Is Mindfulness Bad for Tweens and Teens?
Let's add some nuance to the conversation.
There’s been lots of talk this week about teen mental health in light of a new CDC report showing that U.S. teens are really, really struggling. Among other things, the report found that 42 percent of U.S. high schoolers experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021, while 22 percent seriously considered attempting suicide. If you’re a parent of a teen or tween, you’re probably worried about your kids right now, and for good reason.
Today I want to share a couple of things that may be helpful. First: I had the great pleasure of interviewing psychologist Lisa Damour last week. You may well recognize her name — she wrote the New York Times bestselling books Untangled and Under Pressure. Today is the publication day (yay!) for her third book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, which is just wonderful and, honestly, couldn’t be coming out at a better time. I highly recommend the book for parents of teens and tweens who want insight into teen emotions and how to handle them — it’s a quick read, and very compelling. For a sneak peak at her key insights, check out the Q&A I did with her that came out yesterday in The New York Times.
Now onto today’s topic, which also relates to teen mental health. There’s a Medium post that has been making the arounds among parents, educators and psychologists titled “Huge trial finds mindfulness makes some teenagers’ mental health worse.” This is a surprising assertion, given that previous studies that have suggested that mindfulness can help kids and teens’ mental health. And, of course, if true, it’s quite concerning.
So — is mindfulness actually bad for kids and teens? And if so, why?
I took a close look at the clinical trial the Medium post refers to and listened to what the authors and other researchers had to say about the findings. In a nutshell: No, I do not think it’s fair to conclude that “mindfulness is dangerous for teens.” A much more accurate conclusion would be that one size does not fit all when it comes to addressing the mental health needs of young adolescents.
In the trial — which was quite impressive in scope, involving nearly 9,000 students across the UK — researchers found that a mindfulness intervention, taught to 11-to-14-year-olds at school, was not any better at reducing students’ risk for depression or improving their wellbeing than the social-emotional learning programs that were already being taught in those schools. But this finding reflects averages; some students fared worse after the mindfulness intervention, while others improved.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the students who experienced benefits from mindfulness — many of whom were on the older side of the 11 to 14 age range — were students who liked the intervention. They actually practiced mindfulness skills at home as they were asked to, such as by doing relaxing body scans before going to sleep. On the flip side, students who found mindfulness boring and didn’t practice it didn’t get much out of it. That’s hardly surprising, right? You get out what you put in.
The problem is, most of the students found the intervention boring. On average, the students practiced mindfulness at home only once over the ten weeks of the course. “That's like going to the gym once and hoping you'll get fit,” said trial co-author J. Mark G. Williams.
That said, the intervention did seem to provide a few other benefits. In another trial published separately, the same researchers found that mindfulness interventions improved school climate and reduced teacher burnout over the short term, which is promising considering that school climate has been linked in other studies to student well-being and burnout.
The trial did, however, find that emotional symptoms of some kids with pre-existing mental health issues worsened after the training. This is, of course, concerning. As for why, one possibility mentioned in the study is that because mindfulness training requires students “to become more aware of thoughts and feelings, including unpleasant ones,” it may exacerbate emotional issues among struggling students who don’t actually engage in the calming practices being taught.
So how do we get tweens and teens to willingly engage in mindfulness? That’s the million dollar question. The authors said that they asked some students this question and were told that it would be ideal if mindfulness practices could be woven into activities they already love — art, music, sports and gaming. This is an avenue that’s worth pursuing in future research.
Ultimately, for parents, the findings come down to this: if you have a kid who enjoys mindfulness-based activities, it’s unlikely that you need to worry about it being “dangerous.” More likely than not, it’s doing good things for your kid. But if you’ve been forcing your tween or teen to engage in mindfulness and they hate it — well, it might be wise to ease up, or at least talk to your kid about ways you could make the practice more appealing. Everything’s better when there’s buy-in.
I’m a speaker at the upcoming Happy Mom Summit, a FREE online event that starts on February 27 and features helpful talks (and freebies!) from parenting experts on topics including positive parenting, self-care, organization, neurodiversity and more. I’ll be giving a talk on fostering motivation and resilience in kids. Get your free ticket here.
And now…. time for this week’s
Today, I’m talking about this Instagram post from @thedanishway:
Here are my thoughts.