Updated: May 31, 2020
Emily Listmann here, from Mindful & Well Education. Welcome to the very first post in Mindful & Well's blog!
I created this blog to help share strategies, resources, and the latest research in wellness for youth. This is for anyone who interacts with kids and teens and wants to support them in becoming their whole, best selves. I also hope that you, too, can benefit from all that is discussed here.
In this first issue, I'd like to introduce myself and Mindful & Well Education by sharing an article I wrote for parents and educators in the September issue of "Growing Up in Santa Cruz." It illustrates a bit of my personal journey in discovering mindfulness, and gives some context on mindfulness and its benefits for youth. I hope you enjoy, and I would genuinely love to hear your thoughts, comments, and wonderings!
Many of us feel that children today are especially stressed out: some have even deemed the present the “age of anxiety” for youth. We blame technology, SATs, homework, and social media. We lament this widespread problem, yet most of us feel powerless to act. This was the case for me as a middle- and high-school Social Studies teacher in fast-paced Silicon Valley. Other than doing my best to reduce the homework load, I wasn’t sure how to meaningfully help my students. It took my own personal challenges with stress to uncover perhaps the most powerful tool for helping kids combat pressure: their own minds.
Research confirms the common sentiment that children today experience unprecedented levels of stress. In a survey conducted by Yale University, students reported feeling negative emotions such as stress and fatigue an average of 75% of the time. Another study showed that adolescents are 5-8 times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression than kids who lived during the peak of the Great Depression. Research from Harvard University revealed that this “toxic stress” and other negative emotions early in life adversely impact the developing brain, immune system, behavior, and learning ability for decades to come. The extent of youth stress today could be considered of epidemic proportions. Ironically, it wasn’t until I quit teaching that I was able to uncover a way to help students.
I was forced to leave classroom teaching after facing a slew of health problems whose origins I did not understand. Returning to my hometown, I took a lot of West Cliff walks to recover and reflect. Eventually I came to realize that stress had been the true source of my illness. I decided to try practicing mindfulness--a buzzword I had always fancied myself compatible with, but not something I had ever really committed to long-term.
Mindfulness is the practice of becoming aware of the present moment and accepting of one’s thoughts or feelings, without judgment. Often we are not aware of a simple truth: that we are constantly thinking, jumping from one idea to the next in our heads. In doing so, we lose sight of the present moment. Even with our children sitting next to us, we tend to do this-- worrying about how their next recital will go, what their report card will say-- rather than how they are doing right here and now. This constant thinking of moments other than the present creates unease in our minds and bodies. When we are mindful, we check in with ourselves--often in a meditation--to observe the various qualities of our thoughts and feelings as they arise. With practice, this increased awareness creates space between us and negative states: we learn that we do not have to believe all of our thoughts or submerse ourselves in every emotion.
Mindfulness provides various benefits to children and teens. Multiple studies have found that mindfulness practice reduces stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms in youth. It also brings a marked reduction in behavior issues and emotional reactivity, and a significant improvement in focus and even academic performance. Mindfulness has also been shown to improve sleep: something that children are chronically deprived of, yet is one of the most essential contributors to their overall health.
Throughout my own process of healing using mindfulness, I wished I could travel back in time to share this practice with my former students. I could vividly recall my former students’ physical and emotional symptoms of stress that I overlooked, as I had glazed over in myself. I also clearly saw how my students and I had a feedback loop of transferring our stress, which was also apparent in parent and administrative relationships, and within the wider education system. What we had all desperately needed was something to counterbalance the stress and anxiety, and interrupt this reciprocation of negative states.
Mindfulness is not only proven to be effective, but it is also a free and limitless resource for children in strengthening their response to stress. Unfortunately, although the movement toward mindfulness education is growing, it is not yet commonly integrated into schools. But as parents and educators, we can choose to introduce mindfulness to our children. Beginning your own meditation practice is the surest path toward helping your children. From there, try to find even 5 minutes per day to meditate with your child or student. There are a plethora of free resources for children’s mindfulness, such as the apps “Insight Timer” or “Calm.” If you have the budget for it, enroll your child in a mindfulness course or coaching sessions to deepen their practice.
Yes, our modern world is increasingly stressful to grow up in; in response, there is no better tool to provide our children than the unearthing of their own inner resources.
Thank you for reading. Please comment below and share your thoughts with me!
Wishing you and your little ones a week of wellness. <3