Mindfulness, and the practice of meditation, has been around for thousands of years, but has soared in popularity over the past decade with research into its benefits.
Mindfulness is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn). The first key part of this definition is; attention, and the ability to pay attention to the present moment; as opposed to being on autopilot and caught up in thoughts about the past or future. The other part I’d like to highlight – is the importance of the attitude we bring to the present moment. Ideally, we want to cultivate an attitude of openness, curiosity and non-judgment. This part of mindfulness is often overlooked, but is where much of the richness lies as we endeavor to apply mindfulness to our daily lives.
The ability to more fully connect to what’s happening in any given moment, and the mindsets that are cultivated through meditation, hold significant benefits for teenagers. Research has shown that by practising mindfulness, we strengthen areas of the brain that control executive function, leading to better attention, memory, planning, regulation of emotions and self- awareness. It can also reduce activity in areas of the brain associated with emotional reactivity and worry – reducing stress, anxiety and depression.
Together, these brain changes provide a foundation for better academic skills, social skills and self- esteem. They provide the cognitive scaffolding for high performance in the form of improved concentration and productivity, better decision-making and problem solving, greater ability to stay on task, and greater awareness and creativity. Mindfulness also provides a gateway to improved relationships in the form of more pro-social and collaborative behaviors, increased empathy and compassion, and less aggressive behaviors.
When introducing mindfulness to teenagers, there are few key things to keep in mind:
1. Explain the benefits:
take the time to clearly explain the benefits of mindfulness to help them get a sense of the depth and breadth of what is on offer, dispelling common myths, such as “meditation is just about relaxation”, “it takes hours/years to see any benefits” and “it’s only for spiritual people” (none of which are accurate).
2. Make it relevant for them:
“what’s in it for me?” If they can establish a clear personal motivation for why they would bother to put time aside to meditate – they are much more like to do so. Would they like to reduce anxiety, focus more on school work, perform better in exams and/or on the footy field? Connecting mindfulness with someone they look up to (from sport, music, fashion) can also support teenagers to give the practice a go.
3. Use invitational language:
meditation shouldn’t be imposed upon them; rather they should be invited to take part. This provides autonomy, supports intrinsic motivation and avoids anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable with the practice being placed in an uncomfortable position.
4. Mindfulness Apps:
Smiling Mind, Insight Timer, Calm and Headspace – provide guided meditations ranging in length from 1min to 1hr. I’d suggest starting with 5-10min practices; at least three times per week. Like any form of fitness, the mental fitness and dispositions developed through mindfulness are acquired through regular practice. The key is to find a ‘voice’ (meditation teacher) that you enjoy listening to.
5. Commit to your own personal practice:
Modelling is important and allows you to teach the principles and practices of mindfulness from a place of authenticity and experiential knowledge.