Christopher Willard

Five Minutes with Christopher Willard, PhD, Author of Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety

Christopher Willard, PhD, is a psychologist and learning specialist in the Boston area who specializes in work with adolescents and young adults in his private practice and at Tufts University. He regularly consults to schools, clinics, and other institutions, and teaches workshops around the US and around the world. He is the author of Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety: A Workbook for Overcoming Anxiety at Home, at School, and Everywhere Else.

Why teach mindfulness to teens?

Teens are way more open-minded than we give them credit for. They are skeptical, but often in a good way. What’s good about mindfulness is that they can see right away that it works and that washes away the skepticism. Plus it’s empowering, and offers lifelong skills for self-care.

What are some of the factors unique to teenagers that make mindfulness particularly well-suited as an approach to alleviating their anxiety?

I think the fact that these practices are theirs and they have choices. They can choose what practices work and when to do them, and no one even has to know they are practicing. On the other hand, they can also choose to share practice with friends and family. 

When it comes to teaching mindfulness techniques to teens, which aspects of mindfulness, if any, do you notice teens are particularly receptive to?

I think teaching happens through experience, through storytelling, through metaphor, through explaining the science, and through just direct talk. I also think each teen is different, and will have different things that appeal to them. An athlete will respond to movement and metaphors about training, the brain being like training the body. A musician might respond to silently counting sounds, a singer to breath practice, and so on. And to acknowledge that it is hard to do sitting practice, for adults or kids.

In the introduction to you book you say that you’ve found it is the smartest and most creative people who suffer the most from anxiety. Can you expand on that a bit? What are some of the strengths most often associated with people who suffer from anxiety?

Seeing a range of possibilities is what creativity and intelligence are all about. But the flip side is if anxiety gets caught up in this it means imagining more nightmarish scenarios, more ways things could go wrong, and having more negative interpretations and associations than the average, less creative mind. As I said in the book, it’s wonderful to have the ability to see thousands of possibilities, but not so wonderful to see thousands of ways the test could go wrong, the bus could crash, or the date could be a disaster. But you can also put that sharp and creative mind to work coming up with inventive solutions to your anxiety, making up your own mindfulness practices, understanding anxiety more deeply, and helping others who are struggling with it.

It can be extremely difficult, especially when just starting a mindfulness practice, to stay present even for 20 seconds. What advice would you recommend giving to beginner mindfulness practitioners who are frustrated with the incessant wandering of their minds?

It’s all about self-acceptance, and self compassion, for one thing. And for another, I think, to remember that the goal of these practices is not to stop the mind from wandering—it’s to know that the mind is wandering, and learn where it likes to go. I like to say that the mind secretes thoughts like the pancreas secretes insulin. We can’t shut off the thought maker, but we can change our relationship to it. 

And like everything, it’s about (and called) a practice. The more you practice, the better you get, just like with music or sports, or algebra. And like those, it can also help to practice with other people.

What advice do you have for teachers who’d like to start incorporating mindfulness with the teens in their classrooms, but aren’t sure where to start?

Tie it to something that matters to the kids. Like before your class presentation, focus mindfully on walking to the front of the room, then do a few 7/11 breaths before you begin speaking. Or, do a breath or awareness practice before diving into your exam, or before the SATs or something. And for teachers to do it with the kids is huge.

In your opinion, what are some of the most significant challenges when it comes to bringing mindfulness into public schools?

Time. Or rather, the perception that these practices take time away from classroom learning, test preparation, and so on. Mindfulness doesn’t have to. As I said before, it can be a short practice before a test or a presentation, it can be the music teacher offering some breathing techniques to help with singing, or the coach doing what Phil Jackson had the Lakers do—mindfully putting their socks on. You gotta put your socks on before practice, why not do it mindfully? That kind of thing.

In the book, you include a section on mindfulness and social media. What are some of the ways teens can use social media to practice mindfulness, and what are some dangers to be aware of for anxious teens who use it?

Social media is tough. It can be addictive and reinforcing of negative self-esteem or anxiety. But it can also be a place to explore mindfulness, simply by looking at social media more slowly, and being more deliberate about it. Social media can be a great thing when used mindfully, and a danger when used mindlessly to compare ourselves negatively to others. A recent study found that looking at social media makes us unhappy because we think everyone has it better than us since what they present is the cultivated “best of” moments from their lives. But if we look at our own social media, we actually feel better, again, because we are presenting the best of ourselves. So I remind kids (and adults also) to look at their own feed as well as everyone else’s to get a realistic view of their lives.

Beyond Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety, are there any resources like books or blogs that you recommend to teens who are interested in going deeper with mindfulness practice?

Dharma Punx is wonderful. Lodro Rinzler’s books are great, iBme offers wonderful retreats to teens, as do retreat centers like Spirit Rock and Insight Meditation Society. I’m really looking forward to Dzung Vo’s forthcoming book on stress and teens from New Harbinger, and a friend and I are writing something on depression and mindfulness for teens.

For more from Christopher Willard, PhD, check out his book Mindfulness for Teen Anxiety: A Workbook for Overcoming Anxiety at Home, at School, and Everywhere Else.

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