Mindful Teens: Jessica Morey Talks with Susan Stiffelman

Mindful Teens podcast with Susan StiffelmanMindful Teens with Jessica Morey: from the Parenting Without Power Struggles Podcast, hosted by Susan Stiffelman

How can parents enjoy the journey of parenthood, while raising joyful, resilient kids? Marriage and family therapist Susan Stiffelman has explored the answers to this question in her best-selling book Parenting Without Power Struggles and with thousands of parents and children, in her practice and through workshops and talks throughout the world as well as online.

Susan Stiffelman likens successful parenting to being the captain of a ship – calm, confident, and in charge (versus constant negotiating, or worse, when the children are calling the shots). She writes: “When we are captaining the ship, we are responsively flexible, choosing how we engage with our child during one of [their] storms rather than reflexively reacting based on triggered behaviors we inherited from our own upbringing.”

The “Parent Coach” advice columnist for the Huffington Post for many years, Susan Stiffelman also provides parents with insights, guidance, and support through her podcast, with guests who have included Jane Goodall, Dan Siegel, and Kristin Neff, among many others.

Mindful Teens with Jessica Morey

In this episode, Susan, a meditator since the age of 17, welcomes iBme Executive Director Jessica Morey. Listen in as they discuss the impact of mindfulness retreats on teens and the specific skills that create mindful teens. You’ll hear insights into what’s going on in the teen brain and how mindfulness and contemplative practice can radically improve focus, resilience, and a positive sense of self. You’ll also hear:

  • The surprising results of teaching self-compassion to teens
  • Why contemplative practice is particularly powerful for teens
  • What happens when teens on retreat unplug from technology.

Listen now (20 minutes)

Podcast Transcript

Susan Stiffelman: (00:07)
Hello and welcome back to another episode of the Parenting Without Power Struggles podcast. I’m your host Susan Stiffelman. I’m a marriage and family therapist and the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting with Presence. And I’m very glad you’re here. Welcome.

Today I’m going to be talking with Jessica Morey about teens. Jessica founded iBme, which you’ll hear about in a minute, Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, which hosts mindfulness retreats for teens all over the country. And believe me, she knows teens, so you won’t want to miss this episode.

But first a word from our sponsor, which happens to be me. This podcast is one of the ways that I offer support to parents, but there are a lot of other options available that I’d like to tell you about. You can visit Susanstiffelman.com and get a free newsletter, where you’ll also find a free love-flooding video, which is a very simple, short video describing a powerful way to immediately establish more connection with your children.

You’ll see a catalog of masterclasses on the website, on everything from Birds and Bees in the Online World which includes how to navigate around online porn with your kids, Raising Self-reliant Kids in the digital age with Dr. Dan Siegel, managing meltdowns with Janet Landsbury, chores with Patty Wipfler, and co-parenting with a narcissist with Wendy Behary. I think we have 16 classes altogether.

Of course. There’s also information at Susanstiffelman.com about the monthly Parenting Without Power Struggles membership program, which you can try for just a dollar by using coupon code Podcast19 when you register at Susanstiffelman.com/membership. I encourage you just to take a look at the page, and see if it resonates with you. I work personally with parents twice every month answering questions, role-playing, coaching, and we have a lot of fun, so you may want to check that out too. Now let’s get started. Hi Jessica.

Jessica Morey: (02:17)
Hi Susan. Great to be with you.

Susan: (2:19)
Glad you’re here. Jessica Morey is the Executive Director of Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, which is a national nonprofit that offers wonderful mindfulness retreats and training for teens and parents and the professionals who support them. She began practicing meditation at the age of 14 on teen retreats, offered by the Insight Meditation Society. Jessica’s a founding board member and lead teacher for the iBme retreats. She holds a BA in environmental engineering and a master’s degree in sustainable development and international affairs.

I love so much what you’re doing and have a personal interest because my son as a teenager actually was one of your camp counselors one summer. And I know he had a very deep and powerful experience. So, what great work you’re doing! Tell us about iBme. What prompted you to start it and what results have you seen from those who’ve attended?

Jessica: (03:18)
So, we’re going into our 10th year as an organization, and actually the retreat model, as you mentioned, I went on teen retreat as a teenager at the Insight Meditation Society. And so the retreat model that we teach for teenagers really comes out of that history and lineage. So it’s, you know, over 30, almost 30 years of teen retreats. There were folks that were teaching these retreats, through other nonprofits and we kind of didn’t really have a home. I got back involved when I was in my twenties, in 2007. Around that time we said, you know, we should really make a nonprofit so that we can organize these better, offer more of them around the country. That’s how we decided to found and get involved in the running of iBme.

Susan: (04:13)
I know that when my son was there, it was just a beautiful set-up. Everything you create for the teens who were involved as well as the counselors is done with so much care. Can you describe that a little bit?

Jessica: (04:27)
The daily schedule and the model is very carefully and thoughtfully structured. There are periods of silence and of talking — can you imagine having a silent meditation retreat with 30 to 50 teenagers? It might be impossible.

So there’s a lot of social time and what we call relational mindfulness. Every day, teens are together twice a day for an hour in a small group and they do a lot of sharing about what’s happening in their lives, their challenges, listening to each other, playing, and connecting. And we talk about that as bringing mindfulness and presence into relationship in really clear ways.

And then there’s also just fun. We have workshops in the afternoon that are sports or arts or hikes in the woods and then a big dance party the last night. So it’s also very engaging and alive and fun.

Susan: (05:32)
I believe what happens is that this is a “no cell phone atmosphere.”

Jessica: (05:39)
Yes, yes, it is. That’s just been an amazing shift in the time that I’ve been involved. Because 2007 was the year the iPhone came out and that was the first year I started staffing as an adult. It’s just been amazing to watch over that time that we basically had to take on the policy that you could not have your cell phone while you were on retreat. We’re finding that that’s sometimes one of the most valuable aspects for the teens: that they get to be away from technology and social media and actually connect with peers in real time, face to face, just present.

Susan: (06:18)
So what is that like? I don’t want to spend the whole conversation on that, but it’s so up for parents, you know, how I have a gate, their kids constant desire to be on their phone or engaging in social media. How is it for the kids who show up? I’m assuming that they know in advance that this is a, you know, an unplugged period of time, but do you have kids who really struggle with that? Do you see kids visibly relaxed after a day or two?

Jessica: (06:46)
Yeah, I mean there’s a complete transformation within a few days for the teens. And so at first it’s definitely uncomfortable for many of them. We have a high return rate, so the teens who are coming back again mostly are very happy to give up their phones because after a few days they get to see that the benefit. Many teens don’t want their phone back at the end of the retreat. And we’ve even heard teens tell stories about after leaving the retreat and just by themselves, they decide to delete certain social media apps or take breaks from their phones at different times. 

So yeah, a lot of teens end up liking it and we usually will end the retreat. We’ll give them back their cell phones and actually do a meditation using the phone as the object of meditation and exploring what does it feel like to actually open your phone to hear the messages? Like how does your body feel? Where are your emotions? How’s your attention, where is it getting drawn? So we do also make that an explicit part of the practice.

Susan: (07:56)
That’s fantastic. What an opportunity for a teen to really, at that crucial critical developmental time, absorb without their parents around, but through the influence of cool hip, older kids absorbing some of these ideas and practices. What do you see from kids who’ve attended? How do their lives seem different after they’ve had that time? Honored?

Jessica: (08:21)
We’ve seen huge transformations. I can share a couple of anecdotes about what’s meaningful to me personally. And then we’ve also done some research with the University of Pittsburgh on the retreats. And the research has shown — and really in some ways validated what we’ve seen anecdotally — that pre- and post-retreat (at three months post-retreat), teens have significant increases in their general well-being, their life satisfaction, mood, decrease in rumination, decrease in anxiety and depression, and increases in self-compassion.

One of the things that we saw in the research was that the greater the increase in self-compassion, the greater all the other benefits were. That’s just something that we hear over and over again. Teen sharing something like “For the first time, I saw that I was lovable” or “I felt like I belonged in a community of my peers. I felt fully accepted.” I think having those experiences can be completely life-changing. Even if they go back to a high school that doesn’t feel as comfortable or safe or welcoming, they have had the experience of being fully welcomed and fully accepted. I think that that changes something inside of us.

Susan: (09:51)
That’s just beautiful. What a gift to give a young person. Can you say a little bit more about what is going on developmentally for adolescents, in the teenage brain that can make it both challenging for parents and also awe-inspiring and miraculous?

Jessica: (10:10)
For sure. First, just to give a little plug for our mutual friend, Dan Siegel, his book Brainstorm, which is on the teenage brain, is probably my favorite for parents (and it’s also written for teens). So if you haven’t checked that out, I would highly recommend Brainstorm. And what he’s really highlighting is that it’s both, it’s both the opportunities and the risks of the teenage brain.

What I like about his framing is that it seems like we can often think of the teenage years as this sort of terrible period that we all just have to get through. We have to survive. And, he’s really highlighting that it’s amazing, it’s one of the most valuable and important times of life, for an individual but also for society. Right?

He’s talking about a whole bunch of changes in the brain around pruning off excess synapses and myelinating, increasing the speed of connection between the synapses that are used the most. What this means is that the activities and habits and lifestyles of teenagers are particularly important because that’s the time when they’re really laying down these networks that will be in place a little bit stronger for the rest of their life, which is one of the reasons why it’s so valuable to be doing contemplative practices or compassion development, attention, focus, and concentration development, these kinds of things.

Mindfulness, we know, increases integration in the brain. So it connects the prefrontal cortex with the amygdala giving a little bit more response versus reaction time, emotion management, resilience. These are all things if you have a teenager, you know, are challenges. It’s kind of amazing what we know about what is happening in the teenage brain and what we know happens through practice, through contemplative, mindfulness, and compassion practice. The match up there is in some ways kind of incredible.

Susan: (12:21)
We know that there are increasing reports of teens struggling with stress, with depression, anxiety, self-harm. How can these practices mitigate or minimize the likelihood that a teen will head down that road?

Jessica (12:38)
This is something we’ve noticed for sure in our applications and in teens reporting on retreat for over the last 10 to 12 years. I would say that first piece about developing a core sense of your own goodness is a foundation to work from to address anxiety, depression, and self-harm. So that’s really just like a foundational piece that’s so valuable to help teens really connect into.

The other pieces, you know, so much anxiety and depression and rumination is coming out of thoughts and emotions that are kind of running out of control and that we believe. We believe our thoughts, we believe our emotions — that we have to do something about them, that they’re real in some way.

Through the meditation practice, we can actually start to see that these are just changing, they’re coming and going, sometimes they come out of nowhere. But basically we don’t have to believe our thoughts all the time, we can develop an actual skill, like a muscle that can decide: Do I want to actually continue to pay attention to this “thought train” or do I want to take my attention and shift it somewhere else that’s going to lead to more happiness? Or that’s going to have more well-being for me.

Jessica (cont.): (14:01)
You can actually see, “Wow, I have that choice. I can take my attention and move it over here.” And so just getting that greater choicefulness is hugely important. A lot of practices, a lot of therapeutic approaches like DBT therapy, use that skill that comes out of meditation and mindfulness.

Those are just some of the things that I think about with the value [of teens connecting with mindfulness]. This summer I heard an amazing story from a parent who came up to me — we have a parent workshop at the end of every retreat — and he came up to me and he said, “I just need to tell you, my older son came on retreat two years ago and he was having serious anxiety, panic attacks. He’d been in really good therapy for a couple of years. We sent him on your retreat. He came home and he has not had a panic attack since. And he says that he considers himself anxiety-disorder free.”

It was totally amazing to hear that because, and in some ways, I don’t even know how, but I know there’s something magical happening in terms of the community and in terms of the practice. But I couldn’t tell you how exactly that kind of effect happens.

Susan: (15:12)
I can relate because I come from a family of worriers and had all of the components and elements in place [to be the same way]. But I also started meditating when I was [around] 17. And even though, it has been a bumpy ride from time to time, but there is a way that I feel anchored — and that I’ve seen happen with the kids I’ve worked with as well.

I think it’s revelatory to teenagers —and to adults — to consider the fact that we don’t have to believe every thought that appears in our head. Sometimes I give this analogy to illustrate this idea of not necessarily having to jump on board with every thought train ( that appears in your head. I’ll tell a young person, “Imagine that somebody barges into your house. They go into your fridge, they get a soda or an iced tea or a drink, and then they go into your bed and they grab the remote.

Susan (cont.): (16:11)
They’re laying on your bed, they’re flipping through the channels. Right? And would you come in and say, “Hey, would you like a sandwich with that?” No. You’d say, no, you’re not welcome here. Get out of here. Right?

Compare that intruder to a thought: just because a thought shows up doesn’t mean you need to make it a sandwich. You don’t have to entertain every thought and make it comfortable. You can choose and decide which to pursue or which to allow yourself to observe, “Oh, I see there’s a thought suggesting I should be anxious about X, Y, and Z” and letting it pass, just like a cloud might pass in the sky

Jessica: (16:52)
Completely. I think what’s been amazing, and sometimes that insight and that experience can be challenging to have a direct experience of if you’re just meditating for five or 10 or 15 minutes at home, because there’s so much else going on and you’re so in your life, you know, and it’s like, no, actually I do need to be anxious about that thing. You know?

But when you go on retreat, everything’s turned off, the distractions are away. It’s simplified. You’re meditating for four hours that day in different chunks. You get to just see the patterns of your mind and you get to see, “I don’t actually have anything I have to do right now and yet my mind is still making up that story.” So there is something about being on retreat that just helps make those insights explicit and really settle in.

Susan: (17:47)
That’s fantastic. I feel so happy to hear this and to imagine some of the parents who are tuning in having an aha moment and realizing that it might be beneficial for their kids to have this kind of an experience at such a formative age. Let’s wrap up with a tip and then I want to make sure people know how to find you.

What’s one thing that parents can practice in the week ahead, taking in some of what they’ve heard today?

Jessica: (18:13)
One thing that I always say is if you think your teen could really benefit from meditation, then the best thing you can do is cultivate that practice yourself, as a role model, and that’s a wonderful way to start.

And very specifically in your daily life, a practice that I’d love offer you is: When you’re with your child, can you practice being totally present with them? What that means is put down all the technology completely, turn your eyes and your body towards them. If your mind wanders into thinking about the past or the future, you just bring it back, and pay attention to them. Have a sense of connecting in the present with your child. Maybe just do it for five minutes, just have that be a practice every time you see them. When they walk in the door, can you drop everything and just be present and see how that shifts things in your relationship.

Susan: (19:10)
Great. Thanks Jessica. What a pleasure to talk with you. It’s been a long time since we’ve been in the same room but it’s nice to be able to connect this way.

Jessica: (19:20)
Thank you so much. I’m really grateful to be on it and I’m grateful for your work supporting parents.

Susan: (19:26)
So how can people find out more about what you’re up to?

Jessica: (19:30)
The website for Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme) is iBme.com. If you go there,  you’ll see all about the retreats. We have two teen retreats over New Years and then we have 12 retreats across the country in the summer for teens and one for parents in August. If you want to come and have an experience, you can come on retreat with us in Massachusetts in August; I’ll be teaching that one as well.

Susan: (20:06)
And everyone, if you’d like to get our newsletter for parenting with that power struggles or you want to find out about the masterclasses or the membership, please visit Susanstiffelman.com. Thank you again Jessica.

 Susan (cont.): (20:21)
Thank you everyone for tuning in. I love having this time with you, sharing support to help you raise your children with great joy and love and connection. I can’t imagine anything more important in today’s world than bringing up kids who are clear-headed, compassionate, and resilient. So thanks for committing to growing and learning as a parent.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode. As always, if you have a minute and you can leave a review or rating, it’s much appreciated. And please tell a friend. You may also want to subscribe to the podcast so you can be notified whenever a new episode is released. So that’s it for today. I look forward to joining you next time. Meanwhile, remember that no matter how busy life gets, look for those moments of sweetness.


In April 2019, iBme had a conversation with Ari Andersen, co-founder of the podcast Millennials Don’t Suck, and Susan Stiffelman’s son. You can read Amazing People Doing Amazing Things on our iBme blog.

You may also be interested in this 2016 YouTube video of Susan Stiffelman and Ari Andersen in conversation: Talk to Me or in this YouTube video: Susan Stiffelman: “Parenting with Presence,” Talks at Google.