Remember your teenage years? Perhaps you sailed through them without too many bumps or bruises. Or, maybe they felt more like a rollercoaster ride. If you are a parent or caregiver of a teenager today, you may be struggling with how you can help your teen to survive — and thrive — during those tumultuous years.
Mind Over Mood Swings
Those mood swings, overwhelming emotions and seemingly irrational behaviour? We can blame the brain (specifically, the prefrontal cortex!).
On a daily basis, teens have to adapt to a lot of physical, cognitive, and social changes, which can impact their physical and mental functioning. Meanwhile, hormones are fluctuating, which is compounded by the fact that their brains are still growing. The prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functions — such as the ability to make decisions and plan — is still developing.
MRI studies show that myelinogenesis (the sheaths in the nervous system) continues to develop during the teen years, and the brain’s neurocircuitry (what is wiring and firing together) remains structurally and functionally vulnerable to impulsive sex, food, and sleep habits. Not to mention, the brain is influenced by genetics, the social environment, and hormones — particularly estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. And of course, there’s the added stress of peer pressure, social media and school — it’s no wonder that things are a bit unpredictable.
Luckily, research shows that there are some great ways to help our kids slow down, think things through, consider their emotions, and practice planning before acting. Broadly, these techniques are called Mindfulness Skills.
Enter … Mindfulness
A lot of teens (and adults too) have a difficult time settling their mind and calmly tuning into their thoughts and feelings. For that matter, people often have a hard time even thinking about the present moment. Your teen may be in the room with you, but their thoughts may be on something that happened in the lunchroom, wondering if their latest crush likes them, or stressing over homework.
Mindfulness skills help people quiet all the thoughts racing around in their minds so that they can focus. When your teen leaves their thoughts behind and moves into the present, their stress levels stabilize. They can also practice these skills to slow down, focus, think, and plan before they act. Adults also find this helpful.
Take a Breath
Luckily, every day we carry around one of the easiest, and most convenient mindfulness tools available: breathing.
Deep breathing activates the body’s relaxation response by moving us out of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and into the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). It also boosts a neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA, which helps to settle busy thoughts. In many ways, deep breathing can truly change your mind, and for a developing brain, it can be particularly powerful.
In practice, it involves sitting quietly, focusing on breathing, slowing breathing down, and letting the mind be quiet. Best of all, your teen doesn’t need to unplug to do it — there’s several great mindful and breathing apps (here’s a link to some).
It is also very helpful to slow down with a few breaths when things are getting stressful. Next time you see your teen getting stressed, ask them to just pause, and take a few deep breaths — even better, you can do it at the same time (called emotional mirroring). Before a conflict escalates, simply ask to pause, and everyone can take a few deep breaths before continuing.
Think about Thought
Teens are also still working on their ability for meta-cognition (which allows people to think about their thoughts). Helping your teen examine their thoughts can help them make good decisions and act less impulsive. You can have them try this exercise: imagine yourself in your mind, watch your thoughts, if they seem uncertain or important, spend time with those thoughts. If it’s not important, practice letting them go.
Family Quiet Time
The average teenager has a full schedule — a day at school, followed by activities, homework and everything in between. They may struggle to settle down at the end of the day. Spending time together can fall by the wayside. However, you can reconnect as a family and practice some Mindfulness together.
Implementing some family quiet time can be a great way to teach your teens (and younger kids too) about Mindfulness. It is quite simple—just get the family together at some set time (maybe before homework, after dinner, or before bed). Spend a few minutes talking about the day and then meditate or listen to a Guided Visualization (here’s a helpful link).
Putting it in Practice
Research shows that mindfulness activities can help teens (and adults alike) manage their emotions, make better decisions, and reduce impulsivity. Daily practice is essential, so that in a moment of stress or conflict, the skills can be easily engaged.
If your teen needs additional support, the team at Bhatia Psychology Group can help. Contact us today to book a free phone consultation or to schedule your next appointment.