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Self-Compassion for Teens

As warmer weather arrives and the vaccine rollout continues, many of us are finally allowing ourselves to plan beyond next week or next month. Our children and students are also starting to see beyond Zoom calls and social distancing, hoping that sports, dances, performances and graduation ceremonies might actually occur. These events may look entirely different from what students have experienced in the past or what they envisioned for their future, but after so many months of “No” and “We’re sorry, but…” they are relieved and excited to hear “Maybe” or a sincere “Yes, if...”

In the midst of renewed hope, we continue to be aware of the toll this past year (and counting) has taken. These months of disruption, isolation and loss have been particularly difficult for our teens who, more than any other age group, are wired for connection with their peers. For those of us who parent, teach, counsel and care for teens, how can we effectively validate their feelings and guide them toward meaningful action? Practicing and modeling self-compassion will let teens know they are seen and heard, encouraging them to consider what they need and to take action to attain it or provide it for themselves.

Most people, but especially teenagers, are much harder on themselves than they are on their friends or those they care about. They believe in the most common myths of self-compassion. That is, they assume that being kinder to themselves means they are selfish or narcissistic -- “I don’t want anyone to think I’m arrogant or full or myself.” They think it is the same as self-pity and can only lead to weakness and a lack of motivation -- “If I’m nice to myself I’ll lose my edge. I haven’t earned straight A’s by giving myself a break.” Teenagers feel this way in the best of circumstances. During a global pandemic? Many conclude their only option is to tough it out. They think, “A lot of people have it worse than me right now. I have no right to feel this way” or, “It’s not like anything I do is going to change anything.” If they downplay or disregard their suffering and choose not to share how they are feeling, they believe they are alone, leading to further isolation.

There are many print resources, workshops and programs to support adults, teachers, parents, teens and kids in learning and practicing self-compassion, but there are also practical tools we can implement at almost any time. This can be as simple (or as hard) as considering these questions when experiencing stress, discomfort or difficulty. We can model these and/or pose these questions directly to our teens. They might give us the side-eye and not say a word, but if asking spurs thought, perspectives start to shift.

"How would I treat a friend in this situation?" or "What would a friend say to me?"

Good friends know when to be gentle and when to encourage (or even challenge) us with a bit more energy. They speak the truth in a way that allows us to see our situation clearly, but they also convey their belief in our value and our ability to do what needs to be done.

Self-compassion takes the long view of kindness. If we’re sad after a breakup or because we didn’t make the team, a friend may say, “This is terrible” and “I know how you feel,” validating our feelings and letting us know we’re not alone. It might be an occasion to eat some ice cream or watch a show together. If, after a while, we haven’t left the couch, a friend will also say, “Let’s go! Time to get up!” Both responses are compassionate because they support what is best for us.

"What would my favorite teacher, coach, or instructor say to me right now? How would they encourage me to do or be my best?"

We all have an inner critic whose harsh voice can drown out others that may be vying for our attention. Teens may think it’s hokey to talk to themselves, but their view may change when they recognize they already do. As the saying goes, “Don’t believe everything you think.” We can develop our ability to guide our thoughts rather than being pulled in whatever direction they wish to go.

If our wise and compassionate voice does not leap to the forefront (which is rare, especially for teens), we can think of the words and actions our respected mentors would offer when they are trying to motivate us. They hold us accountable and maintain high standards without resorting to cruelty. For those of us of a certain age, I like to say this is the difference between the approaches of Mr. Miyagi and the Cobra Kai sensei.

"What do I need right now?"

Before answering this question, we first need to know how we are feeling. Taking a moment to check in with our thoughts and the sensations in our bodies can help us recognize and articulate our emotions. Of course, this is easier to do when we’re not flooded with emotions. Although teen brain development does not frequently support thinking before acting, when they understand this is normal, they are less likely to think there must be something wrong with them. Teens can learn to pause long enough to give themselves a chance to choose their response.

The first step may be to assess a situation after the fact -- “When I feel my face getting hot I know I need to step back.” Now that they’re out of the heat of the moment, they are usually better able to determine what they need. This could involve what we traditionally regard as self-compassion (i.e., self-care that comforts, soothes and validates) or fierce self-compassion (i.e., action that provides, protects and motivates). Ideally, these complementary aspects of self-compassion work together to support us. Teens (and adults) shortchange themselves if they always skip directly to action without taking a moment (or longer) to acknowledge their pain or difficulty with some warmth and understanding.

As we look toward the spring and beyond, may we all (teens and adults alike!) know we are not alone. May we take moments to pause and consider what we need. May we be kind to ourselves and others.

Heather Montague has been an educator for the past 20 years. She is currently an Upper School Learning Specialist at the Key School in Annapolis, MD. She also co-teaches Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens, an 8-session course that connects students across the globe as they learn practical strategies for addressing the challenges of adolescence with resilience, gratitude and kindness. Her next two courses for high school students start Monday March 22 and Thursday March 25.

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