How to Help Teens Become More Self-Compassionate

Self-compassion may be key to supporting teen mental health. Dr. Karen Bluth shares lessons from her mindful self-compassion program.

By KAREN BLUTH, The Greater Good Science Center

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Leslie came to the first class of my course on self-compassion for teens with a definitive chip on her shoulder. She refused to sit with the group, standing on the perimeter with arms defiantly crossed and eyes narrowed. There was no doubt of the message she was conveying: “Don’t you dare try to make me participate in this class.”

I didn’t. I knew better.

During a self-compassion meditation, I sensed Leslie shifting uncomfortably in her seat. She breathed heavily from time to time. But when the meditation ended, her face had changed; the anger and resistance had dissolved and tears were rolling down her cheeks. Through her sobs, Leslie explained that she didn’t want to be here, that all her friends were together at a football game and her mom made her come to this class. We breathed with her during her story and welcomed her tidal wave of emotions. In the course, we always allow emotions to be present, no matter how overwhelming, in an effort to help teens learn how to deal with them.

The class ended. Leslie bolted out, ran down the hall, and was gone. All week I wondered if she would be back for the next session.

The class I was teaching was called Making Friends with Yourself: A Mindful Self-Compassion Program for Teens (MFY). It focuses on the specific skills of how to be kinder to yourself—as pioneering self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff puts it, treating yourself as you would a good friend who was struggling. Sad to say, almost 80 percent of us treat others with more compassion and kindness than we offer to ourselves. When our friends have a bad day, we support them in every way we know how; when we’re having a bad day or fail at something, we generally beat ourselves up with self-criticism.

And teens? They beat themselves up even more. As their cognitive capabilities become enhanced in early adolescence, teens become more self-aware and, subsequently, more self-conscious. Psychologist David Elkind calls this phenomenon “the imaginary audience,” because teens often believe that others are as attentive and aware of them as they are of themselves. This microscopic examination generally breeds harsh self-criticism, so the need for self-compassion among teens is paramount.

Research has shown that teens (and adults) can benefit from self-compassion in a variety of ways. For teens, self-compassion appears to have a protective effect againsttrauma, peer victimization, depression and self-harm, and low self-esteem. Contrary to what some believe, studies suggest that self-compassionate people have greater motivation to improve, not less: They don’t let themselves off the hook for bad behavior but confront their shortcomings head-on. Self-compassionate people don’t get mired in selfishness or self-pity, but actually have greater compassion toward others.

At a time when depression and suicide rates are high, more and more research is starting to show how crucial self-compassion can be to teen mental health. Having taught self-compassion to teens for a number of years, I’ve seen the benefits firsthand—and learned some lessons about how to get the message across.

How we teach self-compassion to teens

Making Friends with Yourself is an eight-week course created by UC San Diego’s Lorraine Hobbs and myself, as an adaptation of the adult Mindful Self-Compassion course byKristin Neff and Chris Germer. Classes include developmentally appropriate exercises such as mindful art and movement, music meditation, and short videos on topics like the changing adolescent brain. MFY teaches teens how to let go of pervasive self-criticism and judgment, be kind to themselves, and begin on the path of accepting themselves exactly as they are.

Our teachings at these classes follow the three components of self-compassion:

Common humanity. Teens come to understand that they are not alone. That what they are experiencing—feelings of insecurity, exclusion, or sadness, for example—is common to all teens (even though it may not seem that way). That there are actually biological reasons—changes happening in the brain—that make them feel the way they do. Teens learn that it isn’t their fault, and there’s nothing wrong with them.

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