Adolescence is an important time in development due to significant changes in the adolescent brain. During this time, brain regions appear to integrate, which helps the adolescent self-regulate and/or improve self-control. Self-regulation is critical for success in life for both adolescents and adults. Meditation is a behavior that promotes self-regulation and enhances the integration of the adolescent brain. Although we know meditation enhances self-regulation during a critical time in life, unfortunately, very few adolescents meditate. I discussed the finer points of adolescent self-regulation and meditation in a previous blog post, but in this post I want to delve deeper into the research being done here at IU on this subject.
The focus of my research is looking at the influences on a young person’s decision to meditate. The Reasoned Action Approach (RAA) is a decision-making theory, developed by psychologists, that has been used to study, predict, and change a variety of health behaviors. The theory suggests that the most important predictor of a behavior is a person’s intention to carry-out the behavior. Intention, in turn, is influenced by a person’s attitude toward the behavior, their perception that the behavior is normative, and their self-efficacy in being able to carry-out the behavior (see Figure 1 for visual of RAA). Attitude, perceived norm, and self-efficacy, according to the theory, are all influenced by the underlying beliefs each of us hold from our previous experiences, education, etc.
In 2016, I surveyed a group of 135 students at a large and diverse high school in Upstate New York regarding their thoughts and beliefs about meditation. The questions I used were based on the RAA theory. I found that the biggest influence on the students’ intention to meditate was their attitude toward meditation, followed by their perceived norm regarding meditation. In other words, students who have a greater intention to meditate view meditation as being a good thing to do personally, perceive meditation as being enjoyable, hold the view that others would approve of them meditating, and lastly that other people like them also meditate.
According to responses from open-ended questions, many students felt that meditation would reduce their stress, help them feel more relaxed and calm, and would improve their focus. On the downside, they felt that meditation would slow them down or make them inactive. With respect to norms, they felt as though their parents, especially both parents and/or moms, would approve of them meditating and that no one would disapprove. The circumstances dictating their desire to meditate all had to do with time. Specifically, more time would enable them to meditate and being busy would inhibit their ability to meditate.
So, what do health professionals do with this information? I thought you’d never ask! Well, for starters, by using a theory to guide this particular research, the results will help health professionals and educators to prioritize their efforts when creating behavioral interventions to promote meditation in adolescents. Starting with attitude: health professionals can help young people see that meditation is really beneficial to them, especially with respect to stress reduction, helping them feel calm, and increasing their focus. It’s also important to acknowledge the fact that many young people likely see meditation as something that could slow them down and prevent them from keeping up with the fast-paced lifestyle that our society requires. In fact, health professionals can help them see that meditation actually increases performance and can therefore help them become more effective with the activities they enjoy (or are required to do) .
After taking care of the attitude factor, efforts can then be focused around helping young people perceive meditation as normative. It is especially important for adolescents to view meditation as common among their peers. A few suggestions for to help in this area include school health programs developing and offering programs that teach meditation to groups of students. These programs can specifically target youth with high social standing that can help influence a large group of students. These are just a few suggestions that may be helpful in increasing the number of young people in the US that meditate. But, as always, more research in needed!
 Tang, Y.-Y., & Bruya, B. (2017). Mechanisms of mind-body interaction and optimal performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(647), 1-3. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00647