I’ve always valued the opportunity to give back and pay it forward. And, when I’m able to incorporate my professional skills into the volunteer activity, it becomes more meaningful. This summer I had the opportunity to leverage my health coaching skills by sharing principles of self-awareness with local kids. I took a trip to my home town to educate a small group of diverse, young people who resided in the local juvenile detention center.
I'd visited this center many years ago in my role as a Public Health Nurse. So, I'm familiar with the adolescent psyche and expected a few challenges. More specifically, I knew that I'd be tested to assess my level of trust.
On this day, I’d be implementing a workshop called “The Art of Being Me: Transforming Negative Self Images.” This workshop is designed to help individuals improve self-awareness, reduce negative thinking and develop gratitude towards self.
Relaxed and filled with positive energy, I walked into the large, dull gray room lined with miniature cells along the perimeter. It hadn’t changed much since my visit years ago. The workshop would be held in the center of the room described as “the common area.” Thirteen tweens and teens joined me in the common area. I introduced myself and provided them with an overview of the workshop. The participants watched with curiosity and skepticism.
I kicked off my training with an ice breaker. The activity allowed the students to slowly emerge from their shells. The group quickly began to test the boundaries by asking me a series of questions. They were also disruptive with one another. After a few episodes of redirecting and answering questions we established mutual respect.
As we worked through the modules the students gradually became more comfortable expressing their feelings, which led to transparency when sharing life experiences. The stories were filled with details of aggression, impulsivity and the desire for control.
I’d love to say that the workshop was going well and as planned; however, it was quite the opposite. As the students articulated negative life experiences, I felt the energy in the room begin to shift. The verbiage was abrasive and at one point a few of the students became confrontational with each other. I quickly learned that some of the students tolerated each other while incarcerated, but they were foes outside of the center walls.
As the training progressed, I felt myself grow frustrated. The redirection strategies I used early on were no longer effective. The conflict between the youth continued to escalate. I called a break to reduce the negative energy and to be mindful of my purpose in this space.
After the break, (which included several students being reprimanded by facility staff) the energy in the room remained course, but the behavior had calmed.
I began to talk about meditation, its benefits, as well as the value of being mindful. I could see several students settling into the concept, while others seemed confused. I provided clarity to the explanation by comparing mindfulness to being “awake” and “woke.” The youth were familiar with these terms as they explained to me it’s cool to be “woke.”
As we continued the conversation, I intentionally avoided focusing on behaviors that resulted in the students being sent to the juvenile detention center, but more so on the thought process that led to those behaviors. I challenged them to be mindful of the chatter in their minds, and to begin to separate the lies from the truth in the thought process.
I explained that overactive minds could lead to symptoms of stress, restlessness, anxiety, and even depression. I then began to describe an exercise in which we would take a few breaths to prepare for a moment of stillness and quiet, while observing our physical presence.
Several of the youth began to rustle in their seats. One student stood up and began pacing around the room. I could feel the tension from earlier in the day returning.
The pacing student glared at me and stated, “when my mind slows down, I begin to think of dying, I’m afraid of dying.” A few other youth shared similar sentiments. Tension around the topic of reducing mental chatter and observing presence began to build.
I released the phrases meditation and mindfulness. I explained the activity as breathing to connect the mind with the body. The group accepted this explanation and the pacing student sat down. It appeared that his act of sitting was a non-verbal cue to the remainder of the group that this activity would be okay. They agreed to listen to a 4-minute guided instruction on connecting the mind with the breath. (I know that sitting in a quiet space for 4 minutes feels like an eternity to someone new to the experience.) Before the music ended I could hear and see bodies shifting and papers rustling. I quickly thanked the students for participating and commended them on taking a step to help reduce the chatter in their heads.
Student feedback from the experience varied, yet all positive in my eyes. The responses ranged from “that was the first time I’ve ever felt that way” to “it was scary, but I might try it again.”
The demeanor of the of group changed. The youth began to engage with one another in supportive commentary, and I felt a sense of comradery that I hadn’t felt earlier in the day. The remaining modules of the curriculum were completed on a positive note.
The final module in my workshop consisted of creating art projects/tokens as a reminder of the experience. The students created beaded necklaces and bracelets. Several charms were available for the students to add to their beaded project. I found it interesting that all, but one student chose to add a charm in the shape of a cross. My interpretation of this is that despite their current situation and behavior, these young people still grasped a sense of value, hope and protection through the presence of the cross.
I took time to process the experience. My conclusion: now is the time to teach young people strategies around self-care and mental well-being. Although the youth at the detention center have been identified as high risk, mental chatter is not unique to this age group. It’s time to create opportunities that focus on helping youth decompress. The Art of Being Me: Transforming Negative Self-Image, begins the process by helping youth identify the authentic self, amidst the developmental phase of adolescence. I’d like to see an avenue where young people are allowed adequate time and a certain level of maturity before being tasked with taking the wheel in their lives.
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