The Self-Compassionate Teen

The teenage years are a time for finding your own identity – but what if you don’t like what you find?  Just like their parents, kids can be incredibly hard on themselves, constantly judging their feelings, their actions, and their character. Learning to feel compassion for yourself is an important skill, whatever your age.  According to Dr. Kristen Neff, research psychologist and author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, self-compassion “involves being kind to ourselves when life goes awry or we notice something about ourselves we don't like, rather than being cold or harshly self-critical.” Dr. Neff’s research describes three components of self-compassion:

Self-kindness: “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate”

Common humanity: “recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience”

Mindfulness: “taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated”

Self-Compassion Isn’t Narcissism

One reason self-compassion and self-acceptance are so hard for us is that they can be confused for self-indulgence. We may worry that if we aren’t careful, our kids will set lower standards for themselves, or start expressing the narcissism many studies report as a rising problem.

Will teaching teens to have compassion for themselves teach them to be self-indulgent? The research says no. The hallmark of narcissism is an absence of empathy. The inability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others is a defining trait for narcissism. Practicing self-compassion improves empathy, and it has no association with narcissism in the research. People who treat themselves compassionately are more likely to take responsibility for their actions toward others, and admit mistakes, rather than less.

Better for Both of Us

Can self-compassion really improve well-being in teenagers? While most of the research has been on adults, new studies are showing promising results. Teens who practice self-compassionate have better life satisfaction and lower perceived stress and negative feelings. In addition, self-compassion can protect them from the negative effects of low self-esteem. Even more strikingly, self-compassionate parents are better off too, while also having healthier teens. One study showed that parents’ non-judgmental acceptance of their own parenting skills correlated with reduced depression and anxiety in teenagers. It may be that what the Dalai Lama says is true: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Teaching Self-Compassion

One technique is to ask your teen (or yourself!) how you would react if a friend came to you with the same difficulties or emotions your teen is experiencing. What would they say or do to help their friend feel better? Is that something they could do for themselves? So often, we treat ourselves far more harshly than we would our friends. This approach helps teach both self-kindness and an awareness of our common humanity, and can help sidestep the mental blocks that so many of us face when we try to be loving toward ourselves.

Then, reverse the practice. When your teen is dwelling on something that makes them feel bad about themselves, have them imagine a friend who is wise, loving, and accepting. This friend can see all of their strengths and weaknesses and understands human nature. What would that friend say to them?  It can help to write their answer in a letter, and then set it aside for a while and read it later.

Mindfulness alone isn’t self-compassion, but it’s an important skill we need to become self-compassionate. It’s precisely in those moments of suffering that wee need self-compassion, and mindfulness helps us be aware that we’re suffering in a non-judgmental way. The balance of feeling painful emotions without trying to distance or suppress them, and also without being carried away by them, is something that mindfulness teaches. Mindfulness will not result in perfectly-behaved teenagers (any more than it results in perfectly-behaved adults), but it can allow everyone to take a step back and respond appropriately to whatever stressors are present.

Teens are super-connected these days; ironically, there are a number of apps that can help them disconnect! For example, the free Insight Meditation Timer app for smart phones and tablets displays a map of all the users meditating in the moment, worldwide, which helps show that this isn’t an unusual practice. The app has a great selection of bells to signal you when your practice is complete, and there are hundreds of free guided meditations inside the app, including self-compassion tracks, for those who find guidance helpful.  Stop, Breathe, and Think and Smiling Mind are apps made especially for teens.

Finally, the most important part of teaching mindfulness and self-compassion to teenagers is to model it yourself. If you’re self-critical and judgmental when you make a mistake, that is what your teens will learn! Teens pick up on the slightest hint of a sham – practicing what you preach, and being your authentic self, are the most important aspects of relating to them well.

Madeline Ebelini is a former stressed-out lawyer turned certified mindfulness instructor with a mission of helping people reduce stress through teaching them practical and effective mindfulness techniques. She teaches the 5-star reviewed online course Mindfulness For Stress Relief, and leads a weekly live online meditation group Remember to Breathe. Register for her free webinar Learn 3 Quick Mindfulness Practices for Stress Relief.


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