Help Teens Manage Stress With Mindfulness
Adults don’t have a lock on stress. Being a teen is stressful, too! You remember what it was like: the struggle to balance schoolwork, extracurricular activities, friends, first romantic relationships – not to mention figuring out the larger world around you and where you might fit into it. Navigating this ever-changing terrain is hard, but it’s even harder when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Parents can lead teens towards mindfulness as one helpful strategy to manage stress.
Dr. Dzung Vo is a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at British Columbia Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. He is also the author of The Mindful Teen: Powerful Skills to Help You Handle Stress One Moment at a Time. Dr. Vo also serves on the Board of Directors of the Mindfulness in Education Network and is the founding Director for the BC Children’s Hospital Centre for Mindfulness.
In this Q&A, Allison Gilbert, Senior Writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, has a wide-ranging conversation with Dr. Vo about the benefits of mindfulness and how to get even the most reluctant teen to give it a try. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Allison Gilbert: First, I’d love to understand what you mean by mindfulness. Can you help us to define it?
Dzung Vo: Mindfulness is an experience. The definition I offer, based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, is paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and with unconditional love. These are the few elements of mindfulness:
- Paying attention: We often tell kids ‘pay attention,’ but we’re learning now that attention is actually a skill that can be directed, it can be trained, it can be grown. It’s not automatic. So mindfulness is an attention practice.
- On purpose: It’s on purpose. It’s intentional. It’s something we choose to do. And we choose how we bring our attention based on some of our values, some of what’s most important to us.
- Present moment: It’s right here and right now. When we’re mindful, we’re not being pulled away into worries about the future, what might happen, what might not happen. We’re not pulled away into regrets about the past, what we wish had happened or what we wish hadn’t happened because none of those things we can change.
- Unconditional love: This is a way to express a key spirit of mindfulness, which is bringing kindness, compassion, and love to every moment. This love extends inwards (we call this self-compassion or inner compassion, no matter what we’ve done) and outwards (to situations and the people around us). We do this to be the best we can, and it doesn’t mean we’re going to be perfect. It’s unconditional because it doesn’t mean we wait until it’s easy, it doesn’t mean we wait until we feel good, or that we’re happy, but we can invite that attitude, that spirit, even in a difficult moment, even when we’re feeling pain, distress, conflict, sadness, or other strong emotions.
AG: Why is mindfulness so important to teen well-being?
DV: Many in the population I work with have a chronic illness, and many of them have chronic pain. It helps them change their relationship with their physical bodies. Sometimes it even helps reduce or make the pain go away. In terms of other benefits, it can help with sleep, it can help with blood pressure, cardiac health, and immune health as well. (Note: Mindfulness is also calming. When individuals are calm, they think more clearly, have the ability to form better relationships, and may even perform better in school.)
AG: Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, Founding Director at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, has created a Stress Management Plan that can be customized for any teenager. How does mindfulness fit into an overall strategy to manage stress?
DV: Mindfulness is a specific tool that can be used in stressful situations. But it’s actually a way of being. It’s a way of living. A way of going through your life. It fits into Dr. Ginsburg’s stress management plan because it helps release emotional tension. Meditation is a good strategy for taking care of your body and helping your body let go of the stress. (Note: Meditation is one way to embrace mindfulness. There are many others, including breathing techniques, gratitude practices, and relaxation strategies. For free guided meditations for teens, visit Dr. Vo’s website.)
AG: Is mindfulness an experience teens do by themselves? Is there a way it can also be social?
DV: Mindfulness is actually a community activity at its best. It’s not something that you just go do by yourself, in a room, and close the door. That certainly can be done, and I do that quite frequently, but it’s also a team sport. When I’m meeting with an athlete, I talk about the very famous sports teams that do mindfulness together as a team. The Golden State Warriors is one great example. Their coach teaches mindfulness, and they meditate together. I also work with musicians, with kids who are in drama, actors and actresses, and they do mindfulness together. Mindfulness does not need to be isolating, and in fact, it should not be isolating. Mindfulness can be a great way to build community.
AG: How do you suggest a parent begin a conversation with their teen about giving mindfulness a try?
DV: If a parent is totally new to mindfulness, then I suggest they adopt an attitude of curiosity and offer to explore with their child. They could say something like, ‘I don’t know much about mindfulness, but I hear it’s really helpful for when people are stressed and when people are in pain. That sounds like something that would be really good for me as a parent because I get stressed, and I’d like to learn this for myself. And I also think this would be great for us as a family. Can we do this together?’ So, you’re walking down the path with the young person. You’re not saying, ‘I’m over here. I’m not going to do it. But you have to do it.’ That’s not going to be successful. If a parent wants to explore it with a child, hand-in-hand, as partners and learning together, I think that can be a really successful approach.
AG: How can parents get reluctant teens to try?
DV: Teenagers learn from what they see other people doing. If they see their peers or the adults in their lives practicing mindfulness, they’re much more likely to be interested in it. When teenagers hear an adult telling them to do something and the adult themself is not doing it, it comes across as disrespectful. The message the teenager receives is ‘take my advice, I’m not using it.’ And teenagers don’t react well to that. What’s more important for a teenager is to actually see what the parent does. When the teenager sees how the parent behaves, that is way more important than anything the parent can say.
With mindfulness, you can’t really force someone to do it, but you can plant seeds. What that means is demonstrating it, role modeling it, embodying it, offering it in a voluntary, loving, kind, compassionate, and present way so that a young person may be interested in mindfulness at some point in the future. If we are present with love for teenagers, we are planting seeds, and they will sprout. Maybe not when we want them to, maybe not when we expect them to, but they will sprout. That’s our practice as adults — planting seeds in teenagers.
AG: Are the habits you advocate for teens useful as they grow into adulthood? Are these lifelong skills?
DV: Mindfulness is absolutely a lifelong path. And just like any lifelong practice, it will grow, it will evolve, it will change. My mindfulness practice today is not the same as it was one year ago or five years ago or 15 years ago. And I expect the same thing for teenagers. They will grow and develop it as they need it, as their life changes, and as they learn.