Sunday, May 15, 2016

How Mindfulness Helps Teens and the Adults Who Care about Them


photo courtesy Sam Himelstein

Sam Himelstein, Ph.D., works as a Licensed Psychologist in the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center and is the founder and president of the Center for Adolescent Studies. Dr. Himelstein is the author of A Mindfulness-Based Approach to Working with High-Risk Adolescents and Mindfulness-Based Substance Abuse Treatment for Adolescents.


How can mindfulness help kids reduce their use of drugs and alcohol?

Mindfulness as a skill can help youth learn to be less impulsive and more self-regulated, and to develop a stronger ability to choose in their lives. The idea is that we’re teaching young people to gain greater autonomy and choicefulness. 


This is an empowered approach, rather than the norm that adolescents meet; adults basically telling them what to do or what not to do: 
i.e., “Don’t do drugs. They’re bad!”
Trying to force youth to change or stop engaging in a behavior by punitive means simply doesn’t work. 

This is why forming an authentic relationship as a base for any work (therapy, education, etc.) is so important. 

When teens have a real relationship with you, when they feel you care, when you have authentic trust, they’re more likely to listen to you, to be receptive to your intervention. Building the relationship is what I like to call “relational mindfulness” because it can be done in a mindful way with mindfulness-based concepts. 

Once that is underway, or at times in tandem with practicing relational mindfulness, we can then teach formal mindfulness and meditation. As the youths’ ability to choose response over blind reaction increases, their ability to abstain from drugs and alcohol also increases. 

The key here is that it must be the choice of the youth. That is the philosophy I uphold and it has been successful with helping young people take control of their lives and lessen their drug use (and other unhealthy behaviors). 

Most youth I work with in some way want help with some aspect of their drug use; whether it be:
  • needing to stop while on probation, 
  • not liking who they are when intoxicated, or 
  • wanting to stop one of the drugs they partake in.



You were incarcerated for a time as a young man. How has that experience influenced your work as a therapist?

Seeing the disparities in the juvenile hall as a young man helped me form my social and political opinions about the correctional industry in general, and helped motivate the passion I had for wanting to work with incarcerated populations. 


I was extremely privileged to have both parents in my household who did not give up on me. Many of my comrades in the juvenile hall weren’t so lucky. 

This experience shaped my socio-political views of the world and although most of the youth I work with in the juvenile hall now have it way worse than I ever did, my experience fuels my compassion for them. 

It can also help me connect and empathize with some of the day-to-day routines that some adults working in the system just don’t get (i.e., the constant boredom, the unknown of when you’re going home, etc.). I currently work in the same juvenile hall I was incarcerated in 7 times about 20 years ago, and it’s a trip.


What are some guidelines for how much adults (parents, teachers, counselors) should disclose about their own teenaged experiences?


For professionals, it’s important to self-disclose but it’s equally important for that disclosure to be skillful. Skillful self-disclosure is when something’s disclosed that’s in the best interest of the person we’re working with. 


There are times when I disclose to youth I was incarcerated, and other times I do not. At times it can be in their best interest to know I was incarcerated because it can help them feel more connected and trusting of me. At other times it’s not indicated to disclose because it either wouldn’t make a difference or could take away from their current experience.  

It’s always important to ask yourself, 
“Is what I’m about to say in the best interest of the young person I’m working with?”

 You might be wrong, and that’s okay, but contemplating in this way puts us in a reflective and mindful state, giving us much more of a chance to be skillful.

I feel the above applies to parents as well, but it’s naturally different in the sense that parents are allowed to be much more concerned about high-risk behaviors and have the occasional freak out. 


The key here is that rather than automatically being punitive when something happens (i.e., you catch your teen smoking weed), you parallel that with skillfully disclosing your feelings toward them (e.g. you’re scared and only want the best for them).


There are often conflicts between adults and adolescents around issues of independence vs. control. How can we respect teens’ need for autonomy without condoning risky behavior?

Simply by respecting them but being honest and up-front about how their risky behaviors affect us. 


The first part of this answer is simple but oftentimes hard for adults to do: to respect young people as human beings with their own opinions, experiences, and even wisdom. 

The second piece is a little more complex. We of course do not want to condone their risky behavior but how do we confront it without being too punitive or making them automatically rebel? 

We do so by using our authentic relationship and highlighting our human concern. Rather than pointing the metaphorical finger: 
i.e., “What the hell are you doing smoking? Don’t you know you can get in serious trouble?” 
and aligning ourselves with many of the systems the teen is already against (police, parents, school, sometimes even therapists), we use our authentic concern to highlight how they’re actions are effecting the relationship: 
“I’m concerned about your drug use. Can we talk about this more?” 

Obviously this conversation will go differently for a therapist, teacher, and especially parent. And although some form of consequence may result in with any of those adults, it’s important to not forget the authentic concern. 

The relationship is the key to confronting and exploring high-risk behaviors without pushing/forcing too hard.


Most of your clients have experienced severe trauma in their young lives, and many of them are involved in drug dealing and violent gangs. How do you remain a caring, compassionate presence for them without becoming overwhelmed by your own reactions to what you’re hearing?


When I contemplate the extreme levels of oppression and violence that have been perpetrated against the communities I work with, it’s not hard to stay compassionate. 


The key is to interpret their resistance and what many adults would call “acting out” or being “oppositional” from a trauma-informed lens. 

That means:
  • not taking things personally, 
  • not letting my ego get in the way, and 
  • explicitly practicing empathy and compassion for and toward my clients. 

I also have a great number of self-care practices that keep me fresh, present, and passionate in my job.



What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

Mindful teaching is being self-aware; who I am authentically, my biases, assumptions, etc. alongside the ability to be aware of in-the-moment reactions towards what’s happening in the environment (classroom, group therapy settings). 


Mindful teaching is being aware of the ego and stripping its power by constantly stepping outside of myself: by practicing perspective-taking of the other, and through compassion.


What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?

Mindfulness meditation is a key practice of mine, but honestly I go in and out of formal practice. I’ve at times meditated for an hour a day for months, at other times 20 minutes twice a day for months, and at other times haven’t meditated formally for long periods of time. 


What I believe really grounds my daily practice is the constant practice of mindfulness in the moment regarding my ego. 

As I stated above, it helps me interpret resistance from teens (and there’s a lot of that) as protective mechanisms. That helps me respond skillfully, rather than react unskillfully and potentially regret something I did or said. 

It is in itself a self-care practice, because it grounds me into the effect I can have on someone’s life while at the same time being aware of all the external forces I have absolutely no control over when it comes to the youth I work with. 

 While I believe my formal meditation practice (including retreats) enhances this ability, in my experience what has driven me farther than anything else has been the authentic intention and willingness to engage in ego work in a mindfulness-based way, in the moment when biases/assumptions/reactions get triggered.

I believe that awareness of my reactions in difficult situations, and how the ego gets triggered, is the biggest thing that influences my work in a positive way. 



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related posts:

Eight Principles of Teaching Mindfulness Meditation to Adolescents

The Importance of 'Deep Listening' to Young People

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