A new study finds that learning to be more supportive and kind to themselves can protect teens who are struggling.
By Karen Bluth

Thirteen year-old Alita told me she knew there was something wrong with her—something that made her “less than.” She felt that, somehow, she was “marked” and deeply unacceptable—even ugly—inside. She was sure everyone else could see what was so blatantly wrong with her, but for the life of her, she couldn’t put her finger on what it was, what made her this way, or what she could do about it. All she knew was that she was not quite like everyone else.

This is all too often how teens feel. Different, alone, apart, unworthy, and undeserving. Like they don’t “belong”—anywhere, to anything or anyone. According to a CDC report, in 2021, 42% of teens—57% of females and 29% of males—experienced persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness to the degree that they could not engage in regular activities; and 13% of females and 7% of males attempted suicide.

Although navigating the teen years has never been easy, it’s harder now than it was in the past. Today’s teens are still going through the same physical and emotional transitions that they always have, but they are also burdened with pressures from the outside world that we never could have imagined even a few years ago—from fears of school shootings, to the relentless isolation caused by social media and the pandemic, to the terrifying impact of climate change.

In the face of all this, teens no longer have a “safe space”—a place where they can escape to when they’re being bullied, or when the strain of school, friends, and the outside world becomes overwhelming. Heading to their bedroom and closing the door—as teens have done in the past—no longer works. Today, smartphones linger within arm’s reach, abuzz with possibilities, but all too often resulting in disappointment or rejection.

As caring adults, how can we help teens work through and overcome these challenges? Although there are no simple answers to this question, part of the way forward is helping teens learn self-compassion.

How self-compassion helps with depression

Self-compassion means treating yourself with kindness and support when you’re having a hard time, being aware of difficult emotions and recognizing that they are a normal part of life. This may sound like no big deal, but actually most of us do the opposite. When something’s happened that makes us feel badly, for example, we tend to be overly self-critical, often assuming that whatever happened was our fault, or happened because we’re fundamentally flawed—like Alita felt.

In a recently published study, my colleagues and I taught one group of teens the Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens (MSC-T) program, eight sessions designed to help them be more supportive and compassionate to themselves. Another group learned a healthy lifestyles curriculum that included sessions on nutrition, exercise, sleep, and healthy social media use, among other topics.

In the MSC-T program, one of the teens’ favorite practices was a “music meditation.” We played a piece of relaxing instrumental music and instructed teens to simply listen to the music and, when their minds wandered, return to paying attention to the music. Teens found this practice soothing and enjoyed the opportunity to select their own music. One teen said the music practice “made me realize that I can do that every time I listen to music and I always listen to music so that means that, like, 24/7 I can be calm.” While this sounds like a simple mindfulness practice, we were inviting teens to use it as a way to calm and care for themselves.

Another practice that teens were drawn to was using a “comforting gesture” to support themselves and remember to be kind to themselves when feeling anxious or afraid. This could be simply rubbing their two hands together, resting a hand over their heart, or cradling their face in their hands. Here are some downloadable audiorecordings of MSC-T practices.

In our study, all the teens were exhibiting some depressive symptoms to begin with, and these symptoms were expected to increase over time, as they tend to do in teens. The results showed that after six months, teens in the self-compassion group were more than two and a half times less likely to develop full-blown depression compared to teens in the healthy lifestyles group, suggesting that the self-compassion course protected the teens from getting more depressed. In fact, the self-compassion group actually decreased in depression.

Similarly, in a recent study (currently under review), we taught Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens to transgender and gender-diverse teens, a population that experiences high rates of depression and suicidal thinking. These teens had significantly fewer suicidal thoughts two months after the program than before it began.

How does self-compassion work?

Although we can’t determine from these studies how self-compassion is protective, we suspect it has to do with teens developing an understanding of common humanity. In one class, a teen said, “Whatever you’re feeling, you’re not alone in it. Somebody else will feel the same way, will know where you’re coming from, even if you think that no one understands, there will be somebody who does.”

Through taking Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens, teens may realize just this—that, contrary to Alita’s perceptions, they aren’t alone; many others share their experiences of sadness, loneliness, or worry. That experiencing these emotions is part of being a teen.

Research from several meta-analyses (analyzing the results of many studies together) aligns with these findings. For example, teens who are more self-compassionate tend to experience less depression, anxiety, and stress in general than those who are less self-compassionate.

Even more, being more self-compassionate may protect against some of the onslaughts of being a teen. Not only are these self-compassionate teens less likely to become depressed when stressed, but when they are depressed, they’re less likely to self-injure. They’re also less likely to get stressed when academic pressure is high, less likely to get anxious or depressed when using social media, and less likely to get depressed when cyberbullied.

Our first study was just a small initial study of 59 teens, but future work will assess MSC-T in larger groups of teens, and among particular groups, such as those with chronic health conditions. Plans are underway to implement and assess MSC-T in middle and high schools—the subject of my book coming out in June. Also, we’re in the midst of a study implementing a similar program for both children and caregivers together.

Self-compassion isn’t going to solve all teens’ problems. But it will give them a new way to approach their problems—without blaming themselves and with a new perspective, one that can be enormously eye-opening. As one teen said to me after taking a self-compassion course, “You know, it’s changed the way I look at myself and the world.” And that can make all the difference.

This article was originally published on Greater Good. Content may be edited for style and length.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This