Interpersonal Mindfulness with Teens

Britt Rathborn

Interpersonal exchanges can trigger strong emotions. Just as the skills we learn through personal mindfulness practice can help us cope with things that trigger us in our daily lives, those same skills, when applied to our relationships, can be very useful in navigating relationships and building respect between two people.

If you work with teens, you’ve probably found that your own emotions have been triggered by their behavior at one time or another. For example,  if you grew up in a home where disrespectful talk was never tolerated, as opposed to a home where irreverence and sarcasm were the norm, a teenager who talks back may trigger a host of emotions that arise from your previous experiences. Mindfulness can help you to stay in the present moment and manage judgments or misinterpretations of a teen’s behavior.

When we practice mindfulness with teens, we boost our ability to slow down our own responses and focus effectively on just what is occurring in the moment—without assigning any potentially inaccurate or unhelpful judgment, evaluation, assessment or commentary. In a sense, practicing mindfulness in this context allows us to slow down enough to receive the pure essence of what is being communicated.

When we slow down and cut off our mind’s attempts to jump to conclusions, we’re much more likely to work with accurate information. Instead of automatically filling in blanks with our own assumptions, we are able to ask questions to address gaps in understanding. A pleasant personal benefit is that we remain more grounded, calm, and able to remain organized in the way we ultimately  evaluate what is we experience.

As we pull our own emotional reactions out of the mix, we are able to more accurately assess what the adolescent’s behavior is signaling, and respond more empathically and effectively. Oftentimes, our unchecked (and unmindful) reactions to adolescent behaviors can escalate the undesirable behavior. Mindful awareness disrupts this phenomenon.

When it comes to communicating with teens in a way that is most likely to foster engagement and authentic connection, mindful communication will work to your advantage. But surely it’s tougher than it sounds. So how exactly is this all done? Here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Observe, and really notice, as much as you can of what is being shared. 

Using words, describe to yourself what you see, avoiding any judgmental language. Open up to observing what is being shared, both verbal and non-verbal. In addition to the words being spoken, notice the volume of the teens voice, the body language, and his facial expressions. Notice the physical distance between the two of you, and label it objectively rather than classifying it through a judgment (ex. instead of “he is standing way too close to me, this is inappropriate”, try “his voice is loud, his face is red” ).

2. Notice when your mind wanders or slips into judgment mode. 

It is natural for the human mind to wander—even for us humans who have been trained to listen! When you notice that your mind has wandered, that you’re having judgmental thoughts, or that you’re caught up in thoughts about the past or the future (such as remembering similar experiences, or pondering what this interaction means for the future), simply bring your attention back to observing the present moment. Do so in a way that is gentle and compassionate. Resist the urge to judge yourself as a clinician for not being able to stay fully present at all times.

3. Remember that serving does not always mean fixing. 

As helping professionals, we do the jobs we do in order to serve our clients. It’s important to remember that serving is not the same as fixing. Sometimes serving means simply listening, with a compassionate and accepting attitude, to what is being shared.

When we approach adolescents with the attitude of wanting to fix what’s challenging them, we inadvertently impose a sense of authority and place ourselves above our clients. Even if we are in positions of authority, it’s important to be mindful of this dynamic in our communications with them if we wish to encourage authentic engagement.

Further, when we act like we know what’s best for teens, we disempower them by potentially implying that they cannot manage their problems without our help. Instead, practice listening without the urge to rescue or fix and instead to work alongside teens collaboratively toward solutions.

The ability to maintain mindful awareness during our communications with teens can be enhanced through regular mindfulness practice, both in our own time and during our interactions with teens. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain; after all mindfulness meditation has repeatedly been proven to increase emotion management skills and improve overall sense of well-being in those who practice regularly.

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Britt Rathbone, LCSW-C, provides mental health services to adolescents and their families in the Washington, D.C., area.

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