Advice for Teens: Living Your Dreams

After participating in the Wisdom 2.0 Youth conference, blogger Gina Biegel reflects on the power of perseverance. There are times when fear can prevent us from following our dreams and goals.  Fear or other such feelings are like monsters under our beds or in our closets and might lead to so many opportunities if we pay attention to and believe them.  What would have happened without the Einsteins or Martin Luther Kings of the world if they were too scared to persevere and follow their passion and their hearts?

When you feel like you can’t, you shouldn’t or that others are pushing you down, don’t listen to yourself or them. Don’t give up! I say this because if I had listened to the judgmental voice inside my head and comments from others that supported these negative judgments I wouldn’t be writing this right now. Let me tell you a little more to give you some perspective.

I am the first person in my family to go to college. Getting in was a bit challenging –I didn’t have a lot of guidance as to how the application process works, where to apply, etcetera.  Luckily, I had the opportunity to go to a very good high school that did assist in some of these areas. I also had the will and determination to get somewhere.  Where, I wasn’t sure where yet. But I knew I wanted to do something that would make a difference in the world.

And I’ve done pretty well. I published my first book, The Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens: Mindfulness Skills to Help You Deal With Stress, a little over a year ago and have published journal articles in some of the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals in the world. But when I first went to take my entrance exam for writing in the University of California school system, I didn’t pass. I had to take the course early on in college.

Nevertheless, I didn’t let it stop me, even if it was easy to talk myself into believing I wasn’t a good writer or that I was stupid. Now, I look back and grin ear to ear because it was that perseverance that encouraged me to follow my path even more. (By the way, I ended up graduating from my undergraduate education in three years. Just saying!)

I won’t forget my junior year high school English teacher. No need to name names here, but suffice it to say that instead of being encouraged, I would read returned papers that were often torn down with lots of red ink with  no feedback on how to succeed and fix the mistakes I was making in my writing. It caused me much sadness and I felt like giving up.

I reflect on all this now having just attended the inaugural Wisdom 2.0 Youth conference in Silicon Valley. Wisdom 2.0 Youth was about bringing people together: thought leaders in the fields of technology and mindfulness and discussed the ways the two, are shaping the lives of our youth today. I had the privilege of speaking at it. For me speaking at this conference it was kind of like feeling like I got invited to speak on the Oprah show. I have been speaking for quite a few years now at a myriad of different conferences, but this felt like the big one.

Given my concerns about my own abilities and what I really have to offer in what I teach, the need to come across in an articulate, clear, concise, and intelligent manner was weighing on me. Plus, this was the first time I would be filmed for YouTube.

There is a catchphrase I often teach to teens in my Stressed Teens Program, which is compiled of mindfulness skills to help teens deal with stress. “Don’t Believe Everything You Think.” You’ve surely heard it before, but it really has made a big difference in many of the lives for both teens and parents that I have worked with, who sometimes respond that the sentiment had never occurred to them.

And I know its value first-hand. Had I listened to the things I believed about myself and the words and actions of others in my life, I wouldn’t have gone in the path I have and would be living a life of missed opportunities.

I feel grateful because I believe that when I presented at Wisdom 2.0 I did so with the following: passion, enthusiasm, authenticity, humility, empathy and honesty. This might sound egocentric, but my point is that I’m doing what I’ve always believed I should be doing, in the way I believe it should be done. (I can’t say I am perfect at being humble or empathic everyday, but noticing when I am and when I am not and shifting in such a way to get on the right track, that in itself too is being mindful.)

I’m living my dream, despite what my English teacher said or didn’t say or despite my own judgments.

What makes you think you can’t do the same?

Teens, stress, and suicide: A day in the life

On July 7, 2011, Clayton Carlson, a 23-year-old Palo Alto, CA resident who graduated from Palo Alto High School (aka “Paly”) in 2006, committed suicide on a local train track in Palo Alto, California. There have been 7 teen-specific suicides since May of 2009. So I sat down with Paly High School Senior Meghan Byrd to ask her about teen life, the pressures of being a teen today and the epidemic of recent teen suicides in the local area.

Meghan, a future teen panelist at the upcoming Wisdom 2.0 Youth Conference, is concerned about teen health and tragic stories Clayton Carlson’s. She recalls checking her Facebook newsfeed after a student committed suicide at Paly in January of this year, and seeing dozens of statuses of friends on Facebook that show the letters, “R.I.P.” This has become so commonplace, she says, that it isn’t even a surprise anymore.

Although self-destructive behavior has been a problem for a few years now, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) has failed to appropriately address the issue. Where some kids do end up committing suicide, Meghan tells me, others might engage in less serious destructive behaviors including cutting, drug use to stay up at night (e.g., illegal use of Adderal and Ritalin, not used as prescribed for ADHD), lack of sleep to meet the demands and rigors set forth by teachers regarding quantity of homework, binge drinking, and, among injured athletes, continuing to play in order to be scouted for recruitment.  These negative behaviors, Meghan contends, are the norm and are often commonplace amongst the schools in the PAUSD.

It is clear that students are under increased pressures related to school performance, getting into a prestigious college, and being the best at everything they do. (When standing on the Paly campus, you can actually see Stanford University, a dream school for so many high school students in the PAUSD.) When we reflect on the pressures adults put on ourselves, and our use and abuse of Band-Aid approaches, it is no wonder teens are learning to model what they see. How can we expect them to do differently, if we fail to teach them what that looks like and how to do it?

Meghan reflects on the impact these suicides have had on her and her community especially when the details made national news. Example: Neighboring Gunn High School lost four teens to suicide on a local Palo Alto train track. Students got one “mental health day” to process the loss, but is that enough? What more should we all be doing before this happens yet again?

After the January suicide I mentioned, which took place at Meghan’s high school right before finals, a female senior hung herself at her friend’s house. Returning to school to take finals during this time was difficult for Meghan and many of her fellow students.  These teens were offered that they were too distraught that they could speak to their teachers about rescheduling their exams, but some, like Meghan, didn’t want to risk negatively affecting their resulting grades.

Students are continually worried about the reactions and potentially negative consequences of asserting themselves at school and in their homes. This spring Meghan, like many students at Paly, had a test or project due in every single class on one single day.  She tried to contact some of her teachers to see if they could be flexible regarding this dilemma. But it was not until her mother sent an email to the administration that the teachers really took the appeal seriously.

For Meghan, a typical day begins at 7 a.m. She wakes, has breakfast, and gets to school.  She then prepares to turn in homework and take a test or quiz in at least one course almost daily. After school, she participates in two hours of daily lacrosse practice.  She then gets home, eats, showers and is finally able to begin her five-plus hours of homework. She starts at 8pm and goes to sleep at 1 am. (This isn’t accounting for the time for the entire week every three weeks that she doesn’t get home until 9:30 because she is working on her school paper commitment.  Nor does this include any time she tries to have with friends socially, or downtime to just be with family and herself.) This schedule, Meghan says, is quite common for most of her classmates at Paly.

No wonder why teens have a hard time without stimulation and with silence: they rarely get any. Then it starts all over again, Groundhog Day, a life of racing to get somewhere—the next class, the next practice, the next thing to accomplish and put on one’s college application. And at what cost? Are we teaching the youth of today the race to never being happy and at peace with who they are, as they are?

When it comes to stressed students, schools and parents often acknowledge that there is a problem. But few take action to change things.  It could be your son or daughter or your high school student that we’re talking about here. This problem knows no boundaries and no stereotypes.

What can parents and educators do to help kids like Meghan? She and I have some suggestions. Please look these over, try them, and share your own ideas here.

Suggestions to Parents

  • Look for red flags in your kids: changes in eating, and sleeping, reduced enjoyment in previously favored activities.
  • Concerned about your teen? Err on the side of caution. It is better to be safe than sorry.  This might require you to get your teen to the appropriate doctor or mental health professional.

Meghan suggests:

  • It helps to not put pressure on your teen to take the most rigorous classes, especially if they’re already feeling pressure.
  • Remind your teen that success isn’t about having a 4.0 GPA. It’s about having life skills and values like accountability, resourcefulness, honesty, and the like. Suggest that they just do their best, and let them know that’s good enough!
  • Remember that your teen is still a teenager—not an adult—and that they need your support and love. Through this a sense of safety can be created: your teen can come to you if he or she needs to talk to you, and won’t be yelled at or get in trouble.

Suggestions to School Administration

  • There is a point where having a high volume of homework doesn’t increase outcome regarding future success. Find this point, and step back from it.
  • Self-care for school administration, too, is hugely important in creating a healthy school community.
  • Pay attention to signs and changes in your student’s behaviors in and out of the classroom and report any concerns to the appropriate person(s). Again, err on the side of caution; it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Meghan suggests:

  • Doing five-plus hours of homework per night is going to cause sleep deprivation, unneeded stress, anxiety, depression and worry. Give us a break!
  • Teachers can be flexible with the amount of homework they give, the frequency of tests they administer, and due dates for assignments!
  • Teach basic life skills that can be applied to today and prepare students for their future unlike archaic academia that isn’t useful in life.

The Race to Right Here Right Now: Mindfulness as an antidote to never being happy with the way things are

I recently watched the documentary Race to Nowhere and it got me thinking. It discusses the state of the problems with our youth today and the impact of always feeling we have to strive, to get somewhere and do something. Meanwhile, I was asked to speak at an upcoming conference, Wisdom 2.0 Youth. I was asked for the title of my talk and somehow Race to Right Here Right Now arose in my mind. It was then that I realized: many of us, at a very young age, are already racing to somewhere, but we're losing the race to being right here right now.

We are always wanting to attain a goal, accomplish a task, move forward in our education or our career. But how often do we just sit in what is? Can we race to be right here right now, which is the core of mindfulness?

OK: racing isn’t one of the core features of mindfulness, but surely being here right now is. It’s important for youth to have goals, aspirations, dreams, and accomplishments, but how—if we are always trying ourselves to get to the next something—are our youth going to learn that it is OK to just be here right now without worrying or holding expectations about everything?

We often say we need to take care of ourselves or say that in fact we are taking care of ourselves, but how often do we really do what it takes to take care of ourselves?

I encourage you, and those youth you interact with, to start the race to mindfulness. There are many ways you can do this, but here are a few simple ideas:

1. Check in with your body and your breath in this moment, bringing you into the here and now and less in your head. Encourage those teens around you to do the same.

2. Make a list of the things you are grateful for just as they are. Ask the teens in your life to do the same. And let them know that you're grateful for them, too.

3. Do something today that is just for your own well-being, just about today, and not about racing to the next thing.

4. Smile at someone. Give someone a hug.

5. Notice something simple such as the sun, a flower, a picture that brings you joy.

It’s about noticing the little things; being mindful of  your surroundings and of the greatness that life can offer us just as it is. Even in the midst of very difficult times and struggles, if we widen our eyes just a little bit, there is something beautiful worth seeing, and that can rejuvenate us.

Now and Then

People often ask me how to introduce teens to mindfulness. One of the best ways to answer that question is to illustrate it through a story from my own life, such as the snorkeling adventure I mentioned in my last post. I find that mixing stories with real-life examples from the world of teens—along with an appropriate amount of self-disclosure—gets me a lot of mileage in connecting with teenagers and trying to help them. If we go back to my worry-filled mind as I anticipated going snorkeling, we can see that talking about that experience is just the kind of opening that would help teens relate to a common pattern in their own minds. A great intervention to use with teens is to have them find out how many of their thoughts are actually about what’s going on here and now. They can see that by spending so much time in their mind on things that have already happened or are going to happen, they aren’t living their life right now. How much are they missing in the present?

As an exercise, you can have them jot down all the thoughts that come to their mind for a period of three to five minutes. After they’re finished, ask them to mark each thought with a “P” for past, “N” for now, and “F” for future. It’s easy for them to see that most of their thoughts aren’t in the now. The point of this activity is to help them discover that by being mindful they’ll spend less time focusing on past or future thoughts, many of which aren’t particularly helpful, such as worries and judgments about oneself or others. People need to think about the past and future, but if teens can focus more on the present moment it might mitigate some of the mental and physical problems that come from spending so much time in their heads.

See, Hear, Feel

As I got in the water and began to snorkel, I noticed the flippers were hurting my feet. I forgot to breathe only through my mouth, and took a lot of salt water in through my nose, which was unpleasant. I felt cold and noticed how different the part of my body above the water felt from the part beneath. And then, “Oh my gosh—beauty, amazement!”

I saw a world I’d never seen before: the colors, all the small and big fish, the coral, and how it all formed a community. I noticed how the fish moved in schools, how they glided through the water. I was wondering why some fish were closer together and others farther apart. A visitor to their world, I was seeing something with fresh eyes. I encourage the teens I work with to see things with fresh eyes. I try to elicit what they see in their world—what makes up their world and what gives them purpose. I inquire about the different relationships in their lives—what schools of fish they hang out with—to get an in-depth look into their world. Sometimes their world can seem as new to me as snorkeling for the first time.

I find it quite helpful to use our senses to experience what mindfulness is rather than relying on a definition. Have a teen tell you what they see, smell, hear, touch, and taste in any given moment. First, it will get them to be present, right here in this moment. Second, they might notice something they have seen a thousand times, but never noticed. You can ask them to share what they see, smell, and so on, and then share things you noticed that they didn’t, and vice versa. You will learn from them by doing this, which can happen in so many moments with teens if you are open.

Under the Sea

I recently went to Hawaii for the first time, and a friend suggested we go snorkeling to experience the beautiful tropical fish firsthand. I try to be open-minded about checking out new things and I enjoy seeing with fresh eyes, so even though I had learned to swim only a few years ago, I said yes straight away. But it wasn’t long before fear and worry set in. I began to think about how I wasn’t a very good swimmer, how I often get motion sickness, and that I would probably get seasick. I was sure the fish would bite me. This flood of thoughts about my past and my future filled my mind and offset any anticipated enjoyment.

In the same way, I’ve noticed that many of the teens I work with worry excessively about things that are out of their control. They believe it will change the outcome of what they’re worrying about—which we know from hard experience isn’t the case. One of the simplest techniques I use with teenagers is to help them notice when they’re engaging in these past/future thoughts and help them see that worries can’t change outcomes, no matter how much we would like them to. This small step can often shift their thinking and lead to increased present-moment awareness.

I began to use mindfulness with teenagers in my psychotherapy practice when I saw that techniques that had traditionally been used with adults in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program could work well with teens. Not only were teens “getting it,” they were soaking it up like sponges. I found they were often more open to the practices than adults, if they were explained in teen language. Unlike many of the other interventions I was using from other traditional psychotherapies, I saw that mindfulness techniques and interventions dramatically and quickly improved teens’ quality of life. They reduced stress and gave the teens strength from within to solve their problems, which often led to a shift away from “poor me” or judgmental thinking. I’ve now been systematically teaching these techniques for more than seven years.

In this blog, I will share with you my experience working in the world of teen life through stories, insights, and advice—sometimes mine and sometimes what I’ve learned from others. Some of the posts will be directed to teens, some to parents, and some to professionals. I’ll try to be sure that all the posts will also be of broad interest, no matter which audience they’re mainly directed to. Enjoy!