Help them on the road to zen with these mindfulness activities for teens.

By Lisa Milbrand
June 02, 2020
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Everyone’s been feeling stressed lately—and teens are no exception. Adding the anxiety around coronavirus and weeks of isolation onto the typical teen stresses may be setting them on edge.

“Teens are feeling a lot of feelings right now—sadness, anger, relief, boredom, frustration, ease, irritation—the list goes on,” says Sarah Rudell Beach, chief mindfulness officer of Left Brain Buddha and a Mindful Schools certified instructor. “When all those emotions are present without awareness, it’s overwhelming. With mindfulness, we can recognize, ‘I’m feeling angry.’ And then we can pause and consider what support we might need in that moment.”

But teens may need a little help figuring out how to be mindful, and building a mindfulness practice will help them manage their stress and mental health now and as adults. Here’s how to get your teen (or yourself, if you are a teen) started with meditation and other key strategies to help reduce stress.

Meditation and other mindfulness practices are often associated with stress relief, but there’s much more to gain.

“Mindfulness offers us a way to really figure out how our minds and emotions and nervous system work,” Beach says. “It’s a bit like getting a user’s manual for their brain. When they can understand how their system works—why they feel angry sometimes, why it bothers them so much when a friend doesn’t respond to their text, or why they get so distracted when they try to read a chemistry textbook—they feel more empowered.”

Mindfulness can also provide many practical benefits that teens will appreciate.

“Mindfulness improves creativity and problem solving, and it can help with test-taking by improving memory recall,” says Jane Pernotto Ehrman, MEd, RCHES, ACHT, a guided imagery and wellness coach at Cleveland Clinic. “Elite and professional athletes and other performers routinely meditate to relieve the stress, improve their skills, and to achieve excellent performance.”

Your teen may be more open to meditation and other mindfulness practices if they see how it benefits you.

“The best way you will teach mindfulness to your teen is by modeling it yourself,” Beach says. “If you are stressed and reactive, that is going to impact your teen no matter how much meditating they do. The human nervous system is a collective nervous system, and our emotional states are contagious—we can easily ‘catch’ the agitation and stress of others.”

You might even try making meditation something you do together with your teen.

“It sounds much better to say something like, ‘Spending all this time at home working on my computer has me feeling pretty frazzled. Let’s try doing this guided meditation on this app together and see if it helps,’ as opposed to, ‘You seem stressed—maybe you should meditate?’” Beach says.

RELATED: How to Start Meditating at Home

There are literally hundreds of different meditation apps out there, so the key is finding one that resonates with your teen.

“My favorite one for teens is Stop, Breathe, Think,” Beach says. [Stop, Breathe, Think recently changed its name to MyLife and is owned by Meredith Corporation, Real Simple’s parent company.] “The app opens with a short ‘interview’ where your teen can indicate how they are feeling, and then based on that information, the app recommends a few different mindfulness practices that would be most supportive. Older teens may like 10 Percent Happier. Dan Harris has a very scientific, skeptical, and humorous approach that many teens appreciate. The app Smiling Mind has a great series of practices for kids ages 13 to 15 and 16 to 18 that can be completed in about 10 to 15 minutes each day.”

Ehrman recommends Insight Timer, Headspace, Calm, and Unplug apps for teens to help them try meditation.

For teens, mindfulness can help them tap back into their more imaginative selves.

“Kids have great imaginations, but teens get to a point where they start to believe they can’t pretend,” Ehrman says. “The message they get is, ‘Get real and stop that fantasy stuff.’ All of us use our imaginations, but we’re more likely to catastrophize than focus on the good. Our brain was wired for negativity—so we need practice on focusing on good stuff.”

A gratitude journal is a great way to help teens focus on what’s going right. But if your teen’s not feeling the journal concept, they could put it in another form—they can create a “Jar of Awesome” with small slips of paper where they write something they’re thankful for, for example.

Meditation doesn’t have to require a separate meditation space or carving out a huge chunk of time in the day. Even a minute or two of deep breathing can be a big help.

“Choose a quiet place without interruptions,” Ehrman says. “Use your phone as a timer and set aside two or three minutes. You don’t have to cross your legs or say ohm—just sit or lie down. Soothing music can be calming in the background. Just gaze across the room, and take a couple of slow deep breaths. Pay attention to how it feels, pay attention to your breathing. Your mind’s going to start saying, ‘this is crazy, she’s not doing anything.’ Instead of judging it, just get back to breathing.” (And if you’re looking for a good one-minute meditation to start, there’s always the Real Simple Relax Skill.)

Start by meditating for two to three minutes once a day to start, then work up to 15 minutes slowly, on your own pace.

“Ideally, the top of the line is 20 minutes,” Ehrman says. “You lose the benefit after that.”

If just focusing on breathing feels a bit too strange, come up with a phrase to repeat over and over that has meaning for your teen. Use something traditional like “I am peaceful and calm,” or “In this moment, I’m OK,” or try something else that’s meaningful and positive for you, Ehrman says.

If meditation isn’t working for your teen, have them tap into another opportunity to stay connected.

“Mindfulness—attending to the present moment with curiosity and kindness—can be practiced formally, and it can also be a way of being throughout the day,” Beach says. “Mindful coloring with mandalas or intricate patterns can be soothing when done with full attention. Or you could experiment with mindful eating, really paying attention to the food as you prepare it and eat it. If your teen is getting outside and going for walks, they could try mindful walking—leave the earbuds at home and just walk outside and notice the smells and sounds and sensations of the outdoors.”

As long as it’s something positive—and something they love to do—it could be the perfect way for them to build a mindfulness practice that can work for them.