Teens today have a lot of reasons to feel stressed. Mindfulness – paying attention to the present moment – is one of the best ways to deal with stress, but kids, like adults, often find it challenging to adopt new habits, especially when stress levels are already high.
We recommend starting small with strategies that target the source of their stress. Over time, implementing one or two of these mini-meditations can help your teen learn how to be positive and proactive when it comes to managing stress.
If your teen struggles with anxiety, try box breathing.
Picture a square box. Inhale to a count of four as you trace one of the sides of the box in your mind’s eye. Follow the line of the box as you exhale to a count of four. Inhale… and exhale… each time, matching the rhythm of your breath to four counts. Set a timer and practice box breathing for at least one minute, or longer if it helps.
Paying attention to your breathing is Mindfulness 101. Adding the four-count rhythm and focusing on the box helps your teen create a “safe container” for their attention, so they can regain control of their runaway thoughts. And their slow, controlled breathing deactivates the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response, which signals the body to breathe shallowly and increase heart rate. Box breathing basically hacks the nervous system, with a reassuring “Relax, I’ve got this.”
We recommend box breathing for any form of anxiety. It’s super-supportive for teens to get calm and focused before a test, performance, game, or other high-intensity events.
If your teen struggles with self-esteem, try self-compassion.
Is there an area of your life where you could be kinder to yourself? Think about the feelings that come up when you judge yourself and follow the steps below. Allow 3-5 minutes. (Based on the work of Karen Bluth, Ph.D. as part of the Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens course from the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion):
Feel your feelings, including your emotions and physical sensations. Just notice what it’s like right now – let go of judging yourself. Say, “Right now, I’m struggling,” or “Right now, this is hard,” or, “This sucks,” or whatever feels right to acknowledge your feelings.
Now remember that you’re a human being, and all human beings struggle and suffer sometimes. It’s tough to go through something hard, but it also means that you’re connected to others who have been there, too. Acknowledge that: “This is normal,” or “I’m not alone in this,” or “Other people feel this way, too.”
Now think about what you would say to a good friend who was going through the same thing. Be that friend for yourself. Place one or both hands on your heart. Say, “May I be kind to myself,” or “I accept and love myself just as I am,” or whatever you need to hear to feel supported.
Sit for a moment with the feeling of being connected to others and to yourself, and having compassion for whatever it is you’re going through. Breathe the feeling of compassion through your body and mind, and notice what changes in your emotions and physical body when you do.
According to the Berkeley-based Greater Good Science Center, “As their cognitive capabilities grow… teens become more self-aware and, ultimately, more self-conscious. This can breed harsh self-criticism, so the need for self-compassion among teens is crucial.” Self-compassion is great for any source of stress, but it’s especially helpful for teens who have a tendency to be hard on themselves, or who have been bullied or picked on by peers. Teens who practice self-compassion report less depression and more feelings of resilience and gratitude – a huge boost in well-being from this one simple strategy.
If your teen struggles with attention and focus, try moving meditation.
The magic of mindfulness means you can practice any time, doing anything! Meditation doesn’t have to mean sitting still. High-energy teens can still reap the benefits of moving mediation.
Pick an activity you like to do – it could be running, biking, yoga, dance, or something that’s part of a sport you play, like dribbling a basketball or kicking a soccer ball. The best activities are rhythmic, so you can match your movement to your breath. Try doing that activity while paying attention to your breathing. If you notice your mind starting to wander, just bring it back to your breath. While you’re breathing, check in with how your body feels. See if you can make the rhythm of your body match the rhythm of your breath. Do this for 3-5 minutes – longer if it feels good.
Like box breathing, moving meditation gives teens a point of focus and clears away distracting thoughts. Mindful movement keeps the body and brain engaged together, and teaches kids to direct their focus and channel their energy. This is a super-strategy for high-energy, focus-challenged kids, empowering them with self-awareness and self-control.
Whatever the practice, even small doses of mindfulness are proven to help teens reduce their stress and anxiety and increase attention, concentration, self-esteem, and empathy. Once you and your teen are clear about the source of their stress, you can team up to target it. Mindfulness is not one-size-fits-all, so there are a million ways to practice. That means there’s a mediation out there that’s perfect for your one-of-a-kind kid.