Supporting our kids as they live under the microscope

Generation Z, the wave right behind Millennials, is coming of age. With its oldest members barely out of high school, they are true “digital natives.” The fact that they could use a tablet before speaking full sentences shapes their experience. But, so does being born post-September 11th and in the midst of two economic downturns.

Consequently, teenagers are found — both anecdotally and in research — to have shorter attention spans and underdeveloped social skills while being hardworking, somewhat anxious, and mindful of the future. That type of pressure takes its toll, both physically and mentally.

They are watched at every turn. A bad day at school follows them home via texts and social apps. Athletes don’t just play school sports, but also travel with a club team. Students are “packaged” for college admission departments (by a college consultant parents have hired, if they’re lucky). “Personal brands” are everything and this generation knows it. They truly live under a microscope. 

With a growing number of children, anxiety and depression are rising right along with their hormones. As outlined in The New York Times, “a 2015 study found that nearly 11% of teenagers experience depression; other reports have higher figures. Between sixth and tenth grades, the rate of depression doubles for boys and nearly triples for girls. And studies show that while a large percentage of teenagers face high stress on a daily basis, rates of coping skills are weak.” Developing those coping skills and overall resilience can help shift these mental health trends among adolescents and teenagers.

Given these widespread challenges for this age group — which can manifest itself in eating disorders, body image issues, and risky behavior — teacher Rebecca Thiegs of Chicago’s Loyola Academy had a nagging question. Would a regular meditation practice increase the self-esteem of her female students in an impactful way?

“The real starting point for my project is my own experience. I am a woman who has struggled with low self-esteem my entire life. Now, from a professional perspective, I see glimpses of girls exhibiting traits similar to what I exhibited as an adolescent. Low self-esteem has cost me much in my life, both personally and professionally.”

As Thiegs points out, when self-esteem is high, engagement in the classroom is high. “When we feel good about ourselves, we treat others with the same compassion. In the classroom this is invaluable. An effective environment for learning is found where students cooperate and learn together.” Of course, there’s definitive scientific research proving regular meditation increases attention span, focus, and productivity.

At the end of her seven-week study, Thiegs’ students cited improvements in sports performance and family relationships, as well as feeling less self-conscious and more focused in their studies. 

Beyond this Loyola example, several published studies support a regular meditation practice for children. Mindfulness programs are being adopted in schools and outreach extracurriculars across the country, including peacekeeping efforts for Chicago’s south side.

“Our society doesn’t promote introspection, so it is something that needs to be practiced,” observes Rhonda Duffaut, Chill meditation instructor. “I find when they start young, adolescents and teens are more open to experiencing the feelings that come with meditation. They’re just learning these techniques and are more apt to continue.”

Duffaut has been teaching meditation and yoga to children within this age group for years.  She attests to the shift that comes when they learn mindful tools for flexibility, strength, and stability — especially during stressful back-to-school time.

“Tangible strategies, like these tools and meditation, are so important for young people as they mature in order to deal with the peer pressure and stress from school.”

Get ahead of that stress this school year. Bring the Gen Z girl in your life to a special meditation workshop on Sunday, September 30. Rebecca Thiegs will share deeper insights from her findings at Loyola Academy and Rhonda Duffaut will lead a guided meditation that includes coping mechanisms for young ladies’ unique challenges.