Mindfulness and Compassion Training for Adolescents

by Brian M. Galla and Jessica Morey

Adolescence can be a perilous time. Stress, for example, is on the rise. A 2014 report by the American Psychological Association found that adolescents report stress levels that are higher than what they believe is healthy, and most believe they are not doing enough to cope. Teens who experience a lot of stress are more prone to mental illness, including depression, and perform worse in school. And despite a mature capacity for logical reasoning, risky decisions—having unprotected sex, texting while driving, breaking the law—spike during adolescence, causing untold suffering.

Yet, adolescence is also a period of opportunity. Many teens yearn for respect and purpose in their daily life, and they strive to make a positive contribution to the world beyond themselves. Studies show that exercises that harness these drives for autonomy and purpose—rather than suppress them as interventions sometimes do—can motivate positive behaviors, including eating healthy and doing homework. As teens naturally seek to clarify their sense of who they are and what they want to become, they may also be receptive to activities that support related values, including self-awareness and self-understanding, that in turn confer resilience and health. One such opportunity may be found through mindfulness and compassion training.

Mindfulness means paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment with kindness and curiosity.

When practicing mindfulness, adolescents are given the chance to slow down, take some breaths away from frantic pace and overstimulation of their lives and develop skills to relax and see how stress is created in the body and mind.

Through the mindfulness skills of focused attention and investigation, young people can become more familiar with the many aspects of their internal world, including thoughts, emotions, and the body’s senses, and learn how to cope with them more effectively—to not believe everything they think. These are vital skills during this risky, peer-influenced stage of development.

And mindfulness is not just an internal experience; these skills can be brought directly into relationships with peers and others so that adolescents develop greater understanding of others, empathy, perspective taking and compassion.

In our perspective, if mindfulness is to be part of the national conversation on improving mental and behavioral health for adolescents, it will be important for scientists and practitioners to understand the multitude of contexts that might be able to support these efforts. School-based programs will obviously and rightly be part of this national effort. But, we should also consider other delivery systems and contexts that might support teens during this critical period of social-emotional development.

The iBme Mindfuless Retreat Model
Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme) leads weeklong mindfulness retreats for teens and young adults. The programs introduce young people to mindfulness through five hours of guided meditation and mindful movement each day. There is a strong emphasis on relational mindfulness—through facilitated small group discussions twice a day. The small groups provide opportunities to practice deep listening, speaking from the heart, and cultivating empathy and compassion with peers.

Young adults and parents regularly share that iBme programs are transformative, but do these retreats work beyond the anecdotes? To find out, we conducted a preliminary study in summer 2013. In this study, we sampled youth from five different retreats across the United States. Immediately before and after the five-day retreats, and then three months later, teens filled out a series of questionnaires about their experience of stress, depression, their overall satisfaction with their life, their self-compassion, and their day-to-day levels of mindfulness.

The results of this study, published in the Journal of Adolescence, showed that teens reported improvement immediately after the retreat on every measure. But, more importantly, many of these improvements were maintained three months later. Stress levels were lower three months after the retreat than they were before the retreat; teens were ruminating less over negative experiences in their life. Teens also reported a greater capacity for mindfulness and self-compassion in their daily life, and higher life satisfaction.

An important limitation of that study is that it did not have a comparison group, so it was not possible to determine whether improvements in well-being were due to mindfulness and compassion training or extraneous factors unrelated to the retreat (e.g., normal changes in well-being across time). So, in summer 2016, we conducted another study, this time comparing teens who went on a retreat earlier in the summer with those who were enrolled in retreats at the end of the summer but had not yet attended. In addition to collecting self-report questionnaires, we also had parents fill out surveys about their child’s emotional well-being and self-regulation before and after the retreats. Finally, students completed a performance measure of working memory—the mind’s workspace—to see whether spending five days training mindfulness and compassion would improve focus and mental stability.

The results were very consistent with the preliminary study from 2013. Compared to teens who did not attend a retreat, those who did reported improvements in self-compassion and positive emotions, including gratitude, and reductions in depression. Parents also reported an increase in self-control, measured here as greater emotional stability in the face of challenges. And, teens who participated in the retreat showed improvements in working memory, whereas the teens who had not yet attended the retreat showed no improvement over time.

Increasing Self-Compassion as the Driving Factor
iBme retreats have been organized throughout the United States, from Virginia to Seattle. In 2015, iBme also began offering retreats in partnership with universities and colleges. What was driving these positive effects? In both studies, our data showed that participating in the retreat boosted teens’ self-compassion, which in turn, helped explain their reductions in depression, and improvements in life satisfaction and gratitude. Self-compassion is about recognizing the shared human experience of suffering, and holding it in context so that we don’t get so carried away by it. For example, teens who silently worry they are the only ones who struggle with doubts about themselves or with social exclusion may benefit from the realization that most people suffer in similar ways, that they are not alone.

University of Pittsburgh and iBme connection
iBme retreats have been organized throughout the United States, from Virginia to Seattle. In 2015, iBme also began offering retreats in partnership with universities and colleges. Efforts are underway to bring this model to Pittsburgh youth, both at the high school and college level. A crucial goal moving forward will be form collaborations with friends and supporters of the School of Education to bring the iBme model to local youth who might benefit from these immersive programs. We are also particularly interested in exploring how the stress and vulnerability during key transitions—like the transition from high school to the University of Pittsburgh—can be powerful times for teaching the skills of mindfulness and self-compassion in an immersive setting.

* References used in the article by Galla and Morey are available here.

Brian M. Galla is a School of Education assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in Education. Jessica Morey is the executive director of Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme).