Today’s teens face a unique set of stressors from social media, parents, schools, and society, says Dr. Dzung Vo, a UBC clinical assistant professor and pediatrician with a specialization in adolescent medicine. The author of The Mindful Teen: Powerful Skills to Help You Handle Stress One Moment at a Time, says mindfulness can be the key to helping teens cope.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an ancient practice that’s been brought into modern medicine by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He describes mindfulness as paying attention on purpose in the present moment and without judgment. I think that’s a very useful definition. Other definitions of mindfulness are about bringing your heart and mind together, and paying attention with an attitude of curiosity, self-compassion, and kindness.
Ultimately, there’s no way to describe mindfulness. It’s more of an experience. It’s like asking: “What does chocolate taste like?” Words don’t really describe it—it’s more important to experience it for yourself.
Why should teenagers practice mindfulness?
Growing up today is very difficult. Teens are overwhelmed with stress from school and families, from pressures, from expectations. Social media is constantly drawing their attention.
As an adolescent medicine specialist, I see teenagers dealing with some very complex health issues, and many of them are stress-related: depression, anxiety, health-risk behaviours, school problems, family problems and chronic pain, for example. Many of them are also dealing with very difficult circumstances in their communities and neighbourhoods related to trauma, poverty, violence and racism.
Mindfulness can give teens a tool to stop their habitual automatic reactions, which often are harmful to themselves and to others. It allows them to take a break, come back to the present moment, come back to their breath, and re-discover their inner strength and their inner resilience. From that place, they can cope better, see their situation more clearly, and make a wiser decision on how to respond.
Is there research to support mindfulness for teens?
There is some early research data that suggests mindfulness is helpful for teens across a wide variety of conditions, including depression and anxiety, stress, ADHD, substance abuse and coping with chronic illnesses. Studies done on mindfulness in schools suggest that it helps teens to focus better, to achieve better results, and to exhibit more positive behaviours in the classroom.
How can parents encourage their teens to practice mindfulness?
The most important thing parents can do is to learn and practice mindfulness themselves. Teenagers are very sensitive to hypocrisy by adults, and if an adult tells a teen to do something they are not doing themselves, most teens are not going to respond very well.
The next step for parents would be to look at skillful ways to offer mindfulness practices to teens. On my website, mindfulnessforteens.com, I offer some examples of exercises and some good resources to help with that.