Can Mindfulness Help Ease Aggression in Youth?

The nuances of improving attention, the possibility of unwanted side effects from meditating, and more highlights from current mindfulness research.

Seeking Attention

Researchers at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, analyzed data from 87 published studies with healthy adults to better understand which attentional behaviors are impacted by meditation. They focused on general attention, as well as specific aspects of executive function such as orienting toward an object, shifting focus, or inhibiting a response. Meditation practices were categorized as either open monitoring or focused attention practices. Open monitoring emphasizes the ability to stay in the present moment while paying attention to one’s experience without getting lost in thought. Focused attention meditation involves being able to sustain attention on a particular object. Overall, results showed that both types of practices were associated with improvements in attention and executive function. Meditators were better able to maintain their focus, pay attention to many objects, and became less distracted than non-meditators. There were no significant differences for orienting or shifting attention between those who do or do not meditate. More studies are needed to better understand these effects.

Teen Angst

Parents can often find aggressive behavior of their children and teens to be challenging. Although there are a number of studies examining whether mindfulness- based interventions (MBIs) can help curb aggressive youth behavior, the research is in its early stages. Scientists in China examined 18 studies of 1,223 young people to better under- stand the impact of MBIs on youth aggression. Studies included 3 randomized controlled trials, 7 experimental studies, and 8 studies that looked at changes in a few individuals over time. The research found that interventions like paying attention to the breath, body, thoughts, and feelings, to shifting attention and mindful eating lowered aggression levels. Intervention lengths varied from 15 days to more than 40 weeks. The majority of studies found that MBIs worked particularly for those with higher levels of aggression. In light of the variability
of intervention strategies used, and low quality of some of the studies reviewed, further research is needed to understand which aspects of these MBIs most impact aggressive behavior.

Help or Harm

Although mindfulness practices like meditation are helpful for many, not everyone may benefit, according to a new study. Researchers at Brown University asked 96 adults who had completed eight weeks of a mindfulness-based program to complete a 44-item survey about their experience. Notably, 83% of attendees reported experiencing at least one negative meditation-related side-effect. When asked open- ended questions in a public setting, however, participants were generally reluctant to share their negative experiences resulting from meditation practice.

When asked open-ended questions in a public setting, participants were reluctant to share negative experiences resulting from meditation practice.

These findings are consistent with earlier research, which found that anxiety, fear, depression, re-experiencing trauma, and stress reactions can all be part of people’s reactions to meditation.
It’s important to note that benefits and negative side effects aren’t mutually exclusive—sometimes people experience both.

Results from the new study are important in that they recognize that negative side effects of meditation practice can be common, and those who experience them are not unusual or alone. This information adds to the research that allows those interested in a mindfulness practice to make informed deci- sions about which approaches might be most beneficial for them.

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