Your teenager comes home from school, throws his bag on the floor and storms upstairs without a word. He is clearly upset about something but the more you try to talk to him the less responsive he is likely to be. Sound familiar? asks Louise Kinnaird
In many cases there may be a simple explanation for our teenager’s behaviour; an argument with a friend or a bad grade on a test but in some cases it may be that he is feeling overwhelmed by his problems and he doesn’t know what to do about it.
With all the stresses teenagers have to face; exams, friendship problems increasing pressures from social media, the proliferation of online images that affect their body image and self esteem are just a few, not to mention the surge of development hormones that affect their mood, it’s not surprising that increasing numbers of teenagers are not as mentally healthy as they could be and the mental health of young people is high on the political agenda as a result.
Good mental wellbeing is about feeling good and functioning well. It is about using our coping strategies to stay in control and handle our emotions. Some of us will find this easier than others. It’s the same with teenagers. Some might react adaptively to an uncomfortable situation while others might over-deliberate, and grow increasingly anxious and upset, which, in time could affect his mental health. But there are ways we can help our angst ridden teen stay grounded in times of stress and that is by helping them to recognize negative thoughts, understand and accept them and then step back from them and try to look upon their problem objectively.
A study carried out by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan, found that adolescents who perceived a negative experience from a distance were more likely to view the events in meaningful and insightful ways, and less likely to simply replay the upsetting events in their minds and get dragged down by them.
‘These results show that teens can use self-distancing strategies in much the same way as adults,’ says Rachel White, the lead author of the study. ‘They also suggest that the teen years could be critical in developing this way to regulate emotions.’
One technique that is recognised as helping us to look at our problems from a less destructive perspective is mindfulness. The mindfulness revolution that has been steadily growing in the last decade seems to offer a universal remedy for solving almost every modern concern, and advice abounds as to its numerous health benefits. With rising numbers of children and teenagers with poor mental health, including depression, it would seem that now is the right time to be supporting them where we can.
Wendy Sharam of Mind Over Matter Kids has worked with many children who are anxious or angry and who exhibit poor behavior, panic attacks, poor concentration and low selfesteem as a result of day-to-day issues. She uses mindfulness to treat five-year-olds with anger issues to teen girls with poor self-esteem. “I was astounded when I was asked to work with a 10-year-old boy who said, ‘My head is so busy, I just want some quiet time.’” Wendy works with the children to give them the skills to focus, identify, express and process their thoughts and judge how to react to stressful life experiences.
Mindfulness is derived from Buddhist practice but is gaining in popularity as a practice used by clinical psychologists to ease a variety of mental and physical conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. It has gained worldwide popularity as a distinctive method to handle emotions and is defined as a moment-bymoment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment and is said to help us to respond to life’s pressures in a calmer way. It is also thought to reduce the stress hormone, cortisol, in children and lead to improvements in behaviour.
Mindfulness means simply becoming more aware of the present moment by noticing the sights, smells, sounds and tastes that we experience, as well as the thoughts and feelings that occur from one moment to the next. It can help teach teenagers to recognize the downward spiral of thoughts and acknowledging the anxiety without thinking too much about it and letting it ruin their mood.
As parents of children who might not have an automatic ability to look objectively upon their problems, many of us may feel helpless when faced with helping them deal with and cope with everyday pressures, but at the very least we can show them how to identify, step back from and then process those difficult emotions. ‘Some children don’t know how to recognise stress or how to cope with and process it. Empowering children with this life skill and coping mechanism builds their self esteem which in turn helps to improve educational performance, sport performance and to build strong, lasting, healthy relationships,’ says Wendy.
So how is it done? Wendy says it’s all in the breath. ‘By practicing awareness of the breath we can safely release emotions and create a sense of calm regardless of the circumstance, enabling us to have level-headed reactions to any situation. This tool empowers kids, giving them an inbuilt coping mechanism to manage stress and life.’ In working with young people and mindfulness Wendy says she recognizes that a certain sense of calm comes over a child, particularly the more aggressive ones. ‘It sounds unbelievable I’m sure, but I’ve witnessed it. This is what lead me to study and train in teaching children meditation in the first place.’ Ten-year-old Matthew was suffering from anxiety due to his upcoming SATs. His teachers felt that he lacked confidence in himself and his parents openly admitted that they had applied a lot of pressure on him. Matthew’s mother said, ‘After a one hour session of mindfulness, just before the tests, he had totally changed his mind-set towards them, and went into school each day with a smile on his face and unfazed by the impending challenges!’ Matthew’s results were the highest he had ever achieved. But it’s not just sitting with eyes closed concentrating on “in breath, out breath”. Practical activities with the children also help them to focus on something other than their anxieties. One of the activities Wendy does is to take them to work on an allotment project. ‘The space, the quiet surroundings, the focus on simple tasks – seemed to dissolve their anger into an inner stillness.’
Wendy’s belief is that mentally stepping back helps them deal with problems in a more adaptive way. ‘If we show them how to empower themselves then they come to their own realisation about how they might deal with their problems.’ Fifteen-year-old Rebecca had been excluded from school and was separated from her family due to anti-social behavior. Wendy worked with Rebecca and four other girls for 12 weeks, teaching them compassion and trust through mindful activities including spending time in nature. ‘It was a difficult task’, Wendy said, ‘as the group’s self esteem was very low. After one of the sessions Rebecca asked if she could borrow my phone, stating in front of the group that she needed to call her step mum and apologise for all of the trouble she had caused with her previous terrible behavior. She is now living back at home and studying A-levels.’ Mindfulness may not be the answer to all the problems and stresses teenagers have to deal with on a daily basis but it does give them another tool in their arsenal of coping strategies to help them navigate the stresses of teenager-hood. If we teach them when they are still young, when they have the love and support of their family, to use techniques such as mindfulness, and to step back out of the problem, rather than rush headlong into their emotional reaction then they can use these skills to keep themselves mentally and emotionally healthy in the long term, putting them in charge of their own future.
Steps to Mindful
A is for Awareness. Becoming more aware of what you are thinking and doing - whats going on in your mind and body.
B is for “just Being” with your experience. Avoiding the tendency to respond on auto-pilot and feed problems by creating your own story.
C is for seeing things and responding more wisely. By creating a gap between the experience and our reaction to, we can make wiser choices.
Thanks to mindfulnet.org