Teenage Mindfulness this Spring

With the stresses of daily life and ongoing uncertainty in the world, it is no surprise that teens may feel disinterested and just want to tune everything out.  Is it possible that we can help our teenagers be mindful in the moment?   Is it possible we can invite them to experience other ways to relax and release some tension?

The laughter coming from the backyard catches my attention as I look out our kitchen window and contemplate the sun piercing through the clouds and blue sky. I can see the play structure as my son standing in the tower chats with his friend Trevor, who sits at the bottom of the slide. Richie is swinging pretty high after being pushed by Lauren, and Joe is chasing Billy with a water gun as they loop around the fortress (names have been changed to protect their privacy). It is mid-afternoon Saturday and they have chosen to escape their “teenage” world and dive into the playground, reminiscing and enjoying their days when they were much younger and did not have to worry about the challenges of being in high school.

Teens face many challenges as they move from middle school to high school. Not only do they desire to have more independence as they seek more activities, but more responsibility is thrown their way as well – both from parents and teachers. The way that they handle the stresses of life can depend on so many factors, including their temperament and personality; their previous life experiences, and the resilience they may have developed through these experiences; the activities they participate in and how busy they feel; their friendships and whether or not they feel support from those relationships; and their home life and family support. Add to the mix that they start to experience growth spurts, hormone changes and romantic feelings, and life can feel complicated.

Mental Health Problems

Anxiety can pop up easily in teenagers as they try to navigate their adolescence. About 1 in 3 teens may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder with symptoms that become significant enough to disrupt their daily life. One of the major factors that often lead to anxiety and mental health problems amongst teens is high expectations. This can include the expectation to perform well, or act, look or “be” a specific way. These expectations may be self-imposed, be caused by parental pressure, or simply our American culture to achieve and be the best.

COVID-19 and Uncertain Futures

Mental health has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought on virtual learning and major uncertainty about their futures (as highlighted in a recent New York Times article, titled 12 Teenagers on What Adults Don’t Get About Their Lives). Additionally, a recent Washington Post article mentions the concern that the CDC has for declining mental health in teens. In “A Cry for Help:” CDC Warns of Steep Decline in Mental Health, Moriah Balingit stated that “more than 4 in 10 teens [report] they feel ‘persistently sad or hopeless,’ and 1 in 5 [say] they have contemplated suicide.”

Social Issues, War and Violence

In addition, our world continues to be complicated by social issues, which seem to always be bombarding our psyches. Poverty, homelessness and hunger affect not only developing countries but here in our own country as well. Other areas of concern include climate change, civil rights and discrimination, gender inequality and gender dysphoria, and immigration challenges The current generation of kids and teens are very socially conscious and want to make an impact in our world.

The war in Ukraine has touched all of us. It is natural to feel empathy and sadness, particularly for those who have relatives there. Schools continue to have lockdowns and drills to address shootings, which can potentially cause emotional stresses perhaps not too different from the Ukraine war. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to restrict activities and to wear masks on a regular basis. It is no wonder that going out in public can create some degree of stress and anxiety, even for us adults – so again, no wonder our teens may be feeling this way too.

Social Media and The Need to “Fit In”

being connected to social media has its positive effects, but can also create enormous negative energy. Today’s teens are very connected and aware of what is going on, not just in their friends’ lives, but also in the lives of everyone around them and so many larger world events. Imperfections are all erased, and “only edited for perfection,” unattainable standard is loud and clear. Appearances carry a lot of weight, to the point that it can be very distressing when posts are negative or offensive to others, or a teen is lead to believe everyone else’s life is perfect.

With all of these daily stresses and looming uncertainty, it is no surprise that sometimes teens feel like just going to their room and tuning things out. They find security in their chats and by posting how they feel. But is it possible we can invite them to experience other ways to relax and release some tension?

More likely than not, there’s going to be some resistance, as venturing out into another activity may rock their boat. But with a little love, some humor and teasing, maybe using words to expand their imagination, we can talk them into going on an adventure with us and enjoy nature, even if it’s just for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon. We may not have to go far to experience the wildlife here in our own home of southwest Michigan. One of our nurses used to keep in our office a book about the different birds in our area so kids could identify them as the birds flew by our exam rooms and kids could see them through the windows. Try taking your camera or your phone and capture some of the birds perched on a branch or chasing each other as if they were flying and playing in their own backyard. Perhaps do a nature scavenger hunt walk with phone cameras.

What Can We Do? Where Can We Go?

  • The Kalamazoo Nature Center website shares its mission statement, “A not-for-profit organization whose mission is to create relationships & experiences that welcome and inspire people to discover, enjoy, value and care for nature. KNC envisions a resilient community where all people have strong interconnections with the natural world.”
  • Asylum Lake is a 274-acre parcel owned by Western Michigan University, located by Drake Road and Parkview Avenue. It supports multiple habitat types including oak savanna, prairie, forest, wet meadow, emergent marsh, shrub carr and two lakes. Birds fly in every so often so it’s good to have your camera ready.
  • The Kleinstuck Preserve is also a 48-acre nature preserve owned by Western Michigan University. As stated on their webpage, “This unique ecosystem includes upland forest, swamp forest, shrub carr and marshland which are home to a wide variety of plants and animals. Some of Kleinstuck’s special features include a beautiful showcase of native wildflowers in the springtime and a highly diverse bird population. The property is open to the public for passive recreation and is used by WMU and other educational institutions for research and education.”
  • Celery Flats in Portage, as stated on their website, “Is really a ‘park within a park.’ A key element of the Portage Creek Bicentennial Park, Celery Flats, has two distinct settings. On the north side of Garden Lane, the Celery Flats Pavilion offers a nice open-air seating area, picnic tables, restrooms and an air station. The Celery Flats Historical Area, with several relocated and restored buildings, is located south of Garden Lane. The Historical Area is the site of many community events and several of the buildings can be reserved for private group use.”
  • The Kal-Haven Trail is, as stated on their website, “33.5 miles between Kalamazoo and South Haven in southwest Michigan. The trail rests on an abandoned railroad bed constructed in 1871. The converted rail-trail winds through gorgeous scenery including wooded areas, farmlands, streams and rivers.”

Consider getting the All Trails: Hike, Bike & Run app as a guide to the outdoors. I found a number of other app’s on my phone that help me discover what’s in my “own backyard.”

So as spring rolls around the corner and we find ways to get outside and experience life, perhaps this might be an occasion to create some bonding time with your teen and spend it in nature. A couple of hours away from the house and disconnected from social media might release some Dopamine from that “feel-good” center of the brain. And who knows, this just might be the break that the doctor ordered to help our kids get back their self-confidence, release some tension and stress, and tackle that school project they’ve been wanting to finish.

(A health article from Dr. John Spitzer, a pediatrician at Bronson Primary Care Partners, was first published on Bronson’s Blog Page on April 15, 2022)


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