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Mindfulness

Can Mindfulness Be Bad for Teens?

New research shows mindfulness can increase depressive symptoms in teens.

Key points

  • Mindfulness lessons have no positive impact on teens and sometimes increase teens' depressive symptoms.
  • This seems to challenge the received wisdom is that noticing and naming emotions tames them.
  • Young teens’ struggle with emotional granularity heightens anxiety, particularly in the solitude of mindfulness exercises.
  • Teens, like young children, need to be “held in mind” by sympathetic and responsive others.
fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Over the past two decades, mindfulness has come to be seen as a surefire route to better mental health and wellbeing. Hoping to contain the mental health crisis in young people, a project to assess the effectiveness of mindfulness on depression and social and emotional behavior was rolled out in 2019 in 100 schools. Among the cohort of 28,000 young teens, 29 percent showed signs of mental health difficulties or, for other reasons, seemed to be “languishing,” so the stakes of the research were high.

While some young people gave the course a high rating, the overall assessment was not positive. Many did not engage with the process. In fact, 80 percent admitted they had not done the “homework” for the lessons. Moreover, one study emerging from this project [1] found that teens who received lessons in mindfulness, and who already had signs of mental health problems, reported more symptoms of depression than those who had not had the lessons. Across the board, the mindfulness scheme had no impact, positive or negative, on depressive symptoms.

Why are some teens damaged by mindfulness exercises?

Mindfulness involves a deliberate focus on and naming of your present state of mind and surroundings without judgment or any other kind of reaction. The results of this project challenge the received wisdom in teen psychology that naming emotions helps teens integrate and regulate them. Champions of mindfulness insist that the negative and null findings might come down to problems in how the schools and teachers delivered the lessons. I believe we need to consider another possibility.

Mindfulness can be a particularly negative experience for teens because of the changing shape and impact of teen emotions. New research shows that emotional granularity—the ability to differentiate emotions, such as anger, sadness, and loneliness—increases throughout the childhood years, but then decreases between the ages of 12 and 15, before rapidly rising again. [2] This apparent backward slide results from teens’ new appreciation of the complexity of emotions.

At an earlier stage, they could name emotions more easily because they focused on only one feeling in the mix of feelings. They were “mad” or “sad” or “happy.” They “hated” or “loved” or “liked.” Teens, on the other hand, note that they are sad and angry and frustrated and anxious and ashamed all at the same time. Or, they are happy and excited in new ways. They are more invested in their emotions, more aware of their feelings and of what emotions might tell them about themselves and their social world.

The young people in the study were between the ages of 11 and 14, just when teens become less adept at naming emotions. The emotion words they previously used do not capture the heightened clarity and urgency of their feelings, which now seem beyond language. Feelings often remain raw and in the moment, long after any “threat” (usually based on their heightened self-consciousness) has passed. [3] When young teens are coached to attend to their mental states in solitude, as they are in mindfulness lessons, the alarm associated with their feelings switches on, and they may be overwhelmed.

The difference between mindfulness and being held in mind

The problems for teens and mindfulness arise because mindfulness is a solitary affair and teens require close relationships in which they are “held in mind”—something that occurs within a relationship in which your feelings and thoughts are understood, acknowledged and reflected. Being “held in mind” offers co-regulation—a partner in emotion management, as someone attends to you and both reflects your feelings back to you and removes their sting. In this relational context, naming one's emotions is a collaborative affair, and helps tame difficult emotions.

Being held in mind, particularly by a parent, is used to model the needs of very young children, but its power is generally neglected when looking at teens’ needs. Of course, teens do not want parents to know everything about them or take up intrusive residence inside their minds, but they do want help managing at least some of their emotional upheavals.

References

The main studies from this program are published in Evidence-Based Mental Health. (August 2022). Vol. 25 (3).

Nook, E. C., Stavish, C. M., Sasse, S. F., Lambert, H. K., Mair, P., McLaughlin, K. A., & Somerville, L. H. (2020). Charting the development of emotion comprehension and abstraction using observer-rated and linguistic measures. Emotion. 20(5), 773-792.

Somerville, L. (2013, April 16) The Teenage Brain: Sensitivity to Social Evaluation. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol 2 (2): 121-127.

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