How to Foster Self-Compassion in Self-Critical Teens

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If your teen is self-critical, you may notice that they…

  • Hate the way they look
  • Make self-critical comments about their body or their appearance
  • Feel like a failure and say negative things about themselves or to themselves if they get a poor grade on a test or something doesn't work out in a social situation.

What we see with these teens who are self-critical and who are really hard on themselves is that they end of falling into  one of two categories:

  1. They may shut down and start to think, "What's the point? Why should I bother? I'm not even going to try anymore."
  2. Or the other end of that spectrum is they may overcompensate and work themselves to the bone, stay up until midnight completing work, never feel like it's good enough and continue to be super hard on themselves as a means to try and motivate themselves to perfection, which we know is not a possibility.

Why boosting self-esteem doesn’t work…

Most of the time parents and professionals will try to increase or to boost self-esteem.  But, boosting self-esteem is just a temporary fix. It's like putting a band-aid on a wound that doesn’t heal.

Most professionals will help your teen track their negative self-talk.  They'll help them learn to tune in to what they're saying to themselves, and then learn some thought replacement techniques to try and change those negative or critical thoughts with more positive or helpful ones. They'll help them learn to be their own cheerleader.

But, in working with hundreds of teens in our community over the last 7 years, here’s what I’ve learned about why this doesn’t work:

  1. It doesn't work because the thoughts always come back. Yes, mindfulness of shifting your thoughts is  a practice and we can practice acknowledging that thought and then replacing it with a more positive thought,
  2. BUT, for teens especially this feels FAKE, and we all know that teens have that BS-meter, where they can notice something that feels fake immediately!  This leads to discouragement, because it's not a quick fix and it doesn't work right away. Who wants to replace the same thought over and over and over again, right?

Thought replacement is just a temporary fix!

If I said to you right now, "Try your best to not think about a pink elephant." You'd have to think about that pink elephant before you tried to not think about that pink elephant. It's the same thing with thought replacement, when we're talking about negative to positive self-talk, you still have to think about and feel the negative thought before you can replace it with a positive one, so that feels discouraging for our teens.

What's more is that when they have that thought and then they have to go through the action of replacing it, it inadvertently reinforces this idea that there's something wrong with them for having that thought to begin with because they are aware that they have to change it, and that further increases feelings of low self-esteem.

The Self-Esteem Solution

Here's the solution to low self-esteem:  let's foster self-compassion instead of self-esteem.

Self-compassion means is treating yourself with kindness, thinking about how you would talk to your best friend, and considering, “Do I talk to myself the same way?”

Now, this is a little bit different than thought replacement.  For example: if you got a B on a test you might say something to yourself like, "Oh my gosh, I'm such a failure, I can't believe I didn't get an A.  I can't believe I didn't study more." You'd start to verbally beat yourself up a little bit.

But if your friend got a B on a test, you might say something like, "A B is a pretty good grade. I know you wanted an A, but a B is acceptable, and you can try harder for the next one."

So why is it that we can talk to our friends in a way that's compassionate and kind, but when we don't measure up to our own expectations, it leads us into this spiral of shame and negative self-talk? It’s time to treat yourself with kindness and think, "How would I talk to a friend? And how can I learn to talk to myself in the same way?"

To doubt and question yourself is human.  Accept it!

Self-doubt and self-criticism are a totally normal part of being human. The goal for any of us isn't to get rid of these thoughts, but to recognize them without letting them define us. This is why groups can be so helpful, especially for our teens, because groups help them to recognize that they're not alone in thinking and experiencing what they're going through, and that there's nothing wrong with them for having these feelings.

It's a really beautiful thing when one of my teens can share an experience that they're having, and another teen, at least one, in the group can say, "Yes, I get that, I understand that, I feel you." They understand each other in a way that makes them feel like they're not weird, bad, wrong, or different for having self-doubt, for criticizing themselves, for feeling down on themselves, for being frustrated.

Normalizing these NORMAL feelings as part of a human experience is so, so important when we're talking about being self-compassionate, because it means that there's nothing wrong with you, it means that you're not broken, that you don't need fixing, that it's all about acknowledging these thoughts without getting attached to them or without letting them define us.

Getting a B on a test doesn't mean that you're a failure. Failing a test doesn't mean that you're a failure. It means that you didn't do as well as you wanted to, and there's a way to improve on that, but it's not defining you as a failure as a person.

Accurate self-perception is more effective than inflated self-esteem

The research says that having an accurate self-perception has been proven to be way more effective than having high self-esteem. Part of this is because when we focus on self-esteem as a metric and then we have an “off” day, we automatically believe that there's something wrong with us. It hinders our ability to have an accurate sense of self because we're always basing it on some kind of external validation or some experience that we're having in our lives.

The other end of that spectrum is that when we typically rely on validation or doing well to boost our self-esteem and then we don't excel at one of those tasks, it shakes the very foundation of our identity and who we are.  For teens, when their developmental task is figuring out who they are, this can become really dangerous, and it can lead to changes in mood and urges and behaviors that become concerning for us as parents and professionals.

Help your teen connect, cope, create and foster self-compassion!

If you have a teen who's experiencing a negative self-image and could benefit from learning the tools and skills to…

  • Be more self-compassionate
  • Learn how to treat themselves with kindness
  • Learn how to accept the ups and downs in life
  • Have the skills to cope with difficult feelings

I'd love to invite you to connect with us. We're enrolling now for our Connect, Cope and Create Summer Camp, that is a week of groups and activities that are designed to help your teen go from overwhelmed, stressed, and unhappy with themselves, to learning to cope with life's ups and downs, learning how to tune in to how they think and feel, and how to be in control of their feelings, rather than let the feelings control them and define who they are.

We all know that we can't change or make feelings go away, but we can learn to cope with them and create a life that's worth living and that your teen loves, fully engages in, and is effective for them so that they can learn to be kind to themselves and finally treat themselves like their own best friend.

CLICK HERE to learn more and apply for a space in summer camp for your teen: