can we teach teenagers mindfulness? Is it much different to teaching children? And how do we convince them to actually try it?
Why mindfulness for teens?
Mindfulness – the act of paying attention to the present moment in a non judgmental way – can be a particularly useful strategy for managing stress and anxiety.
Part of learning about mindfulness is understanding that thoughts are “just thoughts”. Just the chatter of our brains, and not necessarily good, or bad, or right or wrong. Not even necessarily true or accurate. Just thoughts. And that constant flow of thoughts that we all have? That’s just what minds do.
But here’s the most important part. Our thoughts do not need to affect our feelings or our behaviour. We DO NOT need to engage with them. This is a particularly empowering concept for the adolescent that is struggling with self doubt, or negative self talk or frequent worry and rumination.
Mindfulness can help them get “out of their heads” and back into real life. Back into the present, where they can live their lives. It can help them stop the spiral of negativity that happens when they “buy into” every single thought that comes into their heads. They can acknowledge the thought. Notice the anxiety or the worry, and then carry on without it affecting how they feel.
Sounds good, right? But how do we get them to try it? Some teens are going to be quite cynical about the concept of mindfulness and meditation. Lots of teens will tell me, “I’ve tried meditation before. It doesn’t work.” Or “I can’t stop my mind.” Or even, “This is too hard, I don’t get it!” So first, make sure you’re giving them accurate information about what mindfulness actually is (they do not need to stop their mind from thinking!!). And then, try these 5 tips for introducing mindfulness to teens!
1. Be a mindfulness role model
If you want your teen to be more mindful, they’ll need to see you doing it first. Because, well, you’ve MET a teenager before right? The slightest whiff of hypocrisy, and they’ll be outta there faster than you can even say the word mindfulness. Teenagers have a great knack for seeing right through us, and they won’t be fooled by empty words. If you want them to be serious about mindfulness, you’re going to have to show them that you’re serious about it too.
2. Share your story
Here’s another reason why you’ll want to be practising mindfulness yourself. Teenagers need to trust you. They need to feel connected. They need time to build a relationship with you. Then, and only then, will they consider listening to what you’re saying. Share your own experiences of mindfulness with them.
Mindfulness can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around. And it can be difficult to do. So be upfront with them. Be real. Talk to your teen about your own struggles. Let them know how you’ve used mindfulness in your own life. Share with them, and they may consider sharing with you too. Plus, you’ll be building the solid foundations of a trusting, connected relationship too. It’s a win-win!
3. Make it relevant
What’s in it for them? Teens already have SO much going on in their lives. Trying to keep up with school work, study for exams, finish assignments, maintain their social life, keep up with sports, family life, maybe romantic relationships and part time jobs. Not to mention raging hormones. They don’t need another thing to add to their to do list. Be clear about how it’s going to help them manage these things. Give them practical, relevant examples of the way they can use mindfulness in their everyday life.
For example, research shows that mindfulness helps with concentration. Mindfulness can help teens feel more relaxed and manage the stress of exams and assessment tasks. It can also improve performance on those exams! Yep, really. Plus, mindfulness can help us manage feelings like anxiety and depression, something that teens can really struggle with.
4. Teach them about their brains
Teenagers love learning about how their brains work. And there’s lots of evidence that mindfulness can improve the functioning of the brain. It can improve executive function, which includes skills like problem solving, reasoning, logic, and decision making. It also helps us manage emotions more effectively. This is because mindfulness strengthens the thinking part of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex), so it can better process the emotions of the feeling part of the brain (the limbic system). This helps the brain respond skilfully, rather than react rashly when faced with a difficult situation.
5. Make it teen friendly
Teaching mindfulness to a teen is much like teaching it to an adult. However, it might be helpful to adapt your vocabulary slightly to suit your audience, and give them practical, real life examples to illustrate concepts. Mindfulness for teens can be a bit of an abstract concept to grasp. I like to talk about the process of observing thoughts as similar to watching bubbles floating by, watching clouds drift through the sky, or watching leaves blowing in the wind. These kind of metaphors can help a young mind understand an unfamiliar concept.
Also, since kids (ok, and us adults too!) are basically attached to their phones these days, why not try introducing them to a mindfulness app?! Three of my favourite apps for teens are:
- Smiling Mind and
- Headspace: Guided Meditation
And most of all, mindfulness for teens should be fun and engaging! Keep it short to begin with. Focus on the breath, or the body. These are great activities to start with because they provide a focal point for the mind and are easy to understand, practical applications of the skill.
While it may be difficult to convince your eye rolling, phone scrolling, too cool for school teen to try mindfulness initially, I am almost certain that once they get started, they’ll find it so useful they’ll wonder why they didn’t start years ago. And so will you.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.