Mindfulness Meditation and At-Risk Youths

John McCabe shares his experience teaching meditation to youths at a juvenile detention center in Kansas.

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The final 15 years of my professional ministry as a United Methodist pastor were focused on substance abuse prevention. During my last 3 years in the prevention field, I began leading monthly sessions with small groups of youths at the Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) in Johnson County, KS. As I reflected on my previous experiences and training, I concluded that the most valuable skill I could offer these youths was stress reduction using mindfulness meditation.


After a recent session, one of the JDC officers told me about one young man who had participated in the class and continued using mindfulness meditation every day, especially to get to sleep at night. On several occasions, the officer noticed this youth beginning to become angry and found that he had an effective intervention—he told he young man, “Just use the meditation method that helps you get to sleep.” And it worked to relieve his anger!


In developing and leading these sessions, with a different small group each month, I drew upon two resources. The first, and usually the most popular, was session three of the TV mini-series Healing from Within, hosted by Bill Moyers. The other, which appealed more to some groups, was based on the Power Source curriculum. Each resource uses meditation. Moyers follows Jon Kabat-Zinn for eight weeks, as he teaches mindfulness meditation and yoga to help a group of patients deal with chronic pain of a wide range of types, including physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Power Source introduces meditation as a skill used by athletes to be more focused on the present moment in the game they are playing. Then it offers several guided meditations designed to reduce stress by increasing awareness.


I have continued these monthly meetings over the past 5 years, after I retired from my position as a Prevention Specialist. I have found a genuine openness on the part of many of these young persons to learn mindfulness meditation. Very few of them have ever experienced either meditation or yoga. Nearly all of them show interest in managing their level of stress and reducing their anger and/or anxiety.


During a one hour period I aim to expose them to the benefits and experience of mindfulness meditation. I begin with a brief introduction to the topic, most often using a quiz based on research titles and inviting them to fill in the blank, for example: _______________ [mindfulness] reduces stress, changes brain structure, increases immunity, etc.

Next, I present part of the Moyers video, stopping to ask or answer questions, then involving the students in one or more mindfulness meditation exercises. The alternative resource, again after the brief quiz, presents the Power Source approach to the benefits athletes get from focusing their full attention on the here and now as they compete. I follow this, as does the Moyers video, by inviting group members to pay attention to their breathing, then including several guided visualization exercises, presenting walking meditation, and the use of key words, mantras or prayers to increase their awareness. The Power Source method uses guided meditations, such as Guarding the Castle Gate (paying attention to each breath as it comes in and goes out) and The Big Sky (in which stresses, sounds, feelings, thoughts, etc., are allowed to float away like clouds in the sky).


At the close of the session, I ask the participants for a quick evaluation, requesting them to place a hand turned sideways like a salute in front of their forehead if the class was “very helpful,” just below the chin if it was “a little helpful,” and in front of their chest if it was “not helpful.” About 1/3 of the group tend to be in each category. This has given me encouragement to continue this work and to improve my methods.

My conviction increases that mindfulness mediation is a skill that would be of great help, not only to the at-risk population, but to all young people.