Curriculum Snapshot:Mindfulness and Body Image for T(w)eens

Many adolescents struggle with body image issues, and while there is a spectrum that has eating disorders and self-loathing at one end and mild frustration at the other, this is a great opportunity to introduce some self-awareness.

I encourage students to engage in three things that can help them come to terms with how they feel about their own changing bodies and take back control. While these steps are by no means a substitute for counseling, if an individual is struggling with eating disorders or other self-harm behaviors, they can help students understand the foundations of the complicated emotions they have with regard to their own self-image in tandem with professional help.

The first step is to ask “why.” Anytime we hear the voice in our own head that says, “I’m too fat/short/hippy/undeveloped,” it’s important to ask where that idea comes from. Many kids can stand in front of a mirror and point out specific areas they don’t like – hips, boobs, underdeveloped muscles, big feet, ears that protrude a little more than someone else’s, hair color, etc. But going one step beyond that to inquire as to why these bits of ourselves are considered undesirable is important. Do any of these things prevent us from doing the things we truly want to do? Are they keeping us from accomplishing our most important goals? Are any of these things truly a problem for us?

If the answer is no (and I ask the kids to answer only to themselves; there is no need to utter a word out loud during any of these exercises), then it will take practice to remind ourselves that we can spend less time and energy worrying about them. Often, at this point, it becomes clear that media and social messages are giving them the impression that they are not good enough and it is important for them to decide how much they want to be beholden to these external ideals.

If the answer is yes, the next step is to gather information.  In this case, I find it helpful to put something to paper. If a student has self-identified that they are overweight and it is keeping them from doing the things that they really want to do, I encourage them to keep a food diary. Again, this is something they need not share with anyone else. This is about information-gathering. Often, when they monitor what they are eating for a few days, patterns begin to show up. It is incredibly important during this stage to reinforce self-compassion and lack of judgment. If they descend into beating themselves up for noting that they have eaten a cupcake every day for the last three days, shame creeps in and can derail any forward progress. That is one reason it is important for them to know that they don’t have to show their food diary to anyone else. This is a scientific endeavor that requires that they be honest with themselves and not harsh judges. This is incredibly difficult for many kids, and often, it takes several stops and starts before they will do it. The voices in our heads are so strong and so often present that most of us don’t stop to recognize them for what they are.

The third step is to ask, “what am I willing to do with this information?” If the student is clear on what they want to change and why, they now have a choice to make about their behavior. If they need help, they can seek out a trusted adult who can support them with resources and encouragement. Utilizing their connections to people who care about them is an important part of this step, and it is incredibly empowering. This step, too, often involves many stops and starts and can take years to develop. It is important to note, though, that the ultimate goal of this exercise is to improve self-awareness, not to improve one’s body. Once we can teach kids to recognize their own biases against themselves and understand why they have these particular negative views, they can begin to decide whether or not they want to hold those views any more.

Adolescent Anxiety

Teens and tweens are an anxious bunch. It is well-known and well-documented that many kids struggle with anxiety disorders and many are medicated for them and treated individually. Unfortunately, their brains are primed to be ruled by their emotions during this time, but it is possible to help them understand anxiety and begin to tame it. Because it is so prevalent (more than 20% of teens experience significant anxiety), we can harness the power of groups to help kids this age find solutions.

Anxiety thrives inside our heads. The nagging thoughts we have often grow bigger as they rattle around in our brains, reminding us how scary the world is and how unprepared we are to deal with it. But often, when we verbalize those thoughts we can see them for what they really are and realize that they aren’t rooted in reality. That is the power of groups. Adolescents are particularly social creatures, drawn to connect with their peers in an intense, all-consuming way. In my generation, that manifested itself in hours on the telephone every night, and today we see it with kids texting and FaceTiming each other. They rely on each other for social cues and support and we can capitalize on that to help them help each other.

By talking about anxiety as part of our curriculum, we are not only normalizing the experience for teens and reminding them that they are not the only ones who feel like that, but we are creating a network of peers that have some important tools to combat it. The exercises we teach them are rooted in the most recent brain science and mindfulness practices.

Often, when we are in the throes of an anxiety attack, we can’t rationalize or remember how to counteract it. It is important to have friends that we can draw on to remind us how to re-set our brain’s response, to give us a reality check, to reassure us that we aren’t dying. The more we practice defusing anxiety, the easier it gets, and if we can learn this as adolescents, we will be much more able to handle difficult situations as adults.

Want more information? Contact us to set up a workshop at kari@theSELFProject.com.