Adolescence is one of the most difficult times of life, as anyone who’s been a teenager knows. Why? In part because the developing brain of a teen is more susceptible and reactive to stress than the brains of adults or younger children, note neuropsychologist William Stixrud, Ph.D., and test-prep authority Ned Johnson.
In their book The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control over Their Lives, they offer science-based insights and tips—including the Transcendental Meditation® (TM®) technique—for raising children with more resilient brains.
“We really don’t like at all what being chronically stressed does to a developing brain,” says Stixrud, but “we love what TM does for a developing brain.”
In “7 Ways to Help Your Kids Be Happier and Successful—Now and for Life,” Part 1 of this article, Stixrud and Johnson encouraged nurturing autonomous kids by letting them handle their own challenges and providing ways to help them recover:
1. Be a consultant to your kids, not their boss.
2. Tell your kids, “It’s your call.”
3. Be a “nonanxious presence” in your kids’ life.
4. Practice “radical downtime.”
5. Help your kids see the world accurately.
6. Want your kids to sleep more? Try negotiation and TM.
7. “Do everything you can to just enjoy your kids.”
Now they reveal how the TM technique helps teens “sculpt” a brain that’s robust, to better navigate the unique challenges of adolescence and beyond.
How to motivate kids to meditate in the first place? They offer tips to spark your children’s interest in learning TM, and ways to encourage regular meditation once they start.
“We love what TM does for a developing brain.” —Dr. William Stixrud
The Beauty of the TM Technique for Teens
Most teens have heard about meditation in school, but “it is, almost by default, mindfulness meditation,” says Johnson. Yet “kids often have tried mindfulness, and it felt like it did not work well and was hard for them. They felt like they weren’t good at it somehow—something else I am not getting an A on—then they step away from it.”
The TM technique, on the other hand, is effortless. “TM, by it’s very nature, is easy, and that is both the value to it and almost the point of it,” says Johnson, who works with young people all the time. “I am not dogmatic about it with my kids, but I explain that there is this other type of meditation, Transcendental Meditation. Once you go through the training, it is wonderful, because it is so helpful and so easy for you to do.”
There are also many kinds of mindfulness, with differing levels of efficacy. “One of the beauties of TM is that everybody learns it the same way. So, by definition, everyone is going to do it well. We don’t have to grade on a curve here. If you learn TM, you would be able to do TM,” he says.
“One of the beauties of TM is that everybody learns it the same way. So, by definition, everyone is going to do it well.” —Ned Johnson
TM Helps Teens (and Adults) Have More Control over Their Lives
Another key benefit for kids practicing TM is a greater sense of self-direction, Stixrud explains. “One of the earliest studies on the TM technique with older adolescents as subjects found an increased internal locus of control, meaning that it increased the young people’s sense of ‘What I do matters. I can direct my own life. I am not just subject to the forces in the universe,’” he says.
“What TM does for kids is the same thing it does for adults,” says Stixrud, going on to compare feeling overwhelmed by outer tasks to settling into meditation. “I sometimes sit down thinking, ‘Maybe I will have to shorten my meditation because I have so much to do.’ And after I think my mantra for about a minute or two, I think, ‘What was I thinking? What’s more important here? I have plenty of time,’” says Stixrud.
Kids have the same experience. “You have all these things you have to do and to worry about, and you start thinking your mantra, and it puts things in perspective. It allows you to not feel overwhelmed. And when you don’t feel overwhelmed, you feel more in control,” he says.
“The TM technique… increased the young people’s sense of ‘What I do matters. I can direct my own life. I am not just subject to the forces in the universe.’” —Dr. William Stixrud
A Less Stressed Brain Is a Braver, Brighter, “We’ve Got This” Brain
Greater perspective and control don’t result simply from a change in mood but from a change in brain functioning.
“I explain to kids that what we call “executive functions” reside in the prefrontal cortex—things like planning, problem-solving, organizing, motivation, self-control, emotional and mental flexibility,” Johnson says, “They are all the things that we count on to have lives that are successful, with school or friends or eventually in life. That part of our brain is so valuable. It is also highly vulnerable, so it gets tired and cluttered up.”
When the prefrontal cortex is stressed and tired, it goes offline, and the amygdala takes over. The amygdala, a more primitive part of the brain, reacts to stress with “fight or flight” rather than problem-solving and self-control.
Practicing TM, Johnson tells kids, “cleans that prefrontal cortex, and you think more clearly. It strengthens your control, the regulation by the prefrontal cortex of the amygdala. Something will pop up in life, and your prefrontal cortex will say, ‘It’s okay. We’ve got this.’”
Stixrud underscores the importance of the TM technique in enhancing the link between these parts of the brain: “This is a huge point: that meditation strengthens the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, allowing the prefrontal cortex to regulate the amygdala.”
Johnson explains to kids that “being a regular practitioner of TM just makes you better and better able to organize, to plan, to be mentally flexible, and to tolerate stressors as they come. You actually are braver in taking on things that could be challenging because you have this constantly evolving and growing sense that, ‘Whatever life throws at me, I am going to be able to handle it well.’”
“[TM] strengthens your control, the regulation by the prefrontal cortex of the amygdala. Something will pop up in life, and your prefrontal cortex will say, ‘It’s okay. We’ve got this.’” —Ned Johnson
Greater Emotional Intelligence = Less Secondhand Stress
“Adolescents are more easily stressed than other kids or adults are, so they pick up what we describe as secondhand stress,” says Johnson. “If someone is upset or anxious or frustrated near them, they will have a tendency to think that this person is upset or frustrated or angry at them—because they are not great at explaining what they are feeling, but they feel it.”
Johnson explains: “We know that TM increases empathy, the ability to understand other people’s feelings, to put yourself in their shoes. So if it can increase empathy and our emotional intelligence or understanding, it makes kids much more able to navigate adolescence, which is probably the most stressful time of their life, when they are most inclined and likely to be stressed.”
“We know that TM increases empathy… So if it can increase empathy and our emotional intelligence or understanding, it makes kids much more able to navigate adolescence.” —Ned Johnson
A Restfully Alert Brain Is Ideal for Learning and Self-Worth
“We have a chapter in our book called ‘Taking a Sense of Control to School,’ ” notes Stixrud. “One of the points we make is that almost all the educational reforms that have been made, certainly in our lifetime, have been without any consideration to what is good for the brain, what the brain needs. We know that the optimal internal state for learning is relaxed alertness, but most of the kids that we see are stressed and tired.”
Enter the TM technique. “We see that this deep rest of the mind that comes from the effortless thinking of the mantra allows kids to be in that state of restful alertness that is so conducive for learning,” he explains.
Stixrud illustrates the effectiveness of TM in improving learning and self-esteem by recalling one of his cases.
He once saw a sixth-grade boy who was working with one of the best therapists in Washington for anxiety and depression. “He was really discouraged about himself, so he came in for a session with me and his therapist where I could go over some of the tests and talk about his strengths. The kid cried most of the time because he felt he just disappointed his teachers and parents,” Stixrud says. The boy asked what else he could do, and Stixrud suggested he learn the TM technique.
Nine months later, Stixrud called the family to see how the boy was doing. His mother said, “He has had a great year. He is really successful. He is happy.” Had her son ever learned to meditate? “Yes, he has been meditating all year. Oh, my God! That must explain this complete turnaround!” she realized.
“This deep rest of the mind… allows kids to be in that state of restful alertness that is so conducive for learning.” —Dr. William Stixrud
6 Ways to Encourage Your Kids to Try TM
Nowadays, it seems rare for kids to seek out meditation themselves. “I have worked with a lot of kids who meditated over the last 30 years, but I have never really heard of a kid who asked their parents to find them a meditation teacher,” Stixrud says with a smile.
He suggests ways to frame and introduce the TM technique to your kids, in the spirit of being a consultant, not a boss. The idea is to help them see its value and consider giving it a try.
1. First, learn and practice TM regularly yourself. “One thing that really does help is if the parents learn TM themselves and model doing it for their kids,” Stixrud says. “If it is something the whole family does, the kids know ‘my parents are taking the same amount of time out of their day to do it as I am,’ and it really helps.”
Moreover, he adds, “Kids get a lot from observing what we do. And adolescents, especially, are keenly aware of hypocrisy. So if we walk the walk ourselves, it really helps.”
2. Let kids think through how TM could benefit them. “Start by saying, ‘Nobody is going to make you do this; it’s going to be your call,’ ” Stixrud emphasizes. “Obviously, we don’t want to make it worse by trying to force it. So say, ‘Nobody is going to make you do this, but let’s think through how it might improve your life.’ ”
For example, “It might make you less anxious, or might make you a better student. If you have headaches, it might help with your headaches. It might help you sleep better,” he suggests. Problem-solve with your children.
3. “If you are going to learn TM, when would you do it?” Help your kids think through how they will fit their twice-daily TM practice into their busy schedules. Could they get up a little earlier in the morning? Might they do it in the car on the way to or from school? Is there a study hall they could use in the morning or afternoon?
4. Offer to help teens assess how their TM practice is affecting them. “Oftentimes it really helps kids, but they don’t attribute the improvement to meditation,” notes Stixrud. He recommends offering up-front, “If you learn, I would be delighted to, every once in a while, talk together about what you are noticing, so you can evaluate if this is helping you or not.”
5. Be respectful and encouraging. “Some kids just take to it, and other kids don’t,” Stixrud notes. “We want to be respectful. If she decides not to do it, we want to remind her, ‘I think it really helped you. And if you need any encouragement from me to do it again, I am willing to meditate with you or do whatever I can to help you get started again.’ ”
6. Share your own TM experience. “TM, for me, is just such an important tool,” Johnson adds. “And my son has started to ask me about it. ‘So, Dad, what is it like?’ I explain it as best I can and say, ‘Whenever you are ready, I am happy to have you learn TM, because I know how much it has helped me.’”
“‘So, Dad, what is it like?’ I explain it as best I can and say, ‘Whenever you are ready, I am happy to have you learn TM, because I know how much it has helped me.’” —Ned Johnson