Content warning—this article discusses suicide and suicidal feelings.
Teens in the US are suffering. The reasons are many, including the lingering effects of the pandemic, fears stemming from unrelenting school shootings, and anguish about climate change. As a result, suicide rates have skyrocketed over the last decade, with suicide now the second leading cause of death among teens.
What can we do to support vulnerable youth who lack the skills needed to manage unremitting depression and anxiety?
Luckily, there is something that can help. Self-compassion—learning how to be kind and supportive to oneself—has been shown to protect teens from the adverse effects of social media, depression, stress, social anxiety, cyberbullying, early life trauma, loneliness, perfectionism, and other threats to their well-being. Self-compassion is not a panacea, but it can help to mitigate some of the challenges that teens face daily in a world that is often divisive, violent, and angry.
In two separate meta-analyses—statistical summaries of multiple studies—self-compassionate teens were found less likely to be depressed, anxious, or stressed. They are also less likely to self-injure, get depressed when stressed, develop mental health problems as they get older when they have low self-esteem, or develop PTSD because of a traumatic event. In other words, self-compassion builds resilience.
You Don’t Have to Navigate This Moment Alone
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, know that you don’t have to navigate this moment alone. Most importantly, and as difficult as it may be, talk to a medical professional or to someone you trust about how you’re feeling.
What is Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion, according to psychologist Kristin Neff, is treating yourself with kindness and support when life doesn’t go your way. Maybe you’ve had a disagreement with someone at work, a confrontation with your partner, or maybe it was a bad parenting day. You lost it with your teenage daughter after you reminded her twice about the “no phone at dinner” rule, and then found her texting under the table. And maybe all these things happened on the same day. Self-compassion is what you need.
Self-compassion has three main components: mindfulness, or not overexaggerating and jumping to the worst possible outcome when faced with an emotionally difficult situation; common humanity, or understanding that feeling badly sometimes is part of the human condition; and self-kindness, or taking an active step in supporting yourself when you’re struggling, rather than beating yourself up for your failings or missteps. Simply put, self-compassion is treating yourself as you would treat a good friend who is struggling.
Self-compassion is a radical act. It runs counter to our culture; it is often the opposite of the way we were raised. Most of us were brought up to be kind to others, but not to ourselves. Learning to be self-compassionate demands a perceptible shift in the way we orient to our emotional pain. Rather than avoiding our pain or getting carried away with it, we observe our feelings with a balanced perspective, as a scientist might—with curiosity and interest. This is the mindfulness part. We notice that the pain is here, that we feel hurt, angry, frustrated, or sad, and we observe where this pain might be in our body—maybe as a point of tension in our shoulders, an ache in our chest, or a lump in the pit of our stomach. Once we notice where the painful emotions are, we can “soften” or bring a sense of ease to the area.
And then, the common humanity part. We can recognize that we are not alone and that all humans struggle with these same emotions at some time or another. Feeling distraught, lonely, or depressed is integral to the human experience. There’s nothing wrong with us for feeling this way. In contrast to the cultural message that we’re supposed to be happy all the time, we realize that it’s normal to be upset or sad. It’s part of the range of emotions that all humans experience.
Finally, we take the important step to do something kind for ourselves. This is the self-kindness part. Rather than being angry, impatient, or self-critical, we can simply say some kind words to ourselves—the way we would to a friend who was struggling. Or maybe we go for a walk or listen to an uplifting piece of music—a favorite self-compassion practice of teens. Being kind to yourself might be standing up for yourself when you’re being mistreated or in an unhealthy relationship. Basically, it’s asking ourselves what we most need in that moment and giving that to ourselves.
The Benefits of Self-Compassion
People are often wary about self-compassion, and may have doubts about it—teens included. For example, teens sometimes express a concern that if they become self-compassionate, they won’t be motivated to do their schoolwork. They worry that they’ll end up on the couch chowing down on potato chips and binging Netflix all day. They won’t get their homework done. They won’t get decent grades and they won’t be competitive when it comes to getting into a good college. And just like that, they’ve become a failure in life.
However, research has shown that the opposite is true. Those who are more self-compassionate are more motivated to work hard. For example, in one study, undergrads were prompted to be more self-compassionate after taking a difficult vocabulary test by reading on a computer screen “If you had difficulty with the test you just took, you’re not alone. It’s common for students to have difficulty with tests like this. If you feel bad about how you did, try not to be too hard on yourself.” Other undergrads read a self-esteem inducing statement which told them that they must be smart since they got into that college, and the last group of undergrads had no statement at all to read. All undergrads were then given as much time as they wanted to study new vocabulary words, and then they retook the test. Guess what? Those undergrads who were encouraged to be more self-compassionate spent significantly more time studying—and did better on the test.
This means that students who are more self-compassionate are more motivated to study, not less. The researchers repeated this experiment with other situations where people might feel badly about themselves, such as when they did something against what they believed, or when they confronted a personal weakness. Across these situations, they found that those who were induced to be more self-compassionate were more motivated to make changes. Being more self-compassionate provides the necessary safety net to confront aspects of yourself that you may not like and then change them.
Being more self-compassionate provides the necessary safety net to confront aspects of yourself that you may not like and then change them.
Similarly, another study found that teens who are more self-compassionate are more motivated to step outside their comfort zone and embrace new experiences. This likely occurs because self-compassionate teens are less afraid of failing—they know if they try something new and fail, they won’t be so hard on themselves, they’ll simply say something like “well, maybe that just wasn’t my gig,” or “perhaps I’ll try another approach next time.” Self-compassionate people also procrastinate less, perhaps for the same reason—they aren’t afraid of investing their time and energy into something for fear of failing. If they don’t succeed, they don’t beat themselves up, they make the commitment to try harder next time or move on to something else.
Finally, although people sometimes think that self-compassionate people would let themselves “off the hook” when they make mistakes, another study found that self-compassionate people are more likely to take responsibility for their blunders because they don’t see them as permanent, indelible flaws that reflect a deeply marred person. They see themselves as human—a human being who sometimes makes mistakes.
And teens? We know that self-compassion is good for them—it helps to buffer against both the transitions of being a teen as well as the pervasive external events that teens are forced to confront today. How, then, can we teach teens to be more self-compassionate? Is it even possible?
Mindfulness and Self-Compassion for Teens
In 2013, Kristin Neff and Chris Germer published the results of a study of their newly developed program called Mindful Self-Compassion. This program for adults was eight weeks long with participants meeting for two and a half hours once per week, with a four-hour retreat session around the fifth week. The program had a foundation of mindfulness but focused on cultivating self-compassion through guided meditation practices, exercises, some didactic teaching, and inquiry in which teachers guided participants to explore their inner experience during practices. Results showed that self-compassion could be learned—compared to a control group, participants who were in the Mindful Self-Compassion group had significantly greater increases in self-compassion, as well as significant improvements in anxiety, depression, how compassionate they were towards others, and how satisfied they were with their lives. Moreover, improvements in self-compassion were maintained a year later.
Could the same thing be true for teens? Could teens also learn how to be more self-compassionate, thereby gaining a resource that would help them cope with the challenges they face? In 2014, my colleagues and I began working on an adaptation of Mindful Self-Compassion, originally called Making Friends with Yourself (recently changed to Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens). Compared to the control group, participants in the self-compassion group reported significantly greater self-compassion, greater satisfaction with their lives, and less depression at the end of the program. Since then, other studies have found similar results when teaching self-compassion to teens.
Most recently, my colleagues and I conducted a study with transgender and gender expansive teens, a population that struggles with high depression and suicidal behavior. In fact, transgender teens are four times more likely to be depressed compared to their cisgender (non-trans) peers; about half of these teens seriously consider suicide, and a third of them attempt suicide. In this study, Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens was taught virtually over Zoom in eight 90-minute sessions, and assessments were taken before and after the program, and again three months after the program was over. Teaching over Zoom made it possible for teens all over the United States and Canada to participate. Although suicidal thinking and suicidal behavior were not directly measured in this study, two factors closely related to suicidal behavior were measured: thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness. Thwarted belongingness assesses the degree to which the teens felt that they tried to belong and be accepted to a group but were rejected, and perceived burdensomeness assesses how much the teen felt that they were a burden to others. When both these factors are present to a high degree, it is likely that the teen thinks about suicide.
Results of this study were very encouraging. Not only did self-compassion improve significantly from before to after the study with changes maintained at follow-up, but teens reported significant improvements in depression, anxiety, resilience, satisfaction with life, and perceived burdensomeness. Three months later, teens also reported significant decreases in thwarted belongingness (see Figure 1).
Where Do We Go From Here?
We know that being self-compassionate has clear benefits for teen mental health and well-being. We know that it protects teens from not only the challenges that they have always faced, such as exploring new identities and figuring out what they value and believe in, but also some of the difficulties particular to this moment in history, such as social media and its negative outcomes for teens, academic pressure, and social anxiety. We also know that it’s possible to “grow” your self-compassion through programs and practice. The pressing question then is: How can we reach more teens, beyond those whose parents have the financial means to fund their child’s self-compassion course?
Meeting Teens Where They Are
We found it’s best to go where most teens are—the classroom. Ideally, self-compassion programs could be offered in school settings and ultimately become an integral part of the school curriculum. Programs could be offered as a unit within a health class, or in shorter sessions throughout the school year, perhaps in homeroom as a schoolwide initiative. It would be essential to train teachers in self-compassion as well, so they could reduce their own stress levels, model self-compassion for students, as well as support students in their own self-compassion practice. School support staff, such as cafeteria workers, bus drivers, front office staff, teacher aides, and custodians could also benefit from learning self-compassion tools. Of course, families are part of the school community as well, and parents and caregivers could learn how to be more self-compassionate, while simultaneously facilitating self-compassion development in their children. A school culture where everyone has better coping resources and would therefore be better able to support each other would undoubtedly be a community where health, flourishing, and academic achievement prevailed.
We know from extensive research that self-compassion helps to alleviate suffering. Now, we need to confront the reality that our teens are suffering, and take the necessary steps to provide them with the coping resources that we know work, so that they can move beyond their own pain into a future of well-being and health.
In short, there are endless ways to expand our reach in bringing self-compassion to youth. What is most important is that we do so without delay. We know from extensive research that self-compassion helps to alleviate suffering. Now, we need to confront the reality that our teens are suffering, and take the necessary steps to provide them with the coping resources that we know work, so that they can move beyond their own pain into a future of well-being and health.
This article was originally published on Psychologytoday.com and was honored with the 2022 Mind & Life Institute Award for Public Communication of Contemplative Research. Republished with permission from the author.