Mindfulness in adolescence

Research shows the practice of mindfulness can help youth navigate stress more effectively.

For many young people, adolescence is a time of opportunity and risk—as well as significant stress as they navigate school demands, body changes and sometimes challenging relationships with peers, parents and other people in their lives. Some youth experience the added strain and trauma of poverty, violence, bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression and abuse. During this stage of life, adolescents are also tasked with developing a healthy sense of self – and developing emotional regulation skills that can help them successfully navigate this critically important time of growth and learning.

The good news for adolescents and the adults in their lives is that groundbreaking scientific research in the areas of neuroscience and positive youth development show promise for helping youth navigate this important time of development. One of those promising approaches is the process and practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a process of active, open, nonjudgmental awareness. It is paying attention in the present moment with openness, curiosity, kindness and flexibility. Neuroscience and psychological research suggest that the intentional practice of mindfulness improves the immune system – as well as increases gray matter in the brain involved with memory processes, emotional regulation, empathy and perspective taking. While scientific research related to mindfulness and youth development is a newer area of study, practices of mindfulness are grounded in ancient wisdom and approaches to mental and spiritual health and wellbeing.

Educators, social workers, health care professionals and youth workers who are interested in mindfulness approaches for youth may want to check out an issue of the journal New Directions for Youth Development that focuses on Mindfulness in Adolescence. This special volume features articles focused on theory, practice and research related to positive youth development and the benefits of cultivating mindfulness. It includes articles focused on the theoretical foundations underlying the role of mindfulness during the developmental stage of adolescence; the connections between positive youth development and the development of mindfulness practice; and ways to foster and promote mindfulness through education and prevention programs with adolescents.

One of the contributors to the book, Patricia C. Broderick is a clinical psychologist and research associate at the Penn State Prevention Research Center. In her article titled Learning to BREATHE: An intervention to foster mindfulness in adolescence, Broderick and co-author, Jennifer L. Frank describe mindfulness as a deep, personal experience that requires a willingness to pause, pay attention to the present moment and open ourselves up to the whole range of our experiences—without reacting or trying to change or dismiss these experiences. Mindfulness processes and practices can help young people develop emotional resilience, self-awareness and regulation skills that assist them in taking greater responsibility for their behaviors, decisions and relationships. Broderick and Frank contend that mindfulness is uniquely able to help adolescents navigate this time of growing autonomy, more complicated life challenges and heightened reactivity to stressors in their lives. One high school participant in their program shared, “I learned that I can control the way I react to things and that nothing is too overwhelming for me to handle.”

Broderick’s Learning to BREATHE curriculum is a research-based, mindfulness curriculum designed for classrooms and other youth settings. It includes lessons, activities and opportunities to learn and practice mindfulness skills for adolescents.

Physician and mindfulness coach, Amy Saltzman, M.D. has also developed resources and programs to assist children and adolescents in learning about mindfulness – including her book titled “A Still Quiet Place: A Mindfulness Program for Teaching Children and Adolescents to Ease Stress and Difficult Emotions.” You can listen to a recording of Dr. Saltzman providing a guided mindfulness meditation for youth.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources, workshops and programs to help adults and youth develop social and emotional skills and practice everyday mindfulness through programs like Stress Less with Mindfulness and Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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