This piece by Karen Bluth, PhD is part I of an article honored with the 2022 Mind & Life Institute Award for Public Communication of Contemplative Research and was originally featured in Psychology Today online.

Teens in the United States 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?

Fortunately, 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 traumalonelinessperfectionism, 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, and develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of a traumatic event. In other words, self-compassion builds resilience.

What Self-Compassion Is

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 or 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.

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

Because being kind to ourselves may be very different than the way we were raised, people are often wary about it, 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 on 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.

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, 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 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? 

Stay tuned for Part II of the series to learn more.

Karen Bluth, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and a Research Fellow at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the Associate Editor of the journal Mindfulness and the author of The Self-Compassion Workbook for Teens. Karen was the recipient of a 2012 Mind & Life Francisco J. Varela Grant.