Mindfulness Classes Help Homeless Youth Understand, Regulate Emotions and Behaviors

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A young woman meditating.

When a young man staying at Urban Peak’s Denver shelter found himself in a heated conversation with another resident, he knew he needed to think before acting. Instead of engaging in an argument that could have jeopardized his stay, he walked away after channeling an idea from one of the agency’s mindfulness classes—he may not be able to control another person’s behavior, but he could control his own.

Across the country, programs like Urban Peak are holding mindfulness classes to help homeless young people understand how their experiences have shaped their brain chemistry, impacting the way they think and behave. In San Francisco, Larkin Street Youth Services partners with the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine to help youth understand these patterns and to react differently to everyday stressors, says the center’s Director of Mindfulness Programs Dr. Kevin Barrows.

“[Homeless young people’s] nervous systems are on sort of overdrive, so the mindfulness allows them to notice that and to regulate it,” Barrows says. For example, “Kids start noticing, ‘My body is so tight,’ or, ‘Anytime someone walks by my heart speeds up.’ When you slow down and pay close attention to yourself, you start to notice these things, and then you have a choice at that point.”

[Learn how mindfulness can increase homeless young people’s safety on the streets.]

4 Tips for Starting a Mindfulness Program for Homeless Youth

1. Tap into local resources. Check out community organizations that offer mindfulness classes to identify potential instructors for your program, says Kelsey Antun, drop-in center and outreach supervisor at Urban Peak. Possible examples include libraries or meditation centers.

2. Choose an experienced teacher. Practicing mindfulness can bring up a lot of uncomfortable feelings related to past traumatic experiences, Barrows says, so look for highly trained, skilled instructors who can support youth when painful emotions surface. Antun encourages organizations to bring in potential instructors for a demonstration class to see their work in action.

3. Adjust courses for a younger audience. It's also important to find a teacher who connects well with young people and tailors classes to their needs, Antun says. As an example, instructors at Urban Peak may decide to lead a sitting meditation instead of carrying out their original lesson plan after gauging how young people in the room are feeling that day. In California, the Osher Center instructor incorporates games into classes and guides youth through shorter exercises than those typically offered to adults, Barrows says.

4. Emphasize the science. Share the research behind mindfulness upfront to help secure buy-in from staff and participants. For some audiences, this may require translating information into youth-friendly language. Antun gives one potential statement to use with young people who question the validity behind mindfulness exercises: “This isn't something that we made up in the middle of the night because we thought it would be funny to see you breathing with your eyes closed. These things are working with your brain."

[Watch a guided meditation that can help prevent secondary trauma among youth workers.]

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