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Teens and Self-Compassion - A Missing Link for Wellness

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Often parents are told about self-esteem and the importance of increasing levels of self-esteem in children and teens.  While the motivation to increase self-esteem is praise-worthy, research shows that there are more beneficial avenues for overall wellness with teens when they are able to implement self-compassion.  Dr Kristin Neff, a pioneer in self-compassion research, has found that people who practice self-compassion are less critical of themselves, experience lower levels of anxiety and depression, and also have increased satisfaction with life (Neff et al., 2007).  One of the major differences between self-compassion and self-esteem lies in the fact that self-esteem is increased or decreased in comparison with others; self-esteem is, in essence, a value based practice.  Self-compassion involves being kind to oneself no matter the outcome. Self-compassion is a judgement free practice that acknowledges successes and failures as part of the human experience and dismisses critical thinking and self-talk. 

If you have an adolescent, you may be wondering how to begin to implement this practice.  How do we teach our teens to accept failures? How do we teach our teens to avoid comparison and focus on self-kindness and acceptance? 

First, it is critical to acknowledge that this is a practice.  Self-compassion is a skill that is learned and must be modeled and then modeled again.  Just as you work to teach your adolescent self-compassion, practice your own acts of self-compassion.  Ensure that your teen sees you model these behaviors on a daily basis.  

One of the major components of self-compassion is acknowledging common humanity. When your teen is struggling with a particular emotion - normalize it.  Often teens feel alone in their questions, anxiety, depression, loneliness, frustration.  Normalize the humanity of their feelings.  Help your teen understand that adolescence is a difficult time for everyone and that struggling is completely normal.  When you normalize your teen’s experience, you are not minimizing their struggles but helping them understand that others (whether they see or not) are experiencing the same emotions. They are not alone.

Help your teen understand self-compassion is quite simple to practice; it is treating yourself the way you would treat a friend.  Practicing self-compassion is simply asking ourselves, “What would I say to a friend in this situation?”  Have your teen tell you what they would tell a friend who was struggling academically, socially, or feeling alone.  That is compassion. Now have your teen tell themselves the same.  Have your teen do for themselves what they would have done for a friend.

Your teen may resist the idea of “treating myself as I would treat a friend” because it may take away their competitive edge.  Maybe your teen is fearful that practicing self-compassion would lead to complacency.  Research shows the exact opposite is true.  Remind your teen that research shows those who practice self-compassion are actually more likely to complete tasks and avoid procrastination (Neff et al., 2007).  That seems counterintuitive, but those who practice self-compassion tend to get things done faster because they are less consumed with fears of failure or doubt.  When self-compassion is a part of the daily practice, failure is not quite so scary.

Self-compassion is a skill that must be developed and practiced. As we slowly shift from increasing self-esteem to increasing self-compassion, we are able to develop stability in our wellness.  As Dr Neff states, we can “begin to feel good about ourselves not because we are special and above average but because we are human beings intrinsically worthy of respect” (Neff et al., 2007). 

If you need more guidance and resources on increasing self-compassion with your teen, feel free to email KS Services with questions.  

Laura Waller, MS

Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139–154. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2006.03.004.

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