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Can mindfulness help at-risk adolescent boys?



Could the practice of mindfulness help at-risk adolescent boys manage the challenges in their lives, do better at school, and generally increase their well-being? Mindfulness is a practice that is thought to develop people’s attention and awareness skills. It has been found to have positive effects in diverse populations, from pregnant mothers to military personnel, and in relation to varied problems, from depression to eating disorders. In this research, I aimed to test whether mindfulness might be of benefit to at-risk adolescent boys, whose characteristics make them more likely to suffer issues with well-being.
Tim Lomas
Could the practice of mindfulness help at-risk adolescent boys manage the challenges
in their lives, do better at school, and generally increase their well-being? Mindfulness
is a practice that is thought to develop people’s attention and awareness skills. It has
been found to have positive effects in diverse populations, from pregnant mothers to
military personnel, and in relation to varied problems, from depression to eating
disorders. In this research, I aimed to test whether mindfulness might be of benefit to at-
risk adolescent boys, whose characteristics make them more likely to suffer issues
with well-being.
The Problem
Males are a source of considerable concern in society, faring worse than their female
counterparts on numerous indices. Health-wise, they have higher mortality rates,
which is partly attributed to a greater likelihood to engage in risky behaviours, like
alcohol use.
In terms of mental health, men account for three-quarters of all suicide
deaths and two-thirds of those detained under the mental health act. Men are far more
likely to engage in antisocial behaviour, comprising 95% of the UK prison population,
while in education, boys are outperformed by girls at all ages. Such is the prevalence
and gravity of these issues that males are frequently asserted to be ‘in crisis’.
While traditionally it was assumed that sex differences like those described above
were biological in origin, more recent explanations have focused on socialisation
processes and the way in which people are encouraged to act on the basis of gender
norms. According to this perspective, males tend to take on behavioural patterns that
reflect the masculinity norms that are dominant in their culture. Unfortunately, the
dominant masculinity norms in many societies tend to value relatively unhealthy
behaviours, such as toughness, risk-taking, alcohol use, and aggression.
As dispiriting as this summary may sound, the socialisation perspective leaves room
for optimism. Males aren’t by nature drawn towards risky or anti-social behaviour,
they learn to be this way. And if these behaviours are learned, they can perhaps be
unlearned. Better yet, it ought to be possible to help males develop more adaptive
ways of ‘doing masculinity’ before more unhealthy patterns take root. Indeed, research
with young populations show that while children are certainly aware of gender norms
from a very young age, it is really only in adolescence that they truly feel strong
pressure to enact these themselves.
As such, early adolescence is an ideal time to try
to help boys resist toxic masculinity norms and instead learn more adaptive ways of
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Rationale For The Project
Based on the evidence above, we know that adolescence represents an ideal time to
help boys take on more adaptive patterns of behaviour. Some boys may be in
particular need of this kind of help, such as those who are ‘at-risk, since by definition
they are more vulnerability to adversity and poorer outcomes. Indeed, such boys may
be especially liable to fall into toxic masculinity patterns because they lack some of the
resources available to their more affluent peers, making them feel compelled to
compensate by engaging in ‘hypermasculine’ behaviours, e.g., extra-forceful displays
of toughness and aggression.
How best, then, to help? I decided to create a mindfulness-based intervention (MBI),
tailored specifically for at-risk boys. Mindfulness can be conceptualised as an open,
receptive, non-judgemental type of awareness. The word can also be used for the
forms of meditation practice that enable people to cultivate this kind of awareness.
Such practices first emerged in the teachings of The Buddha around 2,500 years ago,
although they have their roots in Brahmanical practices stretching back as far as 3000
. In the 20th Century AD these practices were brought to the West, most notably
by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who in 1979 created a clinical ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress
Reduction’ programme for the treatment of chronic pain.
The intervention was soon
used in the treatment of other conditions, from cancer to migraine, before being
adapted for the treatment of specific mental health problems, such as depression.
The theory behind MBIs is that these help people to train and develop their attention
and awareness skills.
As a result, people have better control over their internal world
and are empowered to manage their emotions more effectively. Here we can see why
this remedy might be particularly helpful for at-risk males. Masculinity norms around
toughness might lead males to disconnect emotionally, leading to difficulties dealing
with stress. Consequently, any intervention that might help males to re-connect would
be valuable.
What Was Done
My research team and I created a bespoke four-week MBI, tailored specifically for at-
risk boys, in conjunction with a school in East London. The school picked nine boys,
all aged 13-14, who they deemed to be at-risk and who they felt would benefit from
the intervention. Four intervention sessions (one per week) were designed to
introduce participants to a range of mindfulness practices that might be helpful in the
context of their lives. Each session lasted an hour, and featured a set of activities, each
lasting 5-10 minutes. For example, one such activity was a savouring task, which
involved participants mindfully eating chocolate! This meant paying attention to its
colour, texture, aroma, as well as taste. Another such activity was a breathing-based
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meditation, where the boys practiced breathing slowly, counting their breaths as they
did so.
The activities were interspersed with brief teaching segments. For instance, in one
segment, we discussed the mind using animal metaphors: the tendency of the mind
to jump from one thought to another was described as the ‘monkey mind,’ while times
when their thoughts felt slow and lethargic was depicted as the ‘sloth mind.’ After
this, we could encourage the boys to report on their own mental state by getting them
to compare it to an animal (an activity which not only helped the participants to self-
reflect, but which was also quite fun, generating quite some laughter!). After each of
the first three sessions, the boys were set homework to practice particular activities
they had learned during the sessions.
In order to assess the effectiveness of the intervention, interviews lasting around 30
minutes were conducted with each participant before the start of the course and after
its completion. Themes in the interviews were then identified. The interviews and the
intervention all took place on school premises, during the school day.
What Was Found
In the analysis, one overarching theme emerged: ‘pressure’. In particular, the boys
identified three main sources of pressure: school, age, and gender. In terms of school
pressure, the boys had a sense that their life outcomes would likely be determined by
doing well at school, yet were aware that they were doing poorly and were being
judged negatively as such. On top of school pressures, age pressures referred to the
particular burdens of adolescence. There was a sense of this age as a difficult threshold
between childhood (which was perceived and reported as relatively carefree) and
adulthood (which both offered an appealing sense of independence, yet also loomed
as imposing new responsibilities). There was a sense of the boys both embracing yet
fearing adulthood, all the while not entirely being able (or willing) to break free from
Added to pressures relating to school and age were those around gender. As expected,
the boys reported an increasing pressure to live up to a particularly toxic idea of what
masculinity is. As one pupil put it, You’re not supposed to kind of like be wet, you’re not
supposed… to act kind of like weird and girly, you’re supposed to act tough. When asked
what would happen if people transgressed these norms, one participant revealed an
unsettling sense of coercion, referring to one boy, everyone judges, everyone stays away
from because he’s a certain type of person”. Added together, the boys gave a sense of
weighty and escalating pressure.
In this context, mindfulness was thoroughly embraced by nearly everyone (except one
boy, who struggled to concentrate on the activities). Essentially, they portrayed it as a
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‘pressure valve’, a tool that could take the edge off the pressure they felt. More
specifically, mindfulness was reported as facilitating three beneficial processes:
concentration, relaxation, and coping with negative emotions. These are all
interlinked, as this excerpt highlights: “I found it kind of helpful in general life… Like the
breathing techniques keep you focused, and it could relax you as well, like say when you’re
angry in school. Regarding concentration, the boys reported being able to focus better
in class, which in turn impacted positively on their studies. They also suggested that
they used the practices in-situ to relax if they were feeling stressed, e.g., counting their
breath if they began feeling agitated. This meant that participants were empowered to
better cope with negative emotions. For instance, one pupil often got “stressed
because of his brothers shouting and fighting, but said that he had “used the meditation
to calm me down and feel more relaxed so I don’t overact, and just keep on my feet.
Making A Difference
The results showed that, for this group of at-risk boys, mindfulness was experienced
as a very beneficial activity, providing a much-needed means for dealing with the
pressures of school, age, and gender norms. While a few other studies have suggested
that mindfulness can benefit at-risk youth,
this is the first intervention focusing on at-
risk boys specifically. Given the worrisome issues connected to masculinity, as
discussed above, mindfulness shows real promise as a way of helping boys learn more
adaptive ways of being. In particular, the intervention may have helped those who
participated in the intervention to (re)connect with their emotional world, and more
generally to develop emotional management skills, like being able to cope more
effectively with stress or anger.
Of course, there are caveats here. Firstly, this was only a small pilot sample, so the
results cannot necessarily be generalised to other at-risk boys. Moreover, being a pilot,
we did not have a control group, which would have enabled us to see more clearly
any effects that the intervention had; future work on the MBI will therefore involve
larger scale trials, including the deployment of a control group. Secondly, although
interviews can be illuminating, there are limitations surrounding self-reported
outcomes. It is possible, for instance, that the boys did not ‘genuinely’ deal with stress
more effectively, but rather were just saying that they did. However, the interviewer
found the boys to be generally very honest and open, and we have no reason to doubt
their testimonies. Nevertheless, in future it will be helpful to conduct the intervention
with larger numbers of participants and to gather other types of data (e.g., objective
data on school performance) to help analyse its impact. On the whole though, it can
be concluded at the very least that mindfulness does have the potential to help at-risk
boys to manage the challenges in their lives, do better at school, and generally increase
their wellbeing. Further research can now help substantiate these possibilities further.
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Schools could consider using MBIs with at-risk boys, and indeed young people
generally, to manage the challenges in their lives
The interventions should be specifically tailored to the group in question, e.g.,
shorter and more focused interventions for adolescents to account for shorter
attention spans
Mindfulness may not be for everyone; not all people may be receptive to it, or
able to benefit from it. It should be targeted carefully and thoughtfully
More data collection and analysis will be needed to fully explain any benefits
mindfulness may have for young people
Further Reading
The full research article reporting this study is under review in Mindfulness:
Lomas, T., Garraway, E., Stanton, C., & Ivtzan, I. (under review). Under pressure:
Piloting Mind-ARMY, a mindfulness-based intervention for at-risk male
youth. Mindfulness.
The Author
Tim Lomas is a lecturer in positive psychology at the University of East London, where
he is also the co-programme leader for the MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and
Coaching Psychology. Tim is the author of numerous papers and books relating to
positive psychology, mindfulness, Buddhism, and gender. His main focus is currently
on ‘Second Wave’ positive psychology, which examines well-being as a dialectical
process. His latest book on this topic has just been published by Piatkus, entitled The
Darkness and the Dawn: The Value of Sadness and other Negative Emotions.
Office for National Statistics (2012a). Measuring National Well-being - Health. London:
Ministry of Justice (2012). Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2011.
London: Ministry of Justice.
Lomas, T. (2013). Critical positive masculinity. Masculinities and Social Change, 2(2), 167-193
Lomas, T., Cartwright, T., Edginton, T., & Ridge, D. (2013). ‘I was so done in that I just
recognized it very plainly, “You need to do something”’: Men’s narratives of
struggle, distress and turning to meditation. Health:, 17(2), 191-208.
Lomas, T., & Jnanavaca. (2015). Types of mindfulness, orders of conditionality, and stages
of the spiritual path. In E. Shonin, W. van Gordon & N. N. Singh (Eds.), Buddhist
Foundations of Mindfulness (pp. 287-310). London: Springer.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain
patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations
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and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4(1), 33-47. doi:
Lomas, T., Ivtzan, I., & Fu, C. (2015). A systematic review of the neurophysiology of
mindfulness on EEG oscillations. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 57, 401-410.
Mendelson, T., Greenberg, M. T., Dariotis, J. K., Gould, L. F., Rhoades, B. L., & Leaf, P. J.
(2010). Feasibility and preliminary outcomes of a school-based mindfulness
intervention for urban youth. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 38(7), 985-994.
... Parent (2018: 284) points out the relationship between toxic masculinity and depression. Furthermore, Lomas (2017) stresses the fact that adolescent boys at risk -those feeling most vulnerable-may engage toxic masculinity behaviours; they "compensate by engaging in hypermasculine behaviours" such as aggression (p. 2). ...
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Measuring National Well-being -Health
Office for National Statistics (2012a). Measuring National Well-being -Health. London: ONS.
Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System
  • Ministry Of Justice
Ministry of Justice (2012). Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2011. London: Ministry of Justice.