From jam-packed schedules to constant access of screen time and social media networks, there’s no doubt today’s “tweens” have a lot going on. To some degree they may live in a constant state of distraction.
“Interacting with screens means less time that we’re focusing on ourselves and what’s happening in the world around us,” says Christopher Willard, PsyD, psychotherapist and author of “Growing Up Mindful.”
Willard adds that screens themselves aren’t the issue, but when kids overuse them “they’re missing out on what they’re actually feeling, or a beautiful day, or what the teacher is saying, or the possibility to interact with a peer in the hallway.”
In addition to outside distractions, the tween years are a time when the brain naturally becomes busier, says mindfulness educator Gloria Shepard. “Whereas during childhood they tend to be much more in the moment, as kids get toward that tween time, their brains become more like adult brains and they get more caught up in their minds,” says Shepard.
The good news: Mindfulness can help tweens cope with these changes and navigate their surroundings. “By teaching them to slow down, mindfulness helps kids to be more self-aware in a positive way so they’re more conscious of themselves rather than self-conscious, and able to think about their impact on other people, as well as think through the decisions they’re making,” Willard says.
Here are a few ways to help your tween put mindfulness into practice.
No doubt adults are guilty of getting caught up in the same distractions as their children. Willard says the best way to teach them to be mindful is to practice it yourself. “The more we can avoid being on our phones at dinner time, or stay present in our bodies by taking breaths when we’re stressed, or show undivided attention toward our children, the more they will model the same behavior,” he says.
Rather than telling them what not to do, Willard encourages being open and honest about what you want them to do. “Instead of saying ‘Get off your phone’ say ‘Hey, I’m putting my phone down. Let’s go outside and do a treasure hunt, or draw chalk on the sidewalk, or play at the park,’” he suggests.
Long exhales trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of calming us down. Shepard recommends explaining to tweens that their brain naturally responds to their breathing — so breathing is actually a way to “hack” your brain!
For instance, if they’re feeling agitated, ask them to do a simple exercise: exhale audibly 5 times in a row. Then ask them to notice how they feel. “Most feel a little calmer,” says Shepard. “They may come down from a stress level of 7 on a scale of 1 to 10 to a 5, which feels more manageable.”
Another method is to practice a counted breathing structure: breathe in for 4 counts, hold it for 4 counts, then breathe out for 4 counts. “The advantage of the counted breathing is that it gives the mind something to do with the counting, which can help unhook them from the persevering thoughts they’re stuck in by giving their mind a little job.”
Practicing breathing techniques can be done before homework, tests, or performances like games and recitals.
Willard says another breathing tactic is to breathe in through your nose like you’re slowly smelling a cup of hot chocolate and then blow out the air through your mouth like you’re gently cooling it off. “This is a way to teach kids deep breathing without calling it that,” he says.
Transition times before homework, dinner, or bedtime are good times to get in touch with the senses and escape busy thoughts, says Willard. He suggests asking your child to count how many sounds they notice in a minute or asking them to look out the window and point out the different shades of green they see. Stepping outside to notice what they smell can also be effective.
Shepard says body awareness can be helpful, too. An effective practice she suggests is telling your tween to notice the sensation in their feet, then their legs, arms, and up through the rest of their body. As they become comfortable doing this, start asking them to tighten their feet when they inhale, then relax them when they exhale.
With time, they’ll learn to do this on their own when they need to without your prompting.
Stopping to think about the good things in life and learning to appreciate them is connected to being mindful, says Willard.
A good time to practice gratitude is during dinner. Each person at the table can share a couple things they’re grateful for that happened during their day or a few people they’re grateful for having in their lives. Another way to initiate the conversation is to ask your tween if anything fun or positive happened during their day or if they noticed anything beautiful or inspiring.
“Getting them to reflect at a young age builds that introspective and reflective quality that we want our kids to have as they age, to become more self-reflective and less impulsive,” says Willard.
Shepard works with many tweens who come to her because they’re stressed or having difficulty concentrating. “Almost every one of them believes something is wrong with them,” she says. She finds that telling them a little about the brain and the changes it goes through during adolescence helps ease their concerns.
“I explain that their brain is similar to their body during tween years in the sense that it grows a lot. I may say, ‘If you’re a runner and your times drop a bit it’s because you’re getting used to your legs getting longer. Same thing with the brain. You may go through a spell where your brain is adjusting to changes,’” she says.
Knowing that the changes are temporary helps most of her students feel less out of control, she adds.
The adolescent years can be overwhelming for children. So many changes are happening both inside and out. “It’s a time a lot of kids begin to feel more stress and anxiety because their minds are busier and they have less of that sense of presence,” explains Shepard. But encouraging tweens and teens to practice mindfulness as they learn more about themselves and the world around them can make all the difference.