Well Balanced

How to support "kids these days"

June 06, 2022 Balance Season 1 Episode 31
Well Balanced
How to support "kids these days"
Show Notes Transcript

Teens’ mental health is declining, with 44% of U.S. high school students now reporting "persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” according to the CDC. Determined to help, Ofosu recently co-led a meditation retreat for teenagers. He talks to Leah about his experience and shares what we can all learn from it.

[Theme up and fade under]

OFOSU: Hi, I'm Ofosu Jones-Quartey.

LEAH: And I'm Leah Santa Cruz. We're the meditation coaches on the Balance app. 

OFOSU: And this is our weekly show -- Well Balanced.

OFOSU: So Leah, this week, I wanted to talk about what's going on with young people during this time, particularly teenagers, these days,

LEAH: I feel like that's what every generation says.

OFOSU:  And as much as when I was growing up I said to myself, that man, when I have a teenager or when I'm a grownup and I'm around other teenagers, I'm totally gonna to get them. And I'm totally going to understand, like here I am as an adult and it's pretty challenging. So to highlight those challenges, here's a few recent headlines that I came across.

As I looked into this more from the New York Times, there's an article called, ‘It's Life - The Mental Health Crisis Amongst US Teens.’ It says that depression, self-harm and suicide are rising among American adolescents. Another disconcerting article from The Atlantic is entitled, ‘Why American Teens are So Sad’ and from NPR, there's another - a story called, ‘The Kids are Not Alright’. The CDC finds that mental health amongst teens has declined. To expand on that CDC data, they're talking about a study that came out at the end of March this year that showed that 44% of high school students in the US reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

And that's almost double the amount that responded to the same question about 10 years ago in 2009.

LEAH: It's really shocking to hear that, but it's also not surprising giving what we're seeing. You can just open your eyes and take a look at teenagers right now. And it makes you ask that question, like what is going on?

What is really going on here?

OFOSU: We have so much uncertainty. In life, in general, just being a living being is full of uncertainty and there's potential calamity from just living. But then you compound that with the threats of violence that exist in our society. And, you know, young people are also under a lot of existential threats through climate change and it feels like the future is just more uncertain for young people now than ever before. 

And this past week, I actually had an experience that put me up close and personal with a bunch of teens. And, um, I kind of want to talk about it, uh, and see what we can learn from how teens are feeling, what we can do to help them, and what they can teach us. 

LEAH: I'm generally interested in what you gathered from the teenagers, because I think we all need to learn from what's happening, what's going on with our younger generations, because they're the future. So tell me what, what happened.

OFOSU: So there is an organization that I teach with that specializes in teaching young people and specifically teenagers.

So I was a co-leader of this four day retreat. It was out in the woods. The lodgings were very summer camp vibe. And the goal really was to introduce this group of teens to simple mindfulness and wellness practices that they could bring into their lives and take with them as they grow.

A lot of times for these kinds of retreats, teenagers are familiar with the program. They want to sign up, but this was a group of high school kids who kind of didn't really know what they were getting into. They signed up for it because it was like an option for end of the year credit that seemed like the least worst option. So when they got there and we were talking to them about, you know, having to give up their cell phones, having to, um, spend times in silence, et cetera, we got a lot of, uh, reluctance. 

LEAH:  They probably felt like it was a punishment.

OFOSU: Yeah. They definitely got there feeling like what did I do? So I asked them to share by words like how they felt about the retreat. And here's what they had to say about the beginning of the retreat. 

[SFX + Start memo recording]

MULTIPLE VOICES: Honestly, when I first got here, I thought it was a waste of time.

I was disappointed in myself for signing up. Definitely not open to trying a lot of it. I thought it was a waste of time and total bullshit. I thought it was like useless and kind of like annoying. I was very hesitant because I didn't think anything would be able to help me at this point with my mental health.

I came into this with an open mind, so I wasn't really like, you know, expecting anything.

[End memo recording + SFX]

OFOSU: Yeah. So coming in with an open mind and not expecting anything was the best of the initial responses. Everything else was, this is trash.

LEAH: I appreciate that they are like just frank, you know?

OFOSU: Yeah, yeah, me too. And, uh, I mean, it really drove home how uncomfortable they were when they got there.

LEAH: So what happened over the course of the week?

I want to know that like, wait, where's this going? I'm guessing they had a change of heart.

OFOSU: You know, um, spoiler alert. They did have a change of heart, but it took a while, especially since this group was high school kids who knew each other. And you got to realize that kids who go to school with each other are protecting themselves from being too vulnerable amongst their classmates. 

So here's how the sessions flow. In the mornings, you wake up at seven. The morning is in complete silence. I mean, as much as possible. We're not like enforcing these rules in a draconian way, but it's definitely the rule that we're trying to abide by and the teachers are modeling it. 

So we wake up at seven and we have the morning meditation. Then we go to breakfast. Silence breaks. Then we go outside to practice, um, some walking meditation and during these meditation sessions, it's very, very basic fundamentals, like learning how to tune into one of three anchors, whether it's the breath, sound or physical sensations. Then we would come back inside for another sitting session. And then another walking session.

I brought my singing bowls to try to make it a little bit more musical and I tend to like sing a song at the end of a meditation and stuff. So I was, I was doing my best to keep it interesting. Especially once I realize how disinterested they were. But the other teachers that I was teaching with were absolutely wonderful also. And they also brought so much like heart and energy and dope vibes actually.

So it took a while for them to trust us and to trust that this was not something that was meant to come down on them in any way, but to actually support them and where I think it really clicked was on the second full day. One of the teachers I was working with, we did a joint session with the teams and we asked them first - what are some of the major challenges that you face in life and what is your emotional response to those challenges? And that's really, when I think the retreat shifted in a significant way, some kids were there, um, with major athletic dreams from the retreat, they were flying to a different place to go to a tournament and with scouts and stuff like that.

So they have this athletic pressure. Their parents have pressure on them because that's like their hope for elevating their situation. You had a lot of young people there, particularly some of the girls who had body image issues, who were talking about they're afraid to even slouch or have like poor posture, because it would show their body in an unflattering light.

You had kids who had disabilities, like, um, I mean, serious neurological stuff, mental health stuff, et cetera. And all of that added to a lot of stress. And I think the number one report was that these kids feel a tremendous amount of pressure and stress both internally and externally. 

LEAH:  What do you think the pressure is about?

OFOSU:  They have academic pressures. They have pressure from family to get good grades or to excel in their athletics. And then there's pressure to fit in to be a part of their core group to belong, et cetera. But yeah, I mean, they all were really happy to let us the adults know just how hard it is to be a teenager right now and how difficult it is to come back to society after the pandemic, all of those types of things.

LEAH: Yeah. And we, we don't really have a precedent for what it must be like to be a teenager going through what the world has just gone through and to already have confusion about who your identity and who you're becoming. Like you said school and other teens, you know, as well as like parental pressures.

And then I imagine, you know, everyone to some degree is experiencing trauma through this pandemic and their parents likely have been under severe stress, too. So like dealing with the stress at home or the tension, um, that it's just inherently brought for everyone. Wow. That's a lot. It makes me think about as a parent, like what we can do to maybe put our kids under less pressure or to, um, be there for them more.

OFOSU: It's hard because I mean, as a father of a former teenager - she's now a young adult and a teenager right now. It's really difficult. I mean, it's hard to, at this point in life, you know, your teenager isn't necessarily looking to you to be the source of anything except for food and shelter.

Honestly, I think that's why providing this service through helping teens learn to meditate, like being a mentor, being a teacher, that's not a parent and sharing probably the same things that parents are sharing, but just from a different perspective is super helpful. Where the retreats took a deeper positive turn was during the same session.

We then guided the teams through a self-compassion practice, where we just asked them to check in with themselves to notice how they feel when stress arises, where it shows up in their body. And then to develop some positive self-talk, what would you say to a friend or a loved one who was feeling exactly the same way?  And then to offer those words to yourself.  

And it was an eye-opener for them that they have the ability to talk to themselves and to treat themselves with the same kindness and grace that they offer to their friends. And, um, that was a really sweet moment in the retreat.

So, okay. We heard the reflections on how they felt when they got there. Here is some  more tape about how they felt about the retreat at the end. 

[SFX + Start memo recording]

MULTIPLE VOICES: Throughout the course of events, I realized it was very relaxing and something I definitely needed. And I think I'm definitely going to bring a lot of these practices back home with me.

Mindfulness has helped me like become more peaceful and like, feel better about myself and like trying new things. Even though I hate to admit it, it was kind of relaxing. A lot of the practices are really positive and like things that you can actually use in everyday life, like make yourself feel better.

Mine kind of like changed my way of thinking. Especially during the loving kindness one. I never thought that I could like, love myself. And it kind of helped that.

Even when I leave, I think I'm using these techniques and, um, I think it has made me a better person. 

[End memo recording + SFX]

OFOSU: Oh gosh. Wow. I'm getting emotional.

I remember that moment so vividly. I'll never forget that moment. This was over the course of a few days, but it seemed like such a long journey to get there, but wow. Sorry. I'm a little choked up.

LEAH: Yeah. I mean, I feel like every teenager should go to one of these little retreats, but that might not be accessible for all teenagers.

And like, as you said, they might come kicking and screaming. What are, what are some practices that if there are folks who are listening to this who have teenagers, or are a teenager listening to themselves, that they can take away from this and maybe, um, a practice they could do. You just mentioned the compassion when like being able to tell where in your body you're feeling, and give themselves some love, but is there any other tips that you can give us?

OFOSU: Yeah, I think, you know, the very fundamentals of mindfulness practice. Being able to use your senses as a way to come to your senses, to use your ears, you know, checking in with sounds, looking around you, letting your eyes spot a color or something like that, where it can just rest for a moment to just give your mind a moment to breathe from time to time, whether that's bringing your attention to the next five breaths you take or the next five steps you take and taking time to practice loving kindness.

Just a really simple practice is just breathing in - I wish myself well. Breathing out - I wish others well. Breathing in - may I be safe and secure breathing out -m ay others be safe and secure. You know, teens brains are changing so much and because they look like little adults, I think as adults, we tend to put expectations on them that are not actually fair.

It's a delicate dance because you want to acknowledge their autonomy. You want to acknowledge their growth. They're also still young people and their brains are still forming. And what might seem rational to us is not necessarily going to be immediately perceived in the same way. And who knows what might seem rational to us might be irrational and they're seeing it the right way.  And we're seeing it the wrong way. 

I think there's a lot of compassion to go around and I would just encourage parents and teens to lean heavily on compassion, to lean heavily on self-compassion and to lean heavily on kindness and self kindness. 

LEAH: Yeah.  I was going to ask like, you know, a lot of us don't have teenagers or we'll never be a teenager again for good or worse.  I was going to say, you know, it seems like these are practices that would benefit all of us. Really.

I think definitely like emotional regulation is a tool to identify what I'm feeling. I mean, that's huge. Even just getting to the point of being able to identify the mood that we're in.

And awakening right there. Like, you know, you had one teenager who was like, I don't know how I feeling. That's so many of us, we don't take the time to stop and go, well, how am I really feeling? What, what mood is really here?

OFOSU: The one teen who said in the recording that I think it's possible for me to love myself, that was especially significant because they had said outright in the beginning it was impossible for them to love themselves and -

LEAH: Impossible. Gosh. And we create these real, this can't be done. We create so many limits for ourselves and how wonderful that they had a chance to you know, be fortunate enough to be in a space where you and those other guides were helping them to see that it's possible.

And what a feeling that must have been like for you to be able to get that feedback from them. I mean, how, how did that feel for you?

OFOSU: Well, I'm crying right now, honestly. Um, cause it's just a, it's a reminder, both of how much suffering there is in the world, but our real potential to do something about it.

That suffering is in what we eesigned to, it's not an immovable fate. We can bring forth qualities of mind and heart and body that can help us, and that it is possible to feel better and to have a better relationship with ourselves.

LEAH: It's beautiful. I mean, thank you for taking us through the process and that snapshot inside of your world, Ofosu. I'm really inspired to possibly work with some teens myself.

Now thinking about this and just, you know, the future where we're going and getting a kind of look under the hood of what's really going on with the kids these days.

OFOSU: Yeah. I mean, you're a wonderful teacher, Leah, and I know that young people would benefit so much from hanging out with you. For sure.

LEAH:  Thanks. 

OFOSU: Well, I mean, I know you are leading a retreat right now as we speak, right?

LEAH: Yeah and doing courses online to teach women how to hold spaces for other women. And there's a lot of women that come to my women's circle training, and they are planning on, uh, leading spaces like this for teen girls.

It is nice to know that this work is being done by multiple people in the world today. And it gives us hope.

OFOSU: Yeah. I came away from this retreat feeling hopeful, and that's saying a lot, you know, given, given what we're up against. I still am perpetually optimistic.

LEAH: Stay that way. 

OFOSU: I will. You too. 

[Theme up and under]

OFOSU: Well, this was a great conversation.

Um, thanks for giving me space to share some of this experience with you out there. Um, and hey, if you want to stay up to date with our show. Please subscribe or follow on your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to rate and review us in that app. It really helps us to grow and spread the word.

LEAH: And we'll be back next Monday with another deep conversation until then have a wonderful week. 

OFOSU: Don't forget to be kind to yourself. Take care, peace.


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