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Sending my firstborn to university was way harder than I had imagined. I’ll never forget getting back into the car with my husband and younger daughter after drop-off and realizing my college girl wasn’t coming with us. I tried to balance my rising panic by reminding myself of the momentousness of this next chapter. My kid got into college! She was charting her own path! I was so proud of her! And anyhow, hadn’t she practically shoved us into the car back there? The girl was ready to launch.
So it caught me off-guard when, not 12 hours later, she made the first of many tearful calls home. She was overwhelmed and lonely. She hated the food. Her fairy lights weren’t working. She wanted to come home. I promised her this feeling was temporary, that things would get better. I told her to give it time.
Sure enough, she soon settled in, but as the months wore on, I could sense the strain of balancing academics with homesickness and a voracious new social life. “I’m so stressed,” she’d text me on any given night. During Facetime calls, I’d scan her face for proof that she was taking care of herself. And while she assured me she was getting enough sleep and wasn’t partying too hard, her Instagram page suggested otherwise. On top of that were our differing definitions of self-care: for my daughter, watching a movie in bed at 3 a.m. with five of her friends counted as “downtime.”
I quickly learned that I have very little—okay, zero—control over how she spends her time. But that hasn’t stopped me from offering strategies to help her handle any situation. One thing I’ve suggested is meditation.
Passing Down Helpful Tools
I started practicing meditation 15 years ago after being blindsided by a panic attack one night. I immediately enrolled in an MBSR program and it calmed my out-of-whack nervous system and made my panic retreat. My daughter and I are similarly built. She has my love of nature, my sense of humor, and my anxiety. So there’s no doubt in my mind that my daughter’s problems—racing thoughts, insomnia, bouts of sadness—would respond well to a mindfulness practice.
Study after study has shown that, whether you’re a mom, a monk, or a math major, meditation works. The simple act of focusing on the breath slows a fired-up brain. It also lowers cortisol levels and boosts well-being. And mindfulness builds distress tolerance in kids by teaching them to accept—rather than react to—difficult situations. I’m not saying meditation is a cure-all, and it won’t work for everyone, but it could be a cheap and efficient tool in my daughter’s mental health arsenal.
She rather enjoyed meditation when she was little, especially if it meant crawling into my lap. If she’d had a hard day at school or a run-in with a friend, a short meditation could quickly ground her. Meditation was cozy, it was quiet, it was together time—and it was way easier before technology entered the picture.
In the years since cell phones and social media have become a ubiquitous part of adolescent life, research has revealed the negative impact on teen mental health. And a recent CDC report made one thing clear: our girls are hurting. In 2021, 60 percent of teenage girls reported “persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness;” 18 percent experienced sexual violence. An unthinkable one in three girls in the U.S. had seriously contemplated suicide.
Now add the pressure-cooker environment of college. According to the fall 2021 National College Health Assessment, 22 percent of college students hit markers for major depression, and 40 percent scored for overall depression. Anxiety, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, and substance abuse all thrive in college settings. Being on at least one medication is practically a given in my daughter’s residence.
Meditation is a Superpower
To me, meditation would be like a secret superpower to address the stress of emerging adults—but try telling that to my kid.
“Meditation just doesn’t work for me, mom,” is a constant refrain I now hear from my fidgety student. What I hear is, “Meditation is hard and boring, and I’m not feeling better fast enough. Why would I meditate when I can feel so much better so much faster by ordering Uber Eats?”
“Did you meditate when you were my age?” is a question she frequently lobs my way. I fumble and then explain that, unfortunately, meditation just wasn’t accessible when I was growing up the way it is now. (Which is why I was forced to decompress by watching soap operas—but I leave that part out.) “Well, that’s convenient,” she says with an eye roll.
Helping a Loved One See the Light
Sometimes I text her short, guided meditations from YouTube, selecting ones with the least new-age vibe and with narrators that sound nothing like her mother. Once, she listened to one of them and admitted it was kind of nice.
Naturally, I responded with my trademark over-enthusiasm: “That’s so great!” I gushed, “And it’s so short! You can easily do it before bed. Maybe you can have a nightly ritual: a cup of tea, then meditation, then to bed with a book—maybe that Pema Chodron one I sent you—did that arrive?“
“Yeah, maybe,” she says, cutting me off, “Someone’s at my door, Mom. I gotta go.”
“But it’s 11:30 at night…” I sputter. “And it’s a Tuesday!”
A Wake-Up Call for Both of Us
The other day, I had a revelation.
There will be no ritual before bed, no sipping tea or preparing herself for sleep by reading spiritual books. There’s no such thing as “wind-down” time when you’re a first-year college student.
My daughter is hundreds of miles away. She’s living her life. She’s working hard and playing hard. I also have to remind myself that just because I haven’t heard from her in a week doesn’t mean she’s curled up in the fetal position in the dark. In fact, every text she doesn’t send means a problem she’s solved on her own.
Sure, she’s probably making mistakes, stifling fear, and sometimes coping with anxiety in unhealthy ways. But here’s the thing: My daughter has to come to meditation on her own. She has to be willing to slow down long enough to sit—sit with her boredom and irritation, sit with her painful memories, sit with her sadness. If anyone knows that’s easier said than done, it’s me.
What’s a Parent To Do?
Another revelation: I’m not responsible for my daughter’s happiness—and that kills me. All I can do is lead by example. That means taking care of my physical and mental health, working on my reactive energy when she’s back in the house—and, oh, yes—shoring up my own spotty meditation practice.
Because if I’m honest, pretty much everything I “suggest” for my daughter is rooted in something I need just as badly myself. Who am I to judge her racing thoughts when my own brain is like a tilt-a-whirl half the time? How can I expect a 20-year-old to sit with her discomfort if I can’t befriend my own squirm-inducing thoughts?
It’s vital that I carve out time to sit and quietly observe the tsunami of irrational fears that regularly flood my brain—including my fear for her. I’m aware that I must let them in but not invite them to stay for tea—though, admittedly, that last part is a tall order. When it comes to my thoughts, I’m always up for tea and a chat.
But I owe it to her—to my whole family—to show up as the best version of myself, so I’ll continue to practice what I preach and commit to daily meditation. As for my daughter, I’ll remind myself that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
About Our Contributor
Chris Deacon is a Toronto-based writer, filmmaker, and yogi. Her work has appeared in Chatelaine, Broadview, Toronto Life, and Today’s Parent, among others.