Being a teenager is hard, especially in today’s world. Our middle and high school students are dealing with things like mental health struggles, academic pressures, hormonal changes, and relationship problems — all in a post-pandemic world.
Self-compassion can help teenagers be more gentle with themselves, improve their self-esteem, and recover more quickly from mistakes.
What is Self-Compassion?
Dr. Kristin Neff, the leading researcher in the area of self-compassion and author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, defines self-compassion as “acting in the same way toward yourself [as you act toward others] when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself.
Neff has outlined 3 core elements of self-compassion, which are:
- Self-kindness vs. self-judgment: Feeling and expressing warmth and understanding toward ourselves when we make mistakes or feel inadequate, rather than judging or criticizing ourselves
- Common humanity vs. isolation: Realizing that all humans suffer and go through the same experiences; we are not alone, and our suffering is part of the shared human experience
- Mindfulness vs. over-identification: Maintaining mindful awareness of painful emotions instead of suppressing or exaggerating them
Self-compassion is not about pitying oneself or self-indulgence. Just like having pity for another person isn’t the same as having compassion for them, self-pity differs from self-compassion in important ways. Instead of becoming completely absorbed in our own problems, self-compassion allows us to step back and see that suffering is shared by every human across the world.
Why Teaching Self-Compassion is Important in Middle School and High School
Self-compassion is important for everyone, but teenagers are often even more prone to self-criticism and self-blame. They’re at an age when they feel like all eyes are on them, and that their every decision is judged.
On top of that, mental health problems during adolescence are pervasive. Reports show that nearly half of adolescents have had a mental health condition at some point in their lives. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 24.
Teaching teenagers about how to practice self-compassion can help them be less hard on themselves and realize that all humans share the same experiences.
- Protects against the negative effects of negative life experiences for disadvantaged youth
- Lowers symptoms of depression
- Buffers the negative effect of low self-esteem on mental health
- Reduces risky behaviors
- Lowers stress levels
- Strengthens resilience and gratitude
On top of that, studies have shown that programs to teach self-compassion to teenagers are effective.
How to Teach Self-Compassion to Teenagers
One of the best ways to teach self-compassion to teens is by modeling it in yourself. So many of us have a propensity for beating ourselves up, even as adults. If you notice yourself making mean comments about yourself or being unforgiving of your own mistakes, start with practicing self-compassion yourself. This will model this healthy behavior for your students.
In addition, there are specific exercises and activities you can use to help your middle school and high school students practice self-compassion.
Love letter to yourself
This exercise is recommended by Neff and can easily be adapted to use with teens.
The idea behind this self-compassion exercise is to have your students write a love letter to themselves. The letter should take the perspective of each student’s dear friend who loves them very much.
Ask students to write about the things they love about themselves (in the voice of their friend). They can also write encouraging words about a recent mistake or hardship they’re going through. They can also focus on a particular area in which they feel inadequate. What would their friend say about this “flaw” or inadequacy?
Neff writes on her website, “In [their] great wisdom this friend understands your life history and the millions of things that have happened in your life to create you as you are in this moment. Your particular inadequacy is connected to so many things you didn’t necessarily choose: your genes, your family history, life circumstances – things that were outside of your control.” This passage may be helpful to share with students.
If your students are having a hard time, ask them to talk to themselves as if they were talking to a close friend. They may realize that often, they are much harder on themselves than they are on the people around them.
Another activity recommended by Neff is to have your students keep a self-compassion journal. This activity could be worked into your regular SEL curriculum or be a routine way to close the school day.
In this journal, invite your students to write about things they felt bad about. For example, perhaps they had a fight with their friend and they feel guilty about it. Perhaps they failed an exam. Whatever it is, ask your students to write about it. Then, ask them to use the three elements of self-compassion — self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness — to work through it.
First, they will need to use mindfulness to bring gentle awareness to whatever they’re feeling and experiencing. If they repress or exaggerate their feelings, then they can’t begin to accept them.
After they have labeled exactly how they’re feeling, ask them to use self-kindness to remind themselves of their worth. Ask them to journal about other people who have made similar mistakes, and about how this experience connects them to the world around them. They can journal about how this “mistake” makes them human.
Lastly, they should write some kind and understanding words to themselves about the incident, similar to what they wrote in the first exercise.
Loving-kindness meditation is often taught as a mindfulness exercise that increases our empathy for other people. But loving-kindness can be directed at ourselves, too. This could be a great self-compassion exercise for teens, especially if they’re already familiar with mindfulness and meditation.
Loving-kindness has many different definitions, but can be generally defined as an attitude of benevolence, warmth, and goodwill. We can send this attitude toward other people, and we can also send it to ourselves.
You can use a guided meditation script to help your students practice loving-kindness. In general, it involves cultivating a sense of self-kindness and sending warmth and caring to yourself.
Calm Classroom also has guided loving-kindness meditation exercises you can use that are appropriate for middle and high schoolers.
Mindful Self-Compassion for Students With Calm Classroom
Calm Classroom is one of the nation’s largest school-based mindfulness programs. Our easy-to-use programs were developed specifically for K-12 students, and include ways to teach self-compassion to teens. Get in touch with us today to learn more about our 2-week free trial.