Depression and anxiety are on the rise in today’s children and teens. Demanding schedules and social pressures can lead to stress and other health issues. While stress, good or bad, can’t be avoided, the introduction of yoga and meditation into your child’s life can make a difference.
“I have been in pediatrics for almost 30 years, and I have seen a huge increase in anxiety and depression in children and teens,” says Dr. Roxanne Allegretti, a pediatrician with Kids First Pediatrics of Stafford. “What else has massively increased in the last decade? Cell phones and social media use. I blame that, more than anything else.”
Kids are constantly bombarded with images of fake perfection on social media sites, leading to that feeling of “FOMO,” or fear of missing out. Screen time overload and instances of cyberbullying are partially to blame for increased anxiety in kids, but there are numerous other factors.
“Some of the common stressors we see in children and adolescents are stress about school and standardized testing, stress over peer relationships or bullying, family stress, fear over safety concerns [school shootings and terror attacks] and worry about body image,” says Dr. Elisabeth M. Jerome, a licensed clinical psychologist with WellSpring Child and Family Psychology, PC.
Jammed-packed schedules can also contribute to higher stress levels in children.
“It’s good for them to do a sport or other physical activity, but don’t have them so overscheduled that there is no down time,” Allegretti says. “Kids need down time just like adults do.”
Stress can be detrimental to a child’s health, both mentally and physically.
“High levels of stress, over long periods of time, have been found to negatively impact health,” Jerome says. “Chronic stress is linked to increased risk of health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Although stress is a normal part of life, too much stress can cause children to experience anxiety, behavioral problems, or mood changes.”
School performance and relationships may begin to deteriorate, with older kids susceptible to turning to drugs or alcohol to cope.
But there are healthier ways to handle tension through mindfulness or meditation and yoga.
“Many people think of yoga as flexibility and fancy poses, but the practice is so much more,” shares Anne Kemp, owner of Dragonfly Yoga Studio. “At Dragonfly, we incorporate time in every class to focus on breathing. Some of our classes will incorporate different breathing techniques which can help lower your heart rate, blood pressure and ultimately your stress level.”
Yoga is considered a spiritual practice designed for health and relaxation and includes controlled breathing, meditation and gentle body postures. Emerging research on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, a practice in which an individual focuses on the present moment while calmly recognizing his or her feelings, thoughts and body sensations, is hopeful.
“Research suggests that mindfulness and meditation may cause positive changes to parts of the brain that can help to regulate stress, such as the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex,” Jerome says. “It may also help to decrease the stress hormone cortisol. There are some studies that suggest mindfulness improves attention, memory and academic achievement, and may help to decrease anxiety and depression. It is important to note that most studies on mindfulness are conducted on adult populations, although preliminary studies on children and adolescents are promising.”
There are various forms of yoga and meditation with various classes, books, videos and phone apps making it easy for incorporation into daily life.
“Meditation practices can range from guided meditations, scripted meditations, yoga nidra, visualization exercises and opportunities for personal reflection,” says Kemp. “A class can be helpful for learning and it is also nice to have someone guide you but breathing and meditation can be easily done at home. There are many apps out there for breathing and meditation. Two I like are The Breathing App, which is a free app, and Headspace, which is a great introduction to meditation.”
Other recommended tools are the phone apps Stop, Breathe and Think and Calm, as well as the website mindfulnessforteens.com. Sometimes as little as five minutes of meditation a day can help settle the mind and calm the spirit.
“It is better to meditate a little bit than not at all,” says Angela Pitts, a professor of Classics with the Department of Classics, Philosophy, and Religion at the University of Mary Washington. “It is really helpful to have the guidance of someone who is knowledgeable and who has experience. That said, a simple practice of closing one's eyes, turning attention inward, and growing in awareness of the rising and falling away of the breath can help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which, in turn, can help reduce symptoms of anxiety.”
Meditation doesn’t have to be just about sitting in silence.
“Coloring or making other art or play music can be forms of meditation for creative kids,” says Allegretti.
Mindful eating, going for a walk or exercising, or simply talking through problems can also help. Parents should be supportive as possible as their children and teens work through their emotions. Allegretti suggests families plan screen-free time throughout the day to reconnect, like during meal time.
“Interact with your kids, ask them about their day, what worries them, what makes them happy,” she suggests. “Ask them what is bothering them and ask follow up questions. Don’t assume you know what is going on in their heads.”
Don’t be afraid to get help from a therapist either if necessary. It’s also important to set an example for your kids when it comes to handling your own stress.
“As parents, if we want to teach our children to be mindfully present in their lives, we have to do the same,” Jerome says. “We can spend less time on our phones, and more time being fully present in the moment with our children.”