Is Mindfulness Suitable for Children and Teenagers?

Nowadays, it is rare to meet a person who is not practicing, has not tried, or at least heard of meditation or mindfulness. According to social media and various gurus, it would seem that these practices can solve all of the problems of the modern world: stress, obesity, financial difficulty, insomnia, anxiety and cure various diseases, such as depression or cancer. But at the same time, meditation and mindfulness are still considered by many to be a very esoteric practices, associated with shamanism, chakra opening, or some other voodoo pseudoscience practice. Meditation and mindfulness are seen as something that is very 'unscientific'.

Key takeaways:
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    Mindfulness and meditation improve ADHD symptoms in 5–17 years old youth.
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    Mindfulness school programs increase cognitive capacity (creativity, memory) and resilience to stress.
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    Mindfulness reduced anxiety in 5-18 year old youth and college students.
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    Mindfulness improves sleep in elementary school children.
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    Mindfulness improves the well-being of children with autism and their guardians.

But what do science and peer-reviewed research articles say about mindfulness and meditation? This is the fourth article in a series “Science of Meditation” where I describe the science behind mindfulness and meditation on how it affects our brain, body, behavior, and health. In the first article, we explored what is happening in your brain when you meditate, in the second article we discussed how meditation-related changes in the brain translate into our behavior with examples of stress, pain, and sadness, and in the third article, we investigated how meditation affects our fight-flight-freeze and rest-and-digest nervous systems. Yet so far, we only considered studies on adults. This time we will explore whether mindfulness and meditation are safe and suitable for children and adolescents and how it affects their behavior.

Meditation for children and adults differs

Needless to say, children and teenagers are very different from adults in their ability to sit still for long periods of time and focus. It is often harder for little ones to stay focused. So unlike meditations for adults, children’s meditation and mindfulness practices are often shorter and include more imagery and visualizations, which helps children direct their attention to the content and thereby improve their focus.

Meditation for youth with ADHD

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood, that affects 3–7% of children and can last into adulthood. Children who have ADHD usually are restless and/or overly active, have trouble paying attention, and act on impulse. Such symptoms seem quite likely to be alleviated with meditation, which is known to improve attention and impulse control in adults.

Indeed, a 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis concluded that yoga, mindfulness-based interventions, and/or meditation improved ADHD symptoms, reduced hyperactivity and inattention, improved parent-child relationship, executive functioning, and on-task behavior, and lowered parent stress in a population of 5–17 years old youth who have ADHD.

The authors point out that due to methodological limitations of the literature, these results should be interpreted with caution, and extensive research is required to validate the efficacy of these interventions. However, even though these interventions should not be considered first-line interventions for ADHD, yoga, mindfulness, and meditation may be beneficial for youth with ADHD.

Mindfulness school programs benefit the youth

Mindfulness and meditation-based school programs are becoming increasingly popular in elementary and high schools. They are relatively easy to implement and many believe they hold great promise and potential to improve cognition and overall well-being of students.

A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis looked through 24 studies (13 published) including 1348 students who were instructed in mindfulness and 876 students serving as controls, ranging from grade 1 to 12. They found that mindfulness-based interventions increased cognitive capacity (creativity, memory) and resilience to stress. The authors conclude that even though larger studies are warranted, the available evidence for mindfulness-based interventions benefitting children and youths certainly justifies allocating school resources to such implementations and also training the teachers in mindfulness techniques.

A 2017 comprehensive meta-analysis which included 24 studies evaluating mindfulness-based interventions in schools with a total of 3977 participants found that overall mindfulness interventions were found to be beneficial for mental health and wellbeing of youth. Interestingly, interventions delivered during late adolescence (15–18) and that consisted of combinations of various mindfulness activities had the greatest impact on mental health and well-being outcomes and the effects were observed even long after the intervention. On the other hand, in middle schoolers (6-10) the positive intervention effect was seen only immediately after the practice.

There could be two reasons to explain such results. First, the effectiveness of mindfulness training seems to depend on the person’s developmental period. Teenagers may represent a “window of opportunity” for mindfulness to take effect as it is during adolescence that the brain enters one of the periods of high brain plasticity (another example of such period is the first 2 years of a person's life). It could mean that younger children require more regular practice.

The second reason could be that mindfulness practices were not fully adapted for young children. As discussed above, children have very different attention spans than adults. Many of the mindfulness-based interventions for youth are adapted from the programs designed for adults. As such, it could be that further modifications are needed to make sure that the meditation exercises are attuned to the age of a child.

Mindfulness reduces anxiety in youth

One of the best-documented effects of meditation and mindfulness practices in adults is the reduction in stress and anxiety. Research shows that mindfulness-based interventions, including mindfulness meditation, also reduce anxiety in children and teenagers in both youths with and without a clinical diagnosis of anxiety disorder.

A 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis reviewed the literature on mindfulness-based interventions used to improve the health and well-being of youth with clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder. The meta-analysis included 5 studies with a total of 188 youth with anxiety disorder between the ages of 5 and 18 (mean age 13). The authors report a moderate effect of mindfulness-based interventions in improving anxiety in youth with anxiety disorder.

A more recent 2018 meta-analysis investigated whether mindfulness-based interventions reduced anxiety in college students without a clinical anxiety disorder diagnosis (25 primary studies with 1492 college students). Overall, when compared with controls, researchers found that mindfulness-based interventions had a large effect on reducing anxiety in college students. Additionally, the study concluded that the greater the number of mindfulness-based intervention sessions, the greater the effects.

Mindfulness improves sleep in children

Shortening of sleep duration in children and adolescents is a rising problem all over the world. Sleep is absolutely vital for our physical, emotional, and mental health, even more so in youth. Research shows that in addition to regular evening rituals and good sleep hygiene, meditation and mindfulness-based practices help youth get their proper restorative slumber at night.

For example, a new 2021 study found that elementary school students who practiced mindfulness twice a week for two years slept an average of 74 extra minutes per night. The improvement in sleep started three months after the start of the training, and the more active the practice, the more the sleep improved. Children who used mindfulness practices not only in class but also after school at home slept even longer.

Mindfulness may benefit children with autism

Research also suggests that mindfulness-based interventions may help children with developmental disorders such as autism. For example, a 2019 meta-analysis including 10 different studies and 233 children showed that children on the autism spectrum who practiced mindfulness reported a significant increase in subjective well-being immediately after the intervention. The available data show that not only children's well-being has improved, but also their guardians.

Importantly, the effect of mindfulness practices on wellbeing was maintained even 3 months after the intervention. The authors conclude that mindfulness is a promising intervention strategy in autism spectrum populations, but more controlled studies are needed to determine its precise effectiveness in affected families and subgroups.

Mindfulness and meditation practices present a very promising avenue to improve the health and well-being of children and teenagers. Even though larger and better-controlled studies are needed, the initial observations clearly show that mindfulness and meditation can help youth cope with stress and anxiety, improve their cognitive skills, such as attention, memory, and creativity, and improve their overall sense of well-being.

Lastly, it is important to note that in clinical populations of youth with disorders, mindfulness and meditation practices cannot in any way replace clinical or medical treatment and therapy, but can be used in addition to medical treatment.

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