What I Wish I'd Known About Mindfulness as a Teenager
Looking back, I wish I had known a couple of things about mindfulness when I was a teenager because it’s made my adult life much easier.
The teenage years are difficult to navigate and mine were no exception. Back then I could have used some help but if someone had given me a book about mindfulness I probably would have rolled my eyes. Life was hard enough, and I likely would have bridled against any well-meaning adult who I thought was trying to fix what they thought was wrong with me. Looking back, I wish I had known a couple of things about mindfulness when I was a teenager because it’s made my adult life much easier.
The authors of this book - The Autism Playbook for Teens: Imagination-Based Mindfulness Activities to Calm Yourself, Build Independence, and Connect with Others (The Instant Help Solutions Series) - describe mindfulness as “a way to become more aware of what you’re thinking and feeling so that you can calm yourself, focus, and connect better with yourself and others.” That’s a good description of how mindfulness initially helped me, but as the years have passed mindfulness has come to mean much more. Mindfulness has become a way of life. I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m mindful all the time because I’m not. But mindfulness-based calming strategies allow me to see what’s happening in and around me more clearly and a mindful worldview reminds me that I can choose to look at life differently than many of my peers. This shift in perspective has made an enormous difference in how I feel and how I respond to challenging situations.
Let me share three aspects of a mindful worldview that have helped me and the children and teens that I’ve taught for close to two decades. The first is that actions have consequences. When I was a teenager plenty of adults told me this and I thought I knew what they meant. But it turns out that I only understood half of the equation. I was a perfectionist so it made sense that I interpreted the phrase ‘actions have consequences’ to mean that if things didn’t go right I had done something wrong. I was already pretty hard on myself so this sage piece of advice turned out to be just another way to beat myself up. I wish I had understood earlier that what’s happening now is the result of causes and conditions that have happened before. Some of what’s already happened was in our control but here’s the important point: Much of what’s already happened was completely outside of our control. There’s absolutely nothing we can do about what’s outside of our control but there’s a whole lot we can do about what’s in our control. As a teenager I knew intuitively that my actions were my own. For instance, I understood that if I didn’t study for a test and then I bombed it, my bad grade was on me. What I didn’t understand was that other people’s actions were also their own. In other words, I didn’t realize that if other kids talked behind my back or treated me badly it would ultimately have a bigger negative impact on their lives then it would have on mine.
Thoughts have consequences too, and they tend to come before actions. That’s the second aspect of a mindful worldview that I wish I had learned earlier on. All too often we believe that we’re stuck with our thoughts. We see that they’re getting in our way but we don’t believe that there’s anything we can do about it. The good news is that’s not the case. We can develop a different relationship to thoughts and when we do our lives tend to get a whole lot easier.
We know that thoughts lead to actions and both have consequences. But there’s more. The third aspect of a mindful worldview that I’d like to share has to do with what comes before thoughts. Often it’s an idea or a worldview that has consequences too. Sometimes we’re not aware of it but the reason we do or say something is motivated by a specific idea. About a decade ago, I was teaching mindfulness to young children and there was a boy in the class who had a medical diagnosis and came to school with a shadow aide. He was uncomfortable sitting in the circle with the other children so we encouraged him to sit with his shadow aide on a couch nearby. He was welcome to participate but for the most part he didn’t seem interested. Imagine our surprise when the school administrator got a call from the boy’s doctor saying that, unbeknownst to us, she had been encouraging him to practice mindfulness-based calming strategies for quite a while but the boy had refused. Something had changed and at his recent appointment the boy taught the doctor a mindfulness activity he had learned in school. When the doctor asked why he changed his mind the boy said that he hadn’t wanted to do the exercises before because he thought they were only for kids with problems. Now that everyone in his class was practicing mindfulness he decided to give it a try. For me, this is a profound example of how ideas have consequences. The consequence of my student’s idea that mindfulness was only for kids with problems got in the way of his learning something new. When he realized his idea was incomplete - that mindfulness was for everybody - he was able to shift his perspective and take advantage of what mindfulness had to offer.
I hope you enjoy this book. It’s the culmination of the authors’ significant body of work sharing mindfulness with teens. I’ve been waiting a long time for a practical, wise book on the subject to be published and am delighted that it’s here. May it serve children, teens and families everywhere.
This post was written as the foreword to a new book from Irene McHenry, PhD and Carol Moog, PhD entitled The Autism Playbook for Teens: Imagination-Based Mindfulness Activities to Calm Yourself, Build Independence, and Connect with Others (The Instant Help Solutions Series), I highly recommend it.