Raising happy teenagers: how mindfulness and meditation practices can help build coping skills for life

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Raising happy teenagers: how mindfulness and meditation practices can help build coping skills for life

Everyone wants their daughter to be happy. Yet, when girls start to focus on perfection, they may ignore their true strengths. New brain science reveals that relaxation skills can be useful in showing girls how to feel happy from the inside out.

Happy teenagers and sulky adolescents: what’s going on in a teenage girl’s brain?

There’s a curious thing that happens when our little girls start to become teenagers. Not only do girls begin to bloom in so many ways, they often start to pull away. It’s not uncommon for parents to wonder: “What happened to my happy, carefree girl?” 

It may be a comfort to know that the shift you see in your girl’s personality and mood is not just about hormones. In fact, it’s so much more than that. Her brain is undergoing an amazing rewiring process which happens during the teen years. With the right experiences, new and emerging neural connections allow her to stretch her abilities and develop into a thoughtful, empathetic and creative human being.

The desire to conform can prevent teenage girls from discovering how to be happy as they are

Part of this growing-up process also means that girls will naturally compete and compare themselves to other girls. This is an evolutionary behaviour that allows girls to adapt to the world. It also means that they begin to look outward for affirmation of their self-worth and for things to be happy about. Fitting in and being accepted can become more important to them than being with family or enjoying childhood hobbies. All of a sudden, girls may shift from thoughtful self-reflection, creativity and tuning in, to tuning out from an authentic sense of self. Often, what makes children happy is pursuing their individual hobbies and interests – but for many teenage girls, it’s more important to be like everyone else.

For some girls, this need to have approval from others can override their ability to draw on their own developing sense of identity and become calm and confident teenagers. Friendship groups and the media can create beliefs around beauty and ‘being cool’, fuelling the myth that being perfect will lead to happiness. Buying into these myths can reinforce something called a ‘negativity bias’ in the brain. This makes us super-sensitive to differences, causing us to see them as flaws or dangers.

Many girls start to believe they can only be happy if they…

  • Are skinny
  • Have bigger boobs
  • Are super-trendy
  • Say the right things
  • Have a boyfriend
  • Get straight As in class
  • Are the best on the team
  • Get 100 ‘Likes’ on their profile pics

It’s important to help girls realise that ticking items off a wish list isn’t the key to everlasting happiness. In fact, they need to realise it’s impossible to feel happy all the time – because feeling happy is a momentary experience.  Instead, the key is to savour those moments, appreciate them, remember them and reflect on them.  Encouraging girls to regularly consider the joyful moments during their week will help them appreciate that life has its ups and downs.

Body-confidence tools: how to be happier through mindfulness

Mindfulness, the practice of ‘non-judgemental awareness’, is one way to help girls cope with the external pressures to look and be a certain way. Mindfulness skills have been well studied and the research shows that it has many benefits – including resilience, happiness and wellbeing – to help your daughter deal with any appearance-related anxieties. There are many different kinds of mindfulness practices (see below for specific examples) and it’s now being taught in schools, and in many medical centres. There is no better time to teach mindfulness skills, and to explain how to feel happy with yourself as you are, than when girls are growing up and dealing with the challenges of fitting in.

Dr Christopher Willard, psychologist and author of Child’s Mind, teaches mindfulness practices to children and teens. He notes: “We have a comparing mind. If you consider that social media is largely driven by teenagers and that they are exposed to it 24/7, their attention becomes hyper-focused on what’s external, such as ratings and ‘Likes’.” Indeed, many girls today take control of how they present themselves. While this can be a highly creative activity, Dr Willard points out: “This can be at the expense of paying attention to what’s going on inside, honing a gut instinct, understanding social cues and tapping into heartfelt awareness of other qualities a girl may have that will serve her over a lifetime, such as generosity, loyalty and kindness.” When girls can learn to be aware of what they are experiencing inside and out, without being self-critical, they are better able to withstand the pressures from the wider world.

Mum and dad can play an influential role in shaping their daughter’s ability to experience joy and calm, creating an internal compass that will help her establish those neural connections for resilience, happiness and compassion for herself, and her body. One step towards happy teenagers is for their parents to practise mindfulness, too.

Author: Dr Tara Cousineau, clinical psychologist and self-esteem coach.

Next steps: 10 ways to help raise happy teenagers

Dr Willard offers simple ways for parents to help their daughters feel positive and to get more joy out of life:

  • Be calm. Demonstrate thoughtful responses in your own daily life, rather than immediate reactions. If your daughter gets a bad grade at school, don’t get cross – offer to sit down with her and go through how she might improve next time.
  • Take deep breaths when you feel stressed. When you are calm, children are often calmer – they can understand how to be happy when plans fall through by following the example you set. If you have a setback, don’t say: “Now our day is ruined!” Instead, discuss what else you might do with your time.
  • Take perspective. When challenges come up for your daughter, especially around her body image, help her to take a step back. For example, if she doesn’t like her thighs, acknowledge her feelings, but help her ‘zoom out’ by pointing out that strong thighs make her a fast runner.
  • Take gentle care of your body. Exercise regularly and enjoy healthy meals.
  • Make time to have meals together. Try to take your time with eating; savour the food and appreciate it. 
  • Spend time outdoors. Go for a walk and take in the sights and sounds around you.
  • Have a technology-free zone in the house. Keep devices charging in one spot and don’t allow them in bedrooms. Screens keep the brain awake and interrupt natural sleep rhythms.
  • Show kindness to others. Even in unexpected encounters, such as with a stranger in the street, asking for help.
  • Show that you are thankful for the little things. Even when life may seem stressful. Someone may have said something hurtful to your girl at school, but remind her that she also has many friends who think she’s great.
  • Celebrate the best parts of the day and share things to be happy about. Before she goes to bed, share the best bits from the day with one another and why those moments felt pleasant.

Our experts

  • Dr Tara Cousineau

    Dr Tara Cousineau clinical psychologist, self-esteem coach, founder of Moxie Moms Coaching

  • Dr Christina Berton

    Dr Christina Berton self-esteem expert and founder of the Amara Pro Self-Esteem Foundation in Mexico

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