“Mom, I feel anxious at school.” When my 13-year-old daughter Nandini confessed her apprehensions about seventh grade, I nodded my head and explained that I had experienced similar emotions when I was her age. But my words were just a temporary balm; what she needed was her own immediate go-to in the middle of stressful moments.
With increased pressure to balance homework, extracurricular activities, and the unique demands of growing up in the digital age, many teens struggle with anxiety. According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly one-third of kids today experience anxiety at some point during childhood or adolescence.
For me, it became imperative to address my daughter’s anxiety before it escalated to the point where medication might be the only answer. So our family enrolled in a meditation class. And for us, it worked. Within six months, my daughter tackled drama at school, calmed her nerves at tennis tournaments, and gained a sharper focus when dealing with difficult concepts in science and math––without the roadblock of anxiety.
How to Introduce Meditation to Teenagers:
1. Have an open mind.
Meditation is the practice of using quieting or focusing techniques to increase self-awareness—usually with the aim of increasing mental clarity and emotional calm.
“There are many types of meditation, and different types can be appropriate for different teenagers,” says Monisha Vasa, M.D., a psychiatrist and mindfulness practitioner in California. “Meditation can be as simple as pausing and focusing on the sensation of taking a single breath. It can also be practiced by using apps, classes, or meditation coaches.”
The key is to have an open mind and try different types of meditation before settling into something that feels like a good fit.
2. Start simple.
Sometimes the trickiest part of meditation is knowing how to start. For teens, Vasa encourages digital apps or classes that are specifically intended for them. She also suggests approaching meditation with a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness, and to begin with small steps. Trying to force a teen to meditate 30 minutes daily, for example, is likely to lead to frustration and abandonment.
Sheila Singh, a certified iRest meditation and yoga instructor, agrees with Vasa. She suggests “approaching meditation in a gentle way” and keeping it simple and slow. A one- to five-minute guided breathing practice learned in an app or class is a great starting point, Singh says. Breathing meditation is a technique that teens can take anywhere. Breath is always available—and it’s a key way to distract from restless or anxious thoughts. “Resting attention on breathing disrupts the fixation on the thinking mind,” says Singh.
3. Be Consistent.
To get the most out of meditation, aim for consistency, says Singh. Pick a time of day and frequency that works with your teenager’s other commitments, and ideally make meditation part of a routine, just like brushing teeth or taking a shower.
Some days my daughter misses her meditation, but this is fine, Singh says. “The message is to be gentle with yourself, especially if days are missed. It is a part of the experience, and teens can return when they are ready.”
4. Do it too.
Vasa says the most important thing that a parent can do to encourage a teen to try meditation is to have a daily practice themselves. Parents should approach the process with caution “by gently introducing the idea and suggesting they do it together with their teen,” she says. Instead of a top-down parent prescription for teen anxiety, meditating together can be a new way to bond and feel good together.
“Modeling for our teens is often more powerful than suggesting or telling them to do something,” says Vasa. “Watching their parent prioritize a consistent meditation practice can be an impressive motivator for them to give it a try when they feel ready.”
And even if your teen doesn’t struggle with anxiety, meditation can still be a helpful tool for the pressure of juggling school, sports, work, technology, and friendships. “Meditation can help teenagers feel more centered, calm, empathic, and regulated in their emotions,” says Vasa. “It can even help teens sleep better.”
4. Realize that meditation isn’t always the answer.
Sometimes teens need more than meditation to overcome anxiety.
If a teen is experiencing signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, or unusual thinking and behavior, seek the guidance of a mental health professional. In the case of these serious symptoms, a pediatrician or psychiatrist will need to conduct an initial evaluation to rule out underlying medical causes or mental health symptoms and form a treatment plan.
Meditation can be a part of a supervised treatment plan, but some teens may need the support of medication and therapy as well.
Meditation Apps to Try
Stop, Breathe, and Think
Mindfulness and compassion for youth
Guided meditation and relaxation exercises
Simple breathing and meditation