Statistics vary, but we know that many teenagers will try an illicit drug or use alcohol before they graduate. We know that a teenager’s brain is still developing. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for making good choices, is a work in progress. Another part of the brain, the limbic system, seeks reward and is influenced by social and emotional variables. Finally, a very active part of the brain is the pleasure seeking nucleus accumbens. The latter are predominant in the teen brain, which is a risky and rebellious cocktail that their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex cannot always rationalize.
Studies have shown that the teen brain is more susceptible to addiction, stress and mental illness; in fact, the majority of adult mental health issues begin in childhood.
We hear terrifying facts and statistics that yield equally terrifying thoughts in the minds of parents and educators alike. And so we shout, almost in unison, HOW DO WE PREVENT THIS?
“Just say no” was once a valid attempt to prevent children from using drugs in the early 1980’s. The reason it failed is because of what we now know about the teen brain; it’s almost neurologically impossible “just say no.”
Victor Frankl had an incredibly poignant saying, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” This begs a new question; how do we help foster this idea of space with our teenagers? Enter mindfulness.
Time and space are difficult concepts for our teens as they often act impulsively. Telling a child to “think before they act” or “don’t do that because you will get into trouble” comes from an antiquated thought process that suggests we can persuade and scare kids into acting better. It is incumbent upon us, as parents/coaches/educators, to be providing opportunities for them to take a mindful pause. I like to call these “pause breaks” and I offer them frequently in my classroom.
We can teach teenagers that practicing meditation is actually scientific; it changes the neuroplasticity of the brain. Meditation has sustained a number of misconceptions over the years. It’s ironic that one of the most ancient techniques for cognitive control is still misunderstood, particularly in our Western culture. I talk to my kids about the fact that professional athletes use visualization techniques, military personnel use tactical breathing, and ancient warriors used something called “Samurai Mind,” which is a contemplative process for mental precision and focus.
Offering these practices within the structure of the school day, on and off the playing field, and in the home, is a great start. Think of mindfulness as mental push-up’s; it’s exercise for the brain that reaps quantifiable benefits.