How to Reduce Fear in your Middle Schooler
Middle school is an inherently stressful environment because it’s a major transitional stage in life. Tweens are being faced with three important changes:
- Physical. Your tween is beginning puberty. They are flooded with hormones that result in wildly fluctuating emotions and poor decision-making, and their bodies are undertaking massive outward changes which can feel embarrassing.
- Social. Children are transitioning out of the “child” years, but are not yet firmly in the “teen” years. They are uncertain of their place in the world and social rejection becomes threatening. They have left the elementary school mindset of “everyone in my class is my friend” and entered the world of cliques, gossip and exclusion.
- Academic. School significantly changes in two ways. First, students now have multiple classes and teachers instead of just one or two. Second, the lessons shift from memorizing basic knowledge to critical thinking and applying the basics. These changes require more responsibility and increase the pressure your tween feels.
Most of us do not like change, and we feel threatened by the unknown. With so much changing in your child’s life, it is absolutely normal for your middle schooler to be battling fear.
While fear is a normal emotion for middle schoolers, it does not mean they just have to suffer with it. Science has shown that there is a way we can help our tweens turn off their fear: mindfulness.
In the past, research in neuroscience has proven that mindfulness provides numerous benefits for children and adolescents. Interestingly, at the end of 2019, a new study published in Behavioral Neuroscience by the American Psychological Association provides evidence of actual changes in brain functioning as a result of mindfulness training.
Research has shown the benefits of mindfulness for children to include:
- Reduces stress and anxiety
- Improves grades and performance on standardized tests
- Increases attention and concentration
- Changes the brain in ways that protect against mental illness
- Improves control over emotions
- Increases compassion and empathy
- Improves sleep
Mindfulness may be just the thing your middle schooler needs to turn off their fears!
Sometimes our brains become over-reactive, sending out signals of distress or danger even when a situation is not very scary. For a middle schooler this might mean their brain signals “danger” when their teacher is frowning or when the school bell is too loud or when the hallways are too crowded. Everything neutral becomes a potential threat, which means that your child is feeling afraid even when they are not in real danger.
In the 2019 study, middle school students in Boston were taught simple mindfulness techniques, such as slowing down their breathing and bringing attention back to the present moment. The researchers discovered that this mindfulness training increased the students’ attention control and ability to deal with stress. Here are ways to teach your tween how to practice mindfulness similar to what the students in the study were taught:
Breathing exercise. Tell your tween to close his eyes and inhale and exhale slowly and deeply. Sometimes counting to 5 as you breath in and counting to 5 as you breath out can help you slow your breath. Your tween could also choose to focus on how his body feels with each breath or he can think about inhaling positive thoughts and exhaling negative thoughts or worries.
Paying attention to the present. Many times, our brains tend to focus on the past or the future. We are upset about something that already happened or we are worried about something that might happen later. Staying in the present moment is a great way of quieting our stress. Tell your tween to set aside some time to be present and observant. Your tween can do this in a quiet room or outside taking a walk or engaging in some other peaceful activity. The idea is to observe the present moment, paying attention to the here and now. You might notice how your body feels, what noises you hear, the comfort of your environment, or what smells are present. Whenever your teen recognizes a judgmental or wandering thought, encourage them to notice and label it, and then return to the present moment. If they practice this frequently, they will get better at becoming aware of their thoughts when they become stressed, not just during their quiet time.
Persuading Tweens to Try Mindfulness
Although it might seem impossible to convince tweens of the value of mindfulness, we have some suggestions for how to encourage the practice:
Benefits. Ultimately, all of us want to know “what’s in it for me?” whenever we consider undertaking a new idea, project, or habit. Take the time to inform your tween of the benefits listed above. When tweens hear that science has found such positive effects, you might see them become more willing to try it.
Role Model. If you are stressed out and never slow down, it will be very difficult to try to convince your tween that it’s a good idea to act any differently. Your tween needs to see you prioritizing time each day to practice mindfulness. It will be an even more effective sell if you can demonstrate an ability to manage stress better as a result of these practices. Tweens take seriously whatever they see in action.
Use Technology. Meet tweens where they are… on their phones! There are several mindfulness apps that are very popular and helpful. One really good one that is free and made for youth is called SmilingMind. For tweens that are very engaged with technology, using an app might be the best way to entice them to try these techniques.
Mindfulness has consistently been proven to reduce stress, so why not set your child up for having a life skill that will help them throughout adulthood!