Meditation has become a popular practice in the United States over the last decade. It is not limited to adults, but can be learned and practiced by children and teenagers also. Variants are being used in many schools as parts of a social and emotional learning curriculum, and different kinds of mindfulness practices are common parts of psychological treatments. In this month’s column, we will review the evidence that supports the efficacy of a meditation practice to treat the mental health problems that are common in children and adolescents, and review how it might be a useful adjunct to the screening, education, and treatments that you offer your young patients.
There are many different types of meditation practices, but the unifying feature is known as mindfulness. Most broadly, mindfulness refers to a state of nonjudgmental awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, or sensations. A mindfulness meditation practice involves physical stillness and focused attention, typically on the physical sensations of one’s breath. When thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations intrude on the stillness, one learns to cultivate a nonjudgmental awareness of those experiences without disrupting the state of quiet concentration. It could be said that meditation is easy to learn and difficult to master, and that is why it should be practiced regularly. Part of its growing popularity has undoubtedly been served by the ease with which people can access a variety of guided meditations (through apps, YouTube, and beyond) that make it relatively easy to access a variety of methods to learn how to practice mindfulness meditation.
The benefits of meditation in adults are well-established, including lower blood pressure, lower rates of heart disease, lower markers of inflammation, better sleep, and self-described levels of well-being. Meditation appears to be especially effective at mitigating the cardiovascular, metabolic, autoimmune, and inflammatory consequences of high-stress or unhealthy lifestyles in adults. Children and adolescents typically do not suffer from these diseases, but there is growing evidence that mindfulness practices can improve self-reported stress management skills, well-being, and sleep in young people; skills that can protect their physical and mental health. In addition, there is some evidence that mindfulness can be effective as a treatment for the common psychiatric illnesses of youth.
There is robust evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions (including a regular mindfulness meditation practice) in the treatment of anxiety disorders in youth. Multiple studies and meta-analyses have demonstrated significant and sustained improvement in anxiety symptoms in these young patients. This makes sense when one considers that most psychotherapy treatments for anxiety include the cultivation of self-awareness and the ability to recognize the feelings of anxiety. This is critical as youth with anxiety disorders often mistake these feelings for facts. The treatment then shifts toward practice tolerating these feelings to help children develop an appreciation that they can face and manage anxiety and that it does not need to be avoided. Part of tolerating these feelings includes building skills to facilitate calm and physical relaxation in the face of these anxious feelings.
This is the core of exposure-based psychotherapies. Mindfulness practices echo the cultivation of self-awareness with focus and physical calm. Studies have shown that mindfulness-based interventions have significant and lasting effects on the symptoms of anxiety disorders in youth, including those youth with comorbid ADHD and learning disabilities. It is important to be aware that, for youth who have experienced trauma, mindfulness meditation can trigger a flood of re-experiencing phenomena, and it is important that those youth also are receiving treatment for PTSD.
There is evidence that some of the symptoms that occur as part of depression in adolescents improve with mindfulness-based interventions. In particular, symptoms of anger, irritability, disruptive behaviors, suicidality, and even impulsive self-injury improve with mindfulness-based interventions. Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) have the nonjudgmental self-awareness of mindfulness built in as a component of the therapy. But mindfulness practices without explicit cognitive and behavioral components of psychotherapy for depression are not effective as stand-alone treatment of major depressive disorder in youth.
Multiple meta-analyses have demonstrated that stimulant treatment is more effective than behavioral or environmental interventions in the treatment of ADHD in children and adolescents, and combined treatments have not shown substantial additional improvement over medications alone in randomized controlled studies. But there is a lot of interest in finding effective treatments beyond medications that will help children with ADHD build important cognitive and behavioral skills that may lag developmentally.
Now there is an emerging body of evidence indicating that mindfulness skills in children with ADHD are quite effective for improving their sustained attention, social skills, behavioral control, and even hyperactivity. Additionally, methods to teach mindfulness skills to children who struggle with stillness and focused attention have been developed for these studies (“mindful martial arts”). Again, this intervention has not yet shown the same level of efficacy as medication treatments for ADHD symptoms, but it has demonstrated promise in early trials. Interestingly, it has also shown promise as a component of parenting interventions for youth with ADHD.
You do not need to wait for decisive evidence from randomized controlled trials to recommend mindfulness training for your patients with anxiety, ADHD, or even depression. Indeed, this practice alone may be adequate as a treatment for mild to moderate anxiety disorders. But you can also recommend it as an empowering and effective adjunctive treatment for almost every psychiatric illness and subclinical syndrome, and one that is affordable and easy for families to access. It would be valuable for you to recommend that your patients and their parents both try a mindfulness practice alongside your recommendations about healthy sleep, exercise, and nutrition. There are free apps such as Smiling Mind, Sound Mind, and Thrive Global that families can try together. Some children may need to move physically to be able to practice mindfulness, so yoga or walking meditations can be a better practice for them. When parents can try mindfulness practice alongside their children, it will facilitate their child’s efforts to develop these skills, and the improved sleep, focus, and stress management skills in parents can make a significant difference in the health and well-being of the whole family.
Dr. Swick is physician in chief at Ohana, Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula. Dr. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.
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Image 1: Susan D. Swick, MD
Image 2: Michael S. Jellinek, MD
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Cite this: Susan D. Swick, Michael S. Jellinek. Meditation for Children - Medscape - Nov 23, 2022.