Using Mindfulness for Teen Mental Health Treatment in High Risk Teens

As any parent, teacher, school counselor, or therapist knows, it is challenging to work with high-risk teens. They say in the teen mental health field that those who are the hardest to love need it the most. This is certainly true for adolescents with challenging backgrounds. Or all teens for that matter, given the challenging stage of life they are in. Teens who are disruptive, rude, abrasive, resistant, and violent tend to need professional and personal care the most.

Teen Mental Health Treatment

To be clear, teens that are at-risk are those who have had distressing childhoods. And by virtue of their circumstances are more at risk to fail academically, occupationally, and socially. They tend to have a poor or little attachment to a primary caregiver, tend to be vulnerable to harm against self and others, drug use, early sexual activity, suicide attempts, and mental illness. Two types of mental illness that are prevalent among at risk youth are Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Teen mental health treatment is important to focus on the individual and cater to their needs depending on their symptoms.

However, it is worth pointing out that high-risk teens come from all walks of life with varying socioeconomic types. There are those teens that have a gangster-like persona, hardened and tough, while others from well to-do families that can be softhearted and shy. The high risk factors of adolescents go beyond any stereotypes or social categories.

With this in mind, a teen that is challenging to work with can be best met on a human-to-human level. It is often precisely what they are looking for in the first place. Although they might be frequently at odds with the law and with authority figures, these teens need human-to-human connection. This is what mindfulness therapeutic interventions can do. Using therapeutic interventions that include mindfulness is certainly not new, but using these interventions with high-risk teens does warrant particular attention with respect to implementation and effectiveness.


Mindfulness is a practice that can be supportive, regardless of age. It can benefit many levels of one’s being – the body, mind, and heart – even if only practiced from time to time. Although there are specific changes that an individual will notice immediately, mindfulness can have long-term, positive effects on one’s life.

Mindfulness is the practice of becoming conscious of one’s internal and external environment. It is a mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment, while acknowledging and accepting the existing feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, and surrounding activity. It can be used as a therapeutic practice among therapists and psychologist, and it has been used as a spiritual practice for decades.

Using mindfulness with high-risk teens can be incredibly useful, particularly because of the effects of mindfulness on the developing brain that is characteristic of adolescence. Daniel Goleman, author of the book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence as well as the recent Huffington Post article titled, “The Benefits of Mental Workouts for Kids and Teens”, points out that the teenage brain is still growing and working with the mind at that age can create positive changes for a lifetime. He wrote: “The brain is the last organ of the body to finish growing. It does not become anatomically mature until the mid-20s. During that time circuits for everything from managing your emotions to staying concentrated are strengthening. And while they are still growing, the external signs of this are a child or teen who can’t stay concentrated and who gets easily emotionally upset.”

“Cognitive Control”

Furthermore, because the brain is still growing in teens, it is the perfect time to facilitate its healthy development. Through what neuroscientists call neuroplasticity, the brain can build strong connects that can last a lifetime. Such as learning how to self-regulate emotions, as one key skill that most high-risk teens need. Other skills that mindfulness can deliver to teens are focus, presence, compassion, empathy, less impulsivity, and the ability to be aware of oneself.

Speaking of mindfulness and learning to focus on the present moment, Goleman also wrote: “Studies…find that it not only helps kids focus on their school work better, but children act more emotionally mature, better able to handle upsets. The technical name for this skill is “cognitive control”. Research finds this single ability predicts a child’s adult financial success and health better than either their IQ or their family’s wealth.”


Certainly, meditation can support a teen mental health treatment. However, the use of mindfulness with teens has particular lasting effects because of an adolescent’s developing brain. Parents who are interested in this type of therapeutic modality can find therapists who have been trained in mindfulness and/or who have a background in meditation and mindfulness practices.



Goleman, D. (Dec 10, 2013). “The Benefits of Mental Workouts for Kids and Teens”. The huffington post. Retrieved on April 2, 2014 from:

Himelstein, S. (2013). A mindfulness-based approach to working with high-risk adolescents. New York, NY: Routledge