In the health behavior field, we often focus on what health professionals should help young people avoid, such as risk behaviors, rather than positive health behaviors that we could help them acquire. So, when I decided to start working on my PhD, and I wanted to study health promoting behaviors, I knew I would be met with some resistance or challenges from the more well established health behavior researchers. Fortunately, I ended up at Indiana University where this type of thinking is not only accepted, but encouraged within the Applied Health Science Department.
The adolescent period has traditionally been viewed as a time in life to ‘just survive’. Remember the three As of adolescence- Acne, Awkward, and Apathetic. However, due to advances in neuroscience, researchers are now singing a different tune when studying adolescents. Traditionally, it was thought that a majority of the development that occurs in the brain happens during early childhood. The neuroimaging studies from the last 10-15 years suggest otherwise (Giedd, 2008). Around age 12, the brain goes through another massive restructuring as it eliminates connections between brain cells that aren’t used and strengthens those that are.
Simply put, the brain becomes more integrated, enabling the young person to improve their self-regulation. Some developmental psychologists assert that this seems to be the task or ‘purpose’ of adolescence, and a critical task at that with respect to success and positive life outcomes.
Approximately 1 in 4 young people have a serious psychological disorder (Merikangas et al, 2010) but those who are able to regulate their emotions are less likely to develop a mental disorder (Halligan et al, 2013). Further, one large longitudinal study showed that when young people score higher on measures of self-control while they are young, they are more likely to be healthier, have higher paying jobs, and avoid legal trouble later in life even while controlling for a variety of other factors (Moffitt et al, 2011).
So what in the world does this have to do with adolescents meditating? Stick with me, I promise I’m getting there (remember development takes time!). If adolescence is a critical period in development, especially with respect to an essential capacity like self-regulation, researchers would do well to seek out and find behaviors that promote self-control in adolescence. Furthermore, researchers would also do well to search for the factors associated with an increased likelihood of an adolescent engaging in that behavior. Such information when used during intervention design has lead to more effective programs. Enter the health behavior scientist, that’d be me.
Here’s what we do know: Meditation is one of the few behaviors that promote self-regulation in adolescence which has been seen in both psychological and neuroscientific studies. By meditation I mean sitting quietly for a period of time while purposefully focusing attention and keeping a non-judgmental attitude. An emergent but growing body of work has shown that when an adolescent meditates, he or she can experience an improvement in both attention and emotion-regulation which are two important components of self-regulation. There are also a few studies with college undergraduates that have shown improved connectivity in the self-regulatory region of the brain known as the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. But, according to one nationally representative study of health practices among young people which includes mind-body practices (in fact it’s the only nationwide study that looks at mind-body practices) a whopping 1.6% of youth ages 4-17 use any type of meditation (Black et al, 2015).
This is where my research comes in. I’m interested in the determinants of meditation practice for adolescents. In other words, what are the factors that increase the likelihood of a young person meditating? The Reasoned Action Approach, which is a theory sometimes used to study health behavior decision-making, suggests that a person’s intentions to perform a behavior is the best predictor of whether or not they will carry out that behavior. A person’s behavioral intentions are influenced by his or her beliefs regarding three main factors: Their attitude towards the behavior, their perceived social norms, and their perceived behavioral control or their confidence in their ability to execute the behavior (Fishbein & Ajzen, 2010). I surveyed a diverse group of adolescents in Upstate New York and asked them questions about their intentions, attitudes, perceived norms, and perceived behavioral control with respect to trying to meditate at least twice in the next week. Stay tuned for my findings and interpretations!
Black, L. I., Clark, T. C., Barnes, P. M., Stussman, B. J., & Nahin, R. L. (2015). Use of complementary health approaches among children aged 4-17 years in the United States: National Health Interview Survey, 2007-2012. National Health Statistics Reports, 78, 1-18.
Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (2010). Predicting and Changing Behavior. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Giedd, J. N. (2008). The teen brain: Insights from neuroimaging. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 335-343. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2008.01.007
Halligan, S. L., Cooper, P. J., Fearon, P., Wheeler, S. L., Crosby, M., & Murray, L. (2013). The longitudinal development of emotion regulation capacities in children at risk for externalizing disorders. Development and Psychopathology, 25, 391-406.
Merikangas, K. R., He, J-P., Burstein, M., Swanson, S. A., Avenevoli, S., Cui, S., . . . Swendsen, J. (2010). Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in US adolescents: Results from the national comorbidity study-adolescent supplement (NCS-A). Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 49(10), 980-989. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2010.05.017
Moffitt, T. E., Arsenault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., . . . Heckman, J. J. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(7), 2693-2698.