Fifteen years ago, psychotherapist Gina Biegel was interning at a healthcare provider’s child and adolescent psychiatry department while also taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course. In hospitals, Biegel kept seeing teens “getting stuck” when engaging with interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy or group therapy.
What started as an idea to adapt MBSR for those adolescents led to a research study, and eventually a program called MBSR for Teens (MBSR-T), a mindfulness program for young adults that also teaches them how to use positive coping skills.
Earlier this month, Biegel published Be Mindful and Stress Less: 50 Ways to Deal With Your (Crazy) Life, a book based on her MBSR-T curriculum. Though written primarily for teens and young adults, Biegel said the book is appropriate for readers of any age looking for quick and accessible mindfulness practices. Below, Biegel answers questions on how MBSR-T differs from adult mindfulness practices, what to do about social media consumption, and the best way parents can support their teen’s meditation journey.
How has the mindfulness field changed since you started teaching these practices to teens and young adults? I didn’t get a lot of support when I first started teaching. There were a number of people who didn’t think mindfulness was going to work for teens—I disagreed, and I think that initial pushback encouraged me more. Back then, the terms mindfulness and mindful weren’t used in the mainstream like they are today, and an entire movement has been created since then for mindfulness in education and with youth.
I was shopping at Whole Foods recently and noticed that there is a line of “mindful mayonnaise.” And I’m like, “Wow, mindfulness has become really saturated!” There’s some good to that—it’s easier now to bring mindfulness into the mainstream and into schools. But it’s also watered down the core of what we’re trying to teach. I also think the term mindfulness can be used passive aggressively—to ask, “Why can’t you be more mindful?” or say, “Pay attention!”
What is MBSR-T, and how are the exercises different from those taught in traditional MBSR? All of the formal adult MBSR practices are used. The exercises are just shorter and keep in mind the developmental needs of a teen. There is less silence in the guided meditations and more informal practice. Say you’re awake for 16 hours a day, and you spend half an hour on formal practice. There is 15 and a half hours left in a day for teens to bring mindfulness into everything they’re doing in their lives—sports, hobbies, interests, schoolwork, friends, relationships. Why not focus on those 15 and a half hours? Yes, formal practice is important and of value, but I think informal practice is as important if not more important.
MBSR-T teaches not only mindfulness, but also self-care, self-respect, and positive coping skills. Adults expect a lot from teens, and there is this assumption that teens are going to do what is right. No teen is going to regulate themselves, or turn off their phone or social media, unless they’re taught how.
What are young adults not being taught to do? In our culture, parents try to prevent their teens from experiencing any pain. But teens need to feel pain. They need to cry; they need to fall and get back up again to see that they can get through it. Otherwise, when real, serious situations happen, they’re not able to cope. This has a lot to do with adults, who often use medication to put a Band-Aid on an emotion instead of feeling it, noticing what it’s like, and seeing what they can do about it.
You’re very strategic when talking about technology in the book, starting small and waiting until the end to suggest the idea of unplugging entirely. What’s your approach when it comes to teens and tech? A few weeks ago, I was teaching at schools in San Luis Obispo, California, and I said: “Our thoughts can be like fake news.” And they totally got it. This is about helping teens see and witness their thoughts, because they’re constantly around noises and alerts from their phones and getting these dopamine hits from getting more likes or having someone respond to something they posted.
I am thoughtful about introducing the topic of social media without directly saying it. I like to ask teens to share a bad or good experience they’ve had—if I sit there and tell them that social media is bad, that’s not going to be the same as if they bring it up themselves. And unfortunately, at least in the U.S., every school that I’ve ever come across has a really serious situation that’s happened regarding social media. With social media, teens are living to make a picture or video instead of living their life as it’s going on. They’re missing moments, and they have this kind of fake persona that prevents people from seeing who they really are.
Also, I find that parents are having such a hard time with setting limits—they’re afraid to take their kids’ phones away. I also think parents need to take a rigorous look at their own smartphone use.
You also encourage technology use in the book. There’s a mindfulness exercise that asks the reader to take a walk with their phone or digital camera and snap five to ten photos of things they find interesting, and one that seems out of place, as a way to better notice your surroundings. They’re going to be with the device anyway, so I might as well teach them to be mindful with it.
You say the book is for everyone. What is one exercise adapted for teens that adult meditators should try out? I would say HOT—having an experience, observing it, and taking it in. We have so many opportunities to notice positive, beneficial, or pleasant experiences. For example, I have a cup in front of me. It’s a pretty eggplant color, it was handmade, it has my yummy coffee in it, I’m very lucky that I have it, and I can use it to enjoy the smell and taste of my coffee. All of us, especially in today’s political and social climate, can work on taking in the good and being kind.
What mistakes do you see parents with a meditation practice making when encouraging their child to explore meditation? A lot of parents who practice might think that their teen is going to have the same barriers or successes that they do. That one-size-fits-all approach is not the way to do it. More active practices, like mindful walking, mindful eating, a body scan, or yoga are going to be more accessible. Asking a teen to sit in silence without any support or direction can be very harmful, especially with disabilities both seen and unseen, because you don’t know what you could be triggering. Modeling is the best thing a parent can do—being mindful in their own lives, practicing putting their phone down, and being present at meals is going to affect their relationship with their teen whether the teen is practicing or not.
Overall, how can mindfulness make the teenage years less painful? We take good care of the things we own—when our cell phones are low we charge them, when our car is empty we fill it up with gas—but we don’t necessarily take care of ourselves like we do our devices. Mindfulness helps teens begin to notice when they are emotionally depleted and when they aren’t attending to their basic needs. Mindfulness is not only about paying attention and being aware but also about deciding where we want to put our attention. Do teens attend to all the “likes” or positive moments they have in their life, or are they attending to the one “dislike” they received? We can help teens turn toward the people, places, things, and situations that nourish them and fill them up instead of those that drain and deplete them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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