Self-compassion: what is it?
Self-compassion is being kind to yourself even when things don’t happen the way you expect. It’s being aware of your feelings and treating yourself with the same warmth, care and understanding you’d give to someone you care about.
It’s also acknowledging that struggles and challenges are a part of life and that everyone goes through them.
Self-compassion: why it’s important for teenagers
Teenagers can be very hard on themselves. They can also be very self-conscious, care a lot about what others think of them, and compare themselves to others. And they might experience intense emotions like shame and humiliation.
Self-compassion helps teenagers deal more positively with failures, mistakes, setbacks and other tough times. For example, if your child gets a bad grade on an assignment or isn’t picked for a sports team, they might feel disappointed. But self-compassion helps your child to handle the disappointment positively. Your child might say to themselves, ‘It’s OK, I’ve tried my best’, ‘I’ll keep practising and try again’ or ‘I might ask for some help next time’.
When teenagers treat themselves with self-compassion, they:
- are happier
- get along well with others
- have the confidence to try new things or try again if things don’t work out as planned
- take responsibility for their actions
- have more resilience, so they can ‘bounce back’ during or after difficult times.
Self-compassion helps protect teenagers against mental health problems like anxiety or depression. Teenagers with self-compassion are also less likely to self-harm, feel suicidal, or show signs of eating disorders or substance abuse.
Self-compassion and strong parent-child relationships
Adolescence can be a difficult time. During this time a strong relationship with you helps your child feel loved, accepted and secure, no matter what’s going on in their life. When your child feels like this, they also feel more confident to face challenges. And they’re more likely to be kind to themselves when things don’t work out. This is because they know you won’t judge or criticise them.
You can build a relationship that helps your teenage child feel secure and nurtures self-compassion in many ways. Here are some ideas:
- Spend time with your child doing things your child enjoys. It could be shopping, cooking, playing sport, watching TV and so on. This sends a simple message – you’re important to me.
- Actively listen to your child’s feelings. To listen actively, stop what you’re doing when your child wants to talk. Try to understand your child’s perspective, even if it’s not the same as yours. For example, ‘It sounds like you’re feeling left out because you’re not going to the party on Thursday night’.
- Forgive your child. This shows your child that it’s OK to make mistakes. For example, your child forgets to call when they’re late home from a friend’s place. You could say, ‘I stayed up late because you didn’t let me know when you were going to be home, but it’s OK. It’s easy to forget about calling if you’re having fun. What would help you remember next time?’
- Think of ways to show kindness in your family. For example, your family routines might allow for your child to have a break from the washing up on nights when they have a lot of homework. Or as one of your family rituals, you might take turns choosing favourite desserts for Sunday nights.
- Praise your child when they show themselves compassion. This builds your child’s self-compassion even more. For example, you could say to your child, ‘I know you’re disappointed that they didn’t pick you for the team. But it makes me so proud to hear that you’ll try out again next season’.
Children of all ages learn about self-compassion by watching what you do and listening to what you say when things don’t go as planned. By role-modelling self-compassion, you’re helping your child learn that it’s OK to make mistakes, forgive yourself and try to do better next time.
Building self-compassion in teenagers: three steps
Self-compassion is something teenagers need to learn and practise. Try these three steps to develop self-compassion in your child.
Pause and notice when your child is angry, frustrated or disappointed because things haven’t gone the way they wanted and they’re being hard on themselves. For example, your child might be upset about how a haircut has turned out or sad and embarrassed that someone they care about doesn’t feel the same way. Maybe your child is worried that they’ve said something hurtful to a friend.
You might hear your child say things like ‘I’m so ugly’, ‘Nobody likes me’, or ‘I’m a horrible friend’. Or your child might just be quiet and withdrawn.
Let your child know that it’s OK to find things hard and that everyone makes mistakes. It’s also OK to feel sad, angry, disappointed or frustrated – but it isn’t OK to be harsh on yourself.
For example, you could say ‘It’s normal to feel unhappy with your body sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you’re ugly’. Or ‘I’m sorry they don’t feel the same way about you but you’re still a lovable person.’ Or ‘We all say things without thinking. Perhaps you could think about how you can make it better’.
Encourage your child to say something kind to themselves. It can help to ask your child what they might say to a friend who made a mistake or who’s going through a tough time.
Here are some options you could suggest to your child:
- ‘I’m doing the best I can.’
- ‘I’m a good person.’
- ‘We all make mistakes sometimes.’
- ‘This is hard but I’m going to keep trying.’
- ‘I can learn something from this.’
In some situations, it might be appropriate to get your child thinking about what they’d do differently next time.
Saying kind things to yourself is an important part of self-compassion. Doing kind things for yourself is important too. It’s good if your child knows what helps them feel better when things haven’t gone well – for example, going for a run, putting on loud music, meditating and so on. You can encourage your child to choose one of these things as a way of moving through their feelings.
When teenagers struggle with self-compassion or are very self-critical
Self-criticism is the opposite of self-compassion.
Self-criticism is judging yourself harshly or thinking mean thoughts about yourself. Everyone is self-critical sometimes, but if your child is very self-critical, it can increase their stress, affect their mental health, and lower their confidence.
Teenagers who are very self-critical often say very harsh things about themselves. They might also say they can’t think of anything kind to say or do for themselves, even with your support. If this sounds like your child, it helps to be extra patient and persistent when helping your child learn to be kind to themselves.
If you’re worried that your child’s self-critical thinking is affecting their mental health, it’s a good idea to seek advice. You can start by making an appointment with your child’s GP. They can refer you to a suitable mental health professional if they think it will help.
Autistic teenagers might find it hard to use self-compassion, particularly if they have difficulty recognising and managing their emotions. You can use everyday interactions, as well as tools like emotion cards and social stories, to help autistic teenagers learn to recognise and manage emotions.