Mindfulness May Not Benefit Mental Well-Being in Children and Adolescents

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Key Takeaways

  • Mindfulness has benefits for children and adolescents, including improved focus, sleep, and conflict resolution skills.
  • A new study found that mindfulness taught in schools does not improve kids’ mental well-being.
  • Anxiety and depression in youth are on the rise, and early preventative care is essential.

Mindfulness can be a helpful tool for anybody trying to stay grounded or focused while existing in the present moment. It has even been incorporated into the curriculum at some schools, where kids can learn how to focus on their breathing and practice meditation.

Anxiety and depression in children and teenagers are on the rise and early preventative care is essential to helping their mental well-being.

Previous research has shown that mindfulness taught in schools can benefit the mental well-being of children, but a contradictory study conducted in the UK that involved about 8,400 students found that while mindfulness does have certain benefits, it may not actually improve kids’ mental well-being.

Children’s mental well-being in the study focuses on the risk of depression and levels of emotional functioning.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice that involves being aware of the present moment. Instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, mindfulness focuses on what is going on in a certain moment in a non-judgmental way. Breathing exercises, meditation, and taking short breaks throughout the day to be in the present moment are all part of mindfulness.

What Does the Research Say?

A new study observed mental well-being in about 8,400 students ages 11 to 16. It found that though mindfulness improved focus, sleep, and self-control, the benefits of mindfulness may not extend to mental well-being; depression scores and emotional functioning did not improve in children and teens after mindfulness training.

A previous study done on the impact of mindfulness on children’s mental health had a smaller sample size of about 1,100 children ages 9 to 12. This study found that mindfulness improved children’s emotional state, resilience, and outlook.

With the larger sample size of the newer study, researchers were able to get a broader reading on the benefits of mindfulness for students.

Teachers who are well-versed in mindfulness are able to implement mindfulness practices in their classrooms. School climate is important to a child’s mental health, and with improved teachers’ well-being comes better classroom environments.

The study found that though mindfulness taught in schools can bring attention to mental health struggles, it may not provide enough support for students to deal with the stress they feel in order to grow their resilience.

The Good News Is…

While it might not be a cure-all or final solution, mindfulness still has a lot of benefits. It can improve attention, reduce antisocial behavior, and help children and adolescents resolve conflicts on their own.

What Do Experts Say?

Despite these new findings, it is important to note that the study looked at mindfulness taught in a school setting, and that with different methods of training, mindfulness could have different effects on kids’ mental health.

Drake Ballew, founder and CEO of Practice Health, says that the environment in which children and teenagers practice mindfulness has a big impact on the results.

“I don’t think we can say conclusively that mindfulness does not benefit children’s mental well-being in general,” he says.

“I believe we can extrapolate that mindfulness taught in a classroom setting does not work for teenagers. I think a big reason why the training might not have worked in this context is peer pressure. Teenagers are always wary of how they look to their peers, and they are also often suspicious of new things, especially if they are introduced by adults.”

Ballew explains that if the mindfulness training is done on an individual basis or in smaller groups, there could be a big difference in the way it is received and utilized.

Does Mindfulness Work?

Despite the benefits of mindfulness, the students observed in the study did not have improved mental well-being, even a year after the study was done. Their risk of depression was not lower, and their emotional functioning did not improve.

The main reason why mindfulness may not benefit youth’s mental well-being is that different children need different approaches to mental health care. Younger adolescents may not have the ability to self-regulate their emotions or apply mindfulness skills in their everyday lives.

Older adolescents may be better able to regulate their emotions, but mindfulness has more benefits when the adolescent voluntarily chooses to participate in mindfulness practices. The older adolescents observed in the study who had mental health needs did not benefit from mindfulness.

Erika Vivyan, PhD, LP, director and licensed psychologist at Brave Young Minds, says that mindfulness can work in certain situations, but that children need their emotions to be validated.

“Certain mindfulness exercises are too often misused as a distraction from an unwanted or unpleasant emotion, and some kids and teens just hate it,” she says.

“For example, many parents will tell their child to ‘calm down’ or to try a mindfulness strategy (like a breathing exercise) when the child is upset about something, which can give the message that feeling upset is not an acceptable emotion and should be immediately pushed away.”

Erika Vivyan, PhD, LP

Certain mindfulness exercises are too often used as a distraction from an unwanted or unpleasant emotion, and some kids and teens just hate it.

— Erika Vivyan, PhD, LP

This is not to say that the benefits of mindfulness on mental health are completely lost. Vivyan notes that it can be helpful to accept and embrace unpleasant emotions and discomfort by noticing thoughts and feelings that arise in daily life.

She also explains that though there are many good things to come from mindfulness, other options might be better suited for some kids and teens.

“Mindfulness creates an immediate feeling of calm, and when practiced regularly, may be used in improving overall mood and mental well-being. However, many health concerns including anxiety, depression, and stress can be treated without the use of specific mindfulness or meditation exercises,” she says.

So What Works?

Mindfulness could be made more influential with a more focused or targeted approach, where certain issues are dealt with head-on, rather than a general practice of meditation and breathing. More frequent training or training from more highly trained teachers can also make mindfulness more effective.

It’s also important to keep in mind that mindfulness is something that needs to be practiced, and some kids and teens may struggle with it because they have high expectations for immediate success.

There are several things that can benefit children’s mental health that aren’t mindfulness.

Making sure a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and an adequate amount of sleep are incorporated into their daily lives is important for children and adolescents.

Being a teenager can be especially difficult, and it’s important to treat them with respect and offer unconditional love.

Having a safe space and a trusted support system can be life-changing for some children and teens. And if needed, finding the right mental health professional to help with mental health struggles is essential.

Raffaello Antonino, CPsychol, HCPC reg

Suppressing certain emotions like anger, frustration, fear, or sadness is a recipe for disaster. These are not ‘wrong’ emotions, and we’re all equipped with them by default for a reason.

— Raffaello Antonino, CPsychol, HCPC reg

Social interaction is also important in a young person’s life, and Vivyan notes how many people isolate themselves when they’re feeling down.

“Research on activity-planning indicates that scheduling and participating in pleasant or helpful activities almost always results in a mood boost,” she explains.

Simply talking about emotions openly can also help a child or adolescent’s mental well-being. Raffaello Antonino, CPsychol, HCPC reg, clinical director and counseling psychologist at Therapy Central, discusses the importance of allowing all emotions to be expressed.

“Suppressing certain emotions like anger, frustration, fear, or sadness is a recipe for disaster. These are not ‘wrong’ emotions, and we’re all equipped with them by default for a reason. Teaching a child that it’s not okay to be angry will only foster further frustration.

“Instead, by allowing emotions to be expressed and looking together at their consequences without blame can help the child understand how to make use of those emotions and express them in a helpful and non-destructive way,” he explains.

Talking to your kids about their emotions and teaching them the importance of taking time for their mental health is essential.

More and more schools across the country are allowing students to take mental health days, and it’s important for parents to understand the impact that time off from school can have on their child.

What This Means For You

If you are a teen struggling with mental health issues, know that you are not alone. Talk to someone you trust, whether that is a parent, guardian, teacher, friend, counselor, or anyone in your life who is willing to listen. There is help out there for you, and all you need to do is ask.

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