Teaching mindfulness to adolescents is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job as an adolescent medicine specialist. There were three “lightbulb moments,” or key experiences, that gave rise to my work in this area. The first was when I began to develop my own personal mindfulness practice, just before I started medical school. Mindfulness became a concrete practice and a way of living that helped me to survive and cope with the stress that is part of the human experience, as well as the emotional and physical demands of my medical training. The second experience was during my training as an adolescent medicine specialist. Through mentors such as Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, I learned that most of the “adolescent risk behaviors” that contribute to adolescent health problems, such as substance use, suicidality, self-harm, and disordered eating, come from the young peoples’ attempts to cope with stress. As an adult who cares for adolescents, I could see that simply telling adolescents to stop doing those behaviors was not effective. I came to see that a key part of my job is understanding and validating adolescents’ distress, and then guiding them towards healthier ways of coping with stress. I began to ask myself, “Since mindfulness is helping me so much in my own life to cope with my own stress, could it also be helpful for the adolescents that I work with?”
The seeds were planted, but I was still waiting for one more key ingredient to help me make this vision a reality. In the late 2000’s, before mindfulness was “a thing” in mainstream Western culture and medicine, I didn’t know if or how mindfulness could be applied in a clinical context with adolescents. In 2008, I took a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course as a participant, and I saw how the basic mindfulness practices in the course were the same practices that I had been using in my own life. I also saw how Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues had skillfully adapted these ancient practices to directly address health, pain, and stress that we all experience in modern life. This experience gave me the confidence to begin adapting mindfulness for teens.
At the time, there were only a handful of people that I was aware of who were piloting mindfulness programs with teens. There had been a general assumption that teens are not mature enough, or open minded enough, to “get” something like mindfulness. When I arrived at BC Children’s Hospital in 2010, I was fortunate to start collaborating with Dr. Jake Locke, and meet other pioneers in this area including Dr. Jane Garland. Over the next few years Dr. Locke and I developed MARS-A, Mindful Awareness and Resilience Skills for Adolescents, for adolescents suffering from psychological distress, chronic pain, and/or chronic illness. MARS-A has been a tremendous success clinically, and has become a model for adolescent health colleagues in other pediatric health centers. Research on MARS-A is early, but promising. As a clinician, this experience has shown me that not only can teens “get” something like mindfulness, but their open-mindedness and creativity in applying mindfulness to their own lives inspires and teaches me every time!
But, don’t take it from me. Hear the voices of mindful teens for yourself, from the below video for the 2018 PHSA+ award, and from this interview with a mindful teen on CBC radio.