10 Essential Guidelines for Teaching Meditation to Trauma-Impacted Youth

A while back I posted 9 Guidelines for Teaching Trauma-Informed Mindfulness to Teens. As I mentioned in that post, formal meditation practice isn’t always appropriate, as it can sometimes trigger youth into trauma responses. That said, many young people can benefit from mindfulness meditation. These guidelines will help you safely and effectively teach meditation to your students or clients who’ve been impacted by trauma.

1) It’s Imperative to Define Mindfulness Accurately

Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness meditation doesn’t necessarily lead to a calm, relaxed state of mind. (See “5 Mindfulness Myths”). What happens the first time the young person tries meditation and they can’t relax, calm down, or clear their mind? What happens when trauma symptoms fragment their mental, emotional, or physical experience? They are destined for “failure,” which from a true mindfulness perspective isn’t possible. Failure is only possible when mindfulness is conflated with trying to attain something that isn’t one’s present moment experience.

It’s important that youth understand what mindfulness really means: present moment awareness with a non-reactive attitude. One explanation that’s worked very well with my clients is the lion/dog metaphor. (See “Cultivating the Lion Mind: A Mindfulness Metaphor That Sticks”

2) Start with Easy-to-Follow, Tactile, Somatic-Based Techniques

It’s generally better to wait to introduce formal meditation until after youth have become comfortable with informal mindfulness practices. You might want to start with mindful movement. (See “3 Ways Movement Can Help Trauma-Impacted Youth”

3) Start a Meditation Session with Orienting Techniques, if Necessary

Some youth can become triggered by closing their eyes, so before starting the meditation I led them in a brief orienting exercise: Tell me three things you can see, two things you can hear, and one thing you can feel. For youth who are hyper-vigilant, orienting helps them feel safe in their environment. For some, you’ll be able to teach a meditation after orienting. For others, the orienting technique may be all they can handle without getting too triggered.

4) Give Youth the Option to Step Meditating

If a young person needs to stop meditating for any reason, whether because they’re triggered by having their eyes closed or they simply aren’t in the mood, respect their decision. Don’t get caught up in pushing them to meditate.

5) Start with Short Periods of Practice

In the early phases of working with trauma-impacted youth, it’s important to offer short moments of awareness and assess how they respond before trying longer meditation sessions. I usually start with a one-minute mindful breathing practice and work upwards from there.

6) Allow Time for Silence

Balance your instruction with periods of silence. Youth need unguided time to become aware of their own sensations and experience, rather than spending the whole meditation period focused on listening to your voice.

7) Be Mindful of Language and Tone

A critical component of trauma-informed care is understanding that youth can at times misinterpret non-threatening or neutral stimuli as threatening and dangerous. Thus, simply stating “close your eyes,” at the start of a meditation can be felt as “close your eyes or else!” Language such as “I invite you to close your eyes,” emphasizes that what you’re asking of them is an invitation, not a requirement or demand.

8) Don’t Be Attached to Formal Logistics

In addition to “inviting” youth to close their eyes, follow up with a statement such as “if you don’t feel comfortable closing your eyes, you can keep them open.” Some youth may be triggered by closing their eyes, especially in a group setting where they don’t feel safe. (For example, I’ve led meditation sessions with incarcerated youth from rival gangs.)

Other types of formal logistics are holding one’s hands in a certain way, assuming a specific posture, etc. While these may aid at times with specific types of meditation, being too attached to them will often lead to resistance from youth.

9) Keep Your Own Eyes Open (Usually)

The advantage of keeping your eyes closed is that you’re modeling a focused meditation. On the other hand, if you keep your eyes open, you can observe facial expressions, body posture, movements, etc. This will help you decide if a meditation may need to be ended early because one or more of the youth is getting triggered.

The best-case scenario would be to co-facilitate a group. That way, one person can keep their eyes open to observe the group, and the other facilitator can close their eyes as a model for the youth to follow.

10) Allow Time to Process the Experience

Even if only for a minute or two, ask the youth how the exercise was, if anything came up, and if it was difficult, and also talk about any positives associated with the experience. This will 1) help you assess if anyone got triggered and needs further intervention, and 2) help the youth understand the practice of meditation and how they can benefit from it.

In your discussion, you can clarify what mindfulness is, go over the goal of the specific meditation session, discuss what was positive and/or negative about the experience and make possible tweaks for the future, and iron out any misinterpreted instructions or logistics.

Conclusion

It’s critical to remember that formal meditation isn’t for everyone. Have you already introduced your students or clients to informal mindfulness practices? Do you believe they’re ready to try formal meditation? These guidelines will help ensure that you don’t inadvertently cause harm, either by misleading them about the nature of mindfulness or by triggering a trauma reaction.

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