Teaching Self-Compassion Is Key
While teaching an eight-week self-compassion class to teens suffering from eating disorders, Karen Bluth saw a girl realize for the first time that being kind to herself was an option. “She said, ‘Oh! I don’t have to beat myself up and I can still succeed? I never thought of that!’”
Bluth, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has seen dozens of adolescents experience similarly eye-opening moments. She created the Making Friends with Yourself course with Lorraine Hobbs, director of youth and family programs at the University of California San Diego Center for Mindfulness.
Bluth’s research shows that teens who practice self-compassion are less anxious, stressed, and depressed than teens who are harsh with themselves.
What Is Self-Compassion? Self-Compassion versus Self-Confidence
Can being kind to yourself be as helpful as being self-confident? Slogans like “Just Do It” convey that believing in ourselves leads to success. But research shows the self-esteem movement was bearing imperfect fruit, says Rachel Simmons, author of Enough As She Is.
“Researchers studying self-confidence found that it has an unintended side effect of competition among young people,” says Simmons. “There is a need to feel better than someone else in order to feel good about yourself.”
That act of comparing separates teens from each other. “While being connected is important for everyone, belonging is critical for teens,” says Bluth. “Being a member of a ‘tribe’ is essential for becoming an adult.”
Self-esteem isn’t the right tool for critical moments—say, after missing the winning soccer goal, says Simmons. Self-confidence helps you feel brave before a big moment, but self-compassion helps you recover after you screw up. “It’s an integral practice to help teenagers soothe themselves,” she says.
Fostering Self-Compassion in Teens
Bluth walks her students through an exercise where they imagine how they would treat a good friend when the friend is having a hard time, and then how they’d treat themselves in the same situation. They realize they’d treat themselves much more critically than they ever would a friend.
“Self-compassion is treating yourself with the same kind of kindness and care that you would treat a good friend who is having a hard time,” explains Bluth, who credits pioneering self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff for developing this easy-to-understand definition.
To help develop that self-compassion, focus on these building blocks:
- Mindfulness. Simmons teaches students in her workshops and assemblies to ask themselves how they feel after something bad happened, like failing a chemistry test.
- Teenagers are better at catastrophizing and denying than understanding their emotions, she says. If they fail a test, “they wear the darkest goggles and say, ‘Now I won’t get into college’ or ‘I did badly because the teacher hates me! Screw her!’ But mindfulness is how you feel right now: ‘I feel really worried and disappointed,’” says Simmons. Feelings are not a long-term disaster, and feelings can pass.
- Acceptance. Teenagers should understand that they’re not alone. Whatever emotion a teen is feeling right now, it is a universal feeling, and others are feeling it, too. “I tell my students the five worst words you can ever say to yourself are: ‘I’m the only one who,’” says Simmons. “Hey, you’re not the only person who screwed up a chemistry test. Yes, you are unique, but your experiences of suffering are shared experiences of suffering.”
- Self-kindness. “When you are feeling bad, you can actually be nice to yourself,” says Bluth, who, in addition to teaching classes, wrote the at-home guide The Self-Compassion Workbook for Teens. Learning self-compassion is like learning any skill. If your teen practices it outside of tough moments, they’ll be prepared to be kind to themselves when they need it most.
Parents can model self-compassion during their struggles. Show and verbally say how you are taking care of yourself after your not-so-stellar work day. And if your teen fails an exam, rather than saying, “Maybe you should work harder next time,” try: “I know you feel bad and would have liked to do better.”
The question What do you need right now? is a fundamental self-compassion tool, says Bluth. By asking this, parents teach kids how to be kind to themselves. Bonus: When they tell you what they need, you might get to help them feel better, too.