Parenting with Mindfulness

Coping with anxiety is particularly difficult for teens.
Advice from a seasoned professional suggests that
mindfulness is the best place to start.

By Kurt Dusterberg
Photo by Josh Manning / Jericho 7 Films

Karen Bluth was 17 years old and searching for a topic for an independent study assignment. That was in the 1970s, and a sign for transcendental meditation caught her eye. She picked up some brochures, and took the first step in what has become her life’s work.

Today, Karen Bluth, PhD, is Research Faculty in the Department of Psychiatry and Research Fellow at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, she works with teenagers, focusing on how self-compassion and mindfulness promote well-being in adolescents. She has adapted an adult self-compassion program to co-create the curriculum “Making Friends with Yourself: A Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens.”

Karen Bluth

Karen Bluth

First, explain the kind of work you do.
We recruit youth from the community, and I teach them mindfulness and self-compassion practices. I measure how they do before and after. What I’m particularly interested in measuring is emotional well-being: things like anxiety, depression, stress, and resilience. Sometimes we’re funded through various studies or private foundations.

You also teach the curriculum. What kind of teachers do you teach?
Educators, counselors, therapists—our requirement is that you have to have had experience working with teens, and you have to have taken the adult mindful self-compassion course.

What does mindfulness mean?
Mindfulness is being aware of what you are feeling and what you are experiencing in the current moment, without judgment. Noticing feelings, thoughts, and sensations that you are experiencing without saying, “This is horrible; I shouldn’t feel this way.”

It seems like all of us would be mindful naturally. We’re all aware of what we’re feeling to some degree, right?
I would say most of the time we’re not. If you drive from one place to another, how often do you arrive and you have no awareness of how you got there? Often when we’re doing one thing, we’re thinking about something else. We know from research studies that about 47 percent of the time our minds are wandering when we’re doing anything.
Sometimes we resist feelings because we don’t want to feel them; they’re too difficult. Sometimes we get caught up in a spiral of anger and we keep retelling ourselves the same story. When you do that, physiologically you keep generating this feeling of anger.
If you’re mindful, you would notice the anger and just have a certain distance from it, without getting caught up in the story. The next step is noticing the feeling in your body. Maybe there is a tightness in your throat or a heaviness in your chest.

What does “self-compassion” involve?
Basically, it’s treating yourself the way you would treat a good friend when they’re struggling. You’d be kind to them. [But] if you had a bad day or felt inadequate or had a difficult situation with the boss, [you may not be so kind]. People tend to be really hard on themselves and have a strong inner-critic. Usually they will tell themselves, “You’re such an idiot.” Seventy-seven percent of us treat other people more kindly than we treat ourselves at difficult times.There are three components to self-compassion. One is the mindfulness component, just being aware of what you’re feeling.
The second is common humanity, which means understanding that what you’re experiencing is really part of the human condition. Often we feel very alone, but this is part of being human, part of life. The third part is self-kindness, where we take an active step in being kind to ourselves, asking ourselves: What do I need at this moment? What can I do that would soothe me? It might be going for a walk; it might be petting the dog.

What issues do teens face today that you can address with mindfulness and self-compassion?
I would say the biggest issue these days is anxiety and stress. Teens feel really overwhelmed. We hear this all the time. They feel like there is a lot of pressure on them to be successful. Some of this, I think, comes from social media. As we know, people post themselves doing the best parts of their lives; there’s this constant comparison with others. This is the biggest issue, the feeling of anxiety. What self-compassion teaches us is that we really are okay just as we are. We don’t have to compare ourselves with others. We don’t succeed when we’re trying to be somebody else.

Who have you identified as the most at-risk group?
I think LGBTQ teens are very much at risk, also teens with eating disorders. But I don’t know if I could say one group is more at risk than others. Teens in general are very much at risk. It’s practically daily that I hear about or read about a teen who has suicided.

What is the profile of the teenagers you work with?
I work a lot with kids in Chapel Hill with academic anxiety. That’s in this area and in high-achieving areas. But I also mentor teachers who are teaching this program, and they have talked about cultural anxiety and poverty.

How do you measure success?
We teach an eight-week class. We do measures before and after, so we see how much they have changed with things like anxiety, depression, and stress. Within the class itself, they will talk about what has worked for them and how their view has changed.

What can parents do if they have a teenager who is under a lot of stress?
A parent can take the [adult] course, and the adult program has a workbook: The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. Often, when a parent is not compassionate toward themselves, they may be harder on their kids.

Editor’s Note
Dr. Bluth has authored ”The Self-Compassion Workbook for Teens: Mindfulness and Compassion Skills to Overcome Self-Criticism and Embrace Who You Are.”
The workbook includes guided practices, mindfulness, self-compassion, art activities, music meditations, and games. Dr. Bluth describes it as “very teen-friendly.”
Both workbooks are available on Amazon.