“In this incredibly competitive society of ours, how many of us truly feel good about ourselves?” asks author and self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff. It’s a sobering question, especially when we’re talking about teens. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry identifies “negative thoughts or feelings about themselves” as one of the top causes of teen stress. So how can parents protect their kids from the trap of self-judgment and self-criticism? Neff suggests that instead of trying to build self-esteem, we teach teens how to practice self-compassion.
In Self Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself, Neff says focusing on self-esteem can backfire because it means constant self-evaluation, and “we can’t always feel special and above average.” If teens get the message that they should always feel great about themselves, they may think they’re falling short and judge themselves even more harshly. Self-compassion means putting a stop to “judging and evaluating ourselves” altogether. Teens who practice self-compassion learn that when they’re having a hard time, they should treat themselves like they would treat a good friend: always welcome and always worthy.
Some parents worry that self-compassion might give kids an excuse to be self-indulgent or not try hard. Research proves otherwise: by letting them know that their value is not dependent upon performance, self-compassion actually helps teens be more comfortable with vulnerability, try new things, and develop empathy. Other benefits include greater happiness and resilience, more life satisfaction and motivation, better relationships and physical health, and less anxiety and depression.
These six strategies can help you and your teen put self-compassion into practice:
Before you bring up the topic with your teen, do a self-inventory. For one week, just notice how often you judge or criticize yourself, and be aware of how often your teen sees or hears you. If you’re beating yourself up, you’re sending the message that it’s ok for them to beat themselves up. If you talk negatively about yourself for making a mistake or falling short of a goal, they’re learning to evaluate themselves with the same standards. If you could benefit from a bit more self-compassion too, make it a family project. Talk openly about your efforts and support each other in being more kind, forgiving, and loving to yourselves.
Label behaviors and actions, but not your child. Self-compassion means honoring the innate worth of ourselves and others, even when behaviors and actions fall short. Especially when we’re upset, it’s easy to use labels like rude, selfish, or disrespectful as if they define who kids are. When you discipline, label only the behavior you want to call out. Instead of “You’re a liar,” try “I’m disappointed by your choice to lie about where you were on Friday.” Letting them know they are still loved and worthy helps them separate their actions from their identity.
Ask “How would you treat a friend in the same situation?” When your teen is self-criticizing or judging, this simple question is foundational in self-compassion research. Because we all tend to be much harder on ourselves than we are on others, it helps to step out of the “I messed up” mindset and reframe the situation with more compassion. Thinking about how they would treat a friend helps teens release feelings of failure and build lasting self-compassion skills.
Ask “What do you need right now?” This question is another powerful way to help teens develop self-compassion. When your teen is sad, angry, or upset, try asking them what they need and then give them time and space to consider their response. Resist the urge to jump in with suggestions or try to “fix” things. This helps teens get used to checking in with themselves, honoring their own needs, and asking for support when they need it.
Help them notice negative self-talk and change it. The first step is simple awareness: noticing when self-talk gets critical. Then, ask what their more compassionate self would say instead and help them reframe the negative observations in a more positive, self-affirming voice. This practice helps train teens’ brains away from knee-jerk negativity and towards more consistent compassion.
Encourage teens to take a self-compassion break. This mindfulness practice from the Greater Good Science Center involves taking a pause to check in with thoughts and feelings and sit with them in a compassionate way. It teaches teens that difficult emotions are temporary and they can let them move through their minds and bodies instead of getting stuck. It also helps them reflect on challenging situations and put self-compassion strategies into practice. It’s a win for them and for you, too.