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Shambhala Sun | July 2011
You'll find this article on page 50 of the magazine.

Sea Change

Teenagers "get" mindfulness; they soak it up like sponges and it transforms their lives.

GINA BIEGEL on the best ways for parents, teachers, and mentors to introduce teens to the practice.

I recently went to Hawaii for the first time, and a friend suggested we go snorkeling to experience the beautiful tropical fish firsthand. I try to be open-minded about checking out new things and I enjoy seeing with fresh eyes, so even though I had learned to swim only a few years ago, I said yes straight away. But it wasn’t long before fear and worry set in. I began to think about how I wasn’t a very good swimmer, how I often get motion sickness, and that I would probably get seasick. I was sure the fish would bite me. This flood of thoughts about my past and my future filled my mind and offset any anticipated enjoyment.

In the same way, I’ve noticed that many of the teens I work with worry excessively about things that are out of their control. They believe it will change the outcome of what they’re worrying about—which we know from hard experience isn’t the case. One of the simplest techniques I use with teenagers is to help them notice when they’re engaging in these past/future thoughts and help them see that worries can’t change outcomes, no matter how much we would like them to. This small step can often shift their thinking and lead to increased present-moment awareness.

I began to use mindfulness with teenagers in my psychotherapy practice when I saw that techniques that had traditionally been used with adults in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program could work well with teens. Not only were teens “getting it,” they were soaking it up like sponges. I found they were often more open to the practices than adults, if they were explained in teen language. Unlike many of the other interventions I was using from other traditional psychotherapies, I saw that mindfulness techniques and interventions dramatically and quickly improved teens’ quality of life. They reduced stress and gave the teens strength from within to solve their problems, which often led to a shift away from “poor me” or judgmental thinking. I’ve now been systematically teaching these techniques for more than seven years.

People often ask me how to introduce teens to mindfulness. One of the best ways to answer that question is to illustrate it through a story from my own life, such as my snorkeling adventure. I find that mixing stories with real-life examples from the world of teens—along with an appropriate amount of self-disclosure—gets me a lot of mileage in connecting with teenagers and trying to help them.

Now and Then

If we go back to my worry-filled mind as I anticipated going snorkeling, we can see that talking about that experience is just the kind of opening that would help teens relate to a common pattern in their own minds. A great intervention to use with teens is to have them find out how many of their thoughts are actually about what’s going on here and now. They can see that by spending so much time in their mind on things that have already happened or are going to happen, they aren’t living their life right now. How much are they missing in the present?

As an exercise, you can have them jot down all the thoughts that come to their mind for a period of three to five minutes. After they’re finished, ask them to mark each thought with a “P” for past, “N” for now, and “F” for future. It’s easy for them to see that most of their thoughts aren’t in the now. The point of this activity is to help them discover that by being mindful they’ll spend less time focusing on past or future thoughts, many of which aren’t particularly helpful, such as worries and judgments about oneself or others. People need to think about the past and future, but if teens can focus more on the present moment it might mitigate some of the mental and physical problems that come from spending so much time in their heads.

Being in the Body

When the day to go snorkeling arrived, I had knots in my stomach and my hands were a little shaky. My body was sending out “red flags” that I was not doing okay. I was still absorbed in thinking about the worst possible outcomes. A great intervention for teens is to get them to use the red flags their body gives off, which they usually don’t notice. Many teens, and adults for that matter, are cut off from their body and spend most of the time in their head.

Encouraging teens to notice their breath or even count their breaths can help. For example, asking them to notice their breath and say to themselves, “Breathing in, one; breathing out, one; breathing in, two; breathing out, two,” for a count of ten will connect them to their body. It will give them a moment to just be with their breath and body, which unfortunately teens often don’t do these days. Taking several conscious breaths can give teens a few moments before they act or react, either toward themselves or someone else. It can be a good anger management strategy, or possibly prevent a teen from engaging in a self-destructive behavior like cutting.

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