The Mindful Backpack: Strategies for Stress Management and Mental Health in TeensAug 31, 2023 10:00AM ● By Linda Cicero
It’s the first day of school. Backpacks are packed and ready to go with new pens, pencils and fresh notebooks. Kids are excited to see their friends, but heading back to school can also bring stress and anxiety for many teens.
“Some of the common triggers of stress in teens might be anxiety to perform well in academics such as getting into a good college, peer pressure, interpersonal relationships or body image issues,” states Sakshi Khurana, research fellow at Harvard’s Weisz Lab for Your Mental Health.
These stressors are not unfamiliar to teens (or parents), but it can be argued that the level of stress experienced by teenagers has escalated, mirroring the surge in reported mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and disordered eating/eating disorders.
During adolescence, teens’ thoughts, emotions, interactions and bodies undergo significant changes. It’s a shift from childhood to adulthood, a time of self-care. This can be overwhelming as they navigate physical, biological, and emotional needs—a challenging task for developing brains.
So, what is the best way to support your teen during what can be incredibly confusing, at times overwhelming, and incredibly important years?
In an article on LynnLyons.com, licensed clinical social worker Lynn Lyons suggests that one of the most important things that parents, caregivers, teachers and mentors can do is to help let teens know that worry is normal. “Teens need to hear that they are supposed to be anxious! Expecting to be calm and relaxed during such a time of change is unrealistic…If a teen believes that staying calm is the goal, they’ll avoid taking risks, stay where they are most comfortable and never build up their own sense of confidence,” Lyons states.
Helping teens to understand that rigid mindsets like perfectionism, or the thought that there is only one way to live or succeed, are fallacies is important reassurance for them to understand that they are accepted, loved and supported for who they are. And, if you are a parent or mentor of a teen, there is always opportunity to turn inward and assess your own inner schemas and constructs that you may be projecting onto your teen. Children often model after behaviors and beliefs that they experience from parents and mentors.
Encouraging and guiding your teen to create tools and strategies in the moment of heightened stress or anxiety, or feelings of immense loneliness or frustration, is a key way to help teens build emotional resilience and intelligence. Help your teen build a “Mindful Backpack’ to take with them wherever they go so that they can feel more confident in themselves. Here are science-backed suggestions.
Mindful breathing activates the body’s relaxation response, soothing the nervous system and providing a sense of grounding and tranquility. Box breathing is a fairly popular and easy-to-learn mindful breathing technique. Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet on the floor and hands in your lap.
Inhale slowly through the nose for a count of four, allowing the air to fill your belly. Hold it at the top for four, exhale slowly through the mouth for four, and, as you breathe out, visualize a healing blue or white light washing over your body. To complete, hold the breath at the bottom for a count of four. Repeat this exercise four times.
Box breathing or any other mindful breathing can and should be done throughout the day. It can help to calm us down in the moment of heightened emotions; by practicing multiple times a day, we continuously soothe and train our nervous system, helping to keep a more steady state and mind in totality.
Try a grounding breathing practice with your teen every morning before they go to school and every night before they go to bed. Put on some gentle meditation music and just breathe.
Stop, Drop & Roll
This “take on the go” technique is great for teens to learn and use to support themselves when difficult moments arise throughout their day.
Stop: When you feel a heightened emotional response, simply stop. Give yourself a moment to pause, collect yourself, and take a deep breath in and out.
Drop: Next, drop into yourself and observe what you are feeling. Do you feel any tension? Is it in your shoulders or jaw? Do you feel warm? Cold? Tingles? Butterflies? Simply observe, breathe and allow yourself to feel your body experience the emotion, without judgement. Remind yourself that you are human, having a human experience. This type of self-compassion is crucial to developing self-acceptance and confidence.
Roll: Once you have calmed down, roll into the next step of your day or the conversation from a place of calm.
Review this technique with your teen. Try having them recall a recent time where they had difficulty controlling their emotions. Share an experience of your own as well. By sharing your vulnerable moments, your teen will feel safe and seen to do the same.
It’s important to seek balance, not perfection, when choosing meals. Mindful eating is about finding balance and nourishing your body, not about being perfect. However, it is critical to understand that what we eat and how we eat are crucial to our total health, including our mental health. Over consumption of added sugar, processed food, unhealthy fats and artificial additives have been linked to mood swings, and increased risk of mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety.
Eat a Good Breakfast: Breakfast plays a pivotal role in setting the stage for the day’s energy and mood. Items like bagels, cereal or even plain oatmeal can be tasty, but are not nutrient-dense. They cause a big glucose spike and large surges of dopamine when eaten without adequate protein, healthy fat or fiber. Protein and fiber are essential in regulating our nine key hunger hormones and stabilizing blood glucose levels.
A protein-centric breakfast, such as eggs and avocado on toast with berries or a piece of fruit, will provide your teen with the right mix of protein, healthy fat and fiber while providing energy for both their brain and body.
Eat Slow and Limit Distractions: Invite your teen to sit down with you and try eating mindfully. Ask each other what you taste, describe the texture of the food, the aroma. Chew slowly and mindfully. It may feel a little awkward at first, but have fun with it. Research shows that taking at least 20-30 minutes to finish a meal allows more time for your body to release the necessary hormones that promote satiety. Avoid eating on the go as much as possible.
Cook Together: Encourage your teen to explore cooking by choosing recipes from around the world. Exposing kids to different flavors and ingredients is a great way to grow their confidence in the kitchen. Cooking together creates closer bonds. You can also use the time to listen, share and talk with your teen.
Look for the Signs
We cannot talk about teen health without discussing the current rise of disordered eating, especially in young girls. According to a recent meta-analysis published by JAMA Pediatrics, one in five kids around the world show signs of disordered eating and/or eating disorders. There are not exact causes of eating disorders, but various factors can contribute to the development of these disorders, such as depression, anxiety, the desire for control, societal pressures, family influences and cultural expectations.
It is very important for parents to become familiar with the signs, which can include significant weight fluctuations, excessive focus on body shape and weight, avoidance of meals, distorted body image, changes in eating patterns and withdrawal from social activities.
In her book, Befriending Your Body, Ann Saffi Biasetti, Ph.D., LCSW, speaks to her own journey and recovery from anorexia and her research with patients. “Any disordered eating is an attempt to feed the soul and to connect to a deeper place within. It is a search for love, both to be loved and to love, starting with oneself and another, connection to oneself and another, acceptance of oneself and others as well as a return to what feels like a wholeness of self or ‘home’,” she states.
Supporting your child through an eating disorder can be difficult as a parent. It’s important to understand that it is not your fault and knowing the best way to support your child through treatment is not always easy, but vital to their recovery. Be patient and tell them you love them no matter what happens, educate yourself on eating disorders and maybe join an eating disorder support group.
If you suspect that your teen is struggling with disordered eating, reach out to your doctor right away. To learn more about disordered eating, visit Feast-Ed.org.
Linda Cicero is a NASM-certified nutrition coach and behavior change specialist with 12 years of experience in the fitness and wellness industry. Through her health coaching practice, Life in Color, she supports women in overcoming burnout, prioritizing their well-being and nutrition, and pursuing their aspirations from a place of wholeness. Connect at LifeinColor.online.