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Self-Compassion Lessons: Why teens, more than ever, need to learn to be kind - to themselves

Karen Bluth, an assistant professor and research at UNC-Chapel Hill, says simple steps teens can take to show themselves compassion can be eye opening.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
, Go Ask Mom editor

The facts about teens and their mental health are stark.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 20 percent of teens ages 13 to 18 have a mental health condition; 11 percent have a mood disorder and 8 percent of youth have an anxiety disorder.
Meanwhile, teen suicide rates are on the rise. For girls ages 15 to 19 alone, the suicide rate doubled from 2007 to 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Experts say there are all kinds of reasons why teens are struggling now more than ever before. Mental health issues and genetics are two. According to the mental health alliance, 90 percent of those who died by suicide have an underlying mental illness. Childhood trauma, substance abuse, stress, brain development, bullying and, even, teens' reliance on smartphones and social media are others.

Karen Bluth, an assistant professor and researcher at University of North Carolina School of Medicine, regularly sees the connection between distress and technology in her own work with teens.

"What's happening is that teens are spending more time alone in their rooms, texting rather than hanging out with their friends, and it's really not the same," she said. "Teens tend to be very isolated and feel very alone."

And that can take a toll. As they flit through Instagram, where people typically only post the very best photos of themselves, they wonder why they don't look like that every day.

They think, "'there's really something horribly wrong with me. I'm not like these people,'" she said. "There seems to be a lot more pressure on teens now than there was even five or 10 years ago."

But Bluth, whose own children are now young adults, has one solution that helps. Teaching teens self compassion, whether they're dealing with mental health issues or not, directly addresses their feelings that they aren't "good enough" or "worthy."

"It's all about how we can treat ourselves in those moments when we are struggling with the same kindness and care that you would treat a good friend," she said.

Bluth recently came out with the book, "The Self-Compassion Workbook for Teens." And she regularly leads workshops and camps for teens in the area. A four-day Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens program for kids ages 12  to 15 runs July 23 to July 26 in Durham. Space is still open.

Bluth said 80 percent of us treat our good friends much better than we ever treat ourselves. In other words, we all could do a better job being kind to ourselves. And it's not just about giving ourselves a break - though that is a big part of it. Bluth ticks off three important components to self compassion.


In other words, teens need to learn to stop pushing their emotions under the rug.

"Just being aware that you're suffering when you're suffering," she said. "... Mindfulness is the awareness that you're struggling, but also having a balanced perspective. Not overemphasizing it or over-identifying with it - that this is 'the end of the world or 'my life is going to be this way.'"

Common Humanity

It's not uncommon for teens to ruminate over that awkward conversation with somebody in the school hallway or the party invitation that never came. Bluth said we need to remind them that the emotions that come from these situations are just part of the human experience.

"It's not that you have done something wrong," she said. "You're not the only one. You're not alone. This is part of being a human being on the planet."

But, she said, that's not the message we're getting from our culture these days - especially on social media where everybody's life seems perfect and beautiful.

Self Kindness

This third component, Bluth said, requires teens take an active role when they're struggling by finding strategies and opportunities to simply be kind to themselves. It might be taking the dog for a walk, a quick jog around the block, talking with good friends or making a cup of tea, she said. Even just saying kind words to themselves can help. 

"We teach all different ways to do this," she said.

Bluth, along with Lorraine Hobbs, director of youth and family programs at the University of San Diego, first created a self compassion program for adults. Five years ago, they adapted the program, called Making Friends with Yourself, for teens. Bluth is currently working on an National Institutes of Health-funded study to test the program with teens who are at-risk for depression.

The two travel regularly to offer the program in other parts of the country and have even trained teachers internationally.

"Yet, we're still getting a lot of emails from moms ... saying that there's no teacher trained yet in my area and I have this 11-year-old that's really struggling," Bluth said. "The reason for writing the book is to get that message out there to those people to have a resource that they can have for their teens."

The book, which I've shared with my own teen, is very teen friendly and accessible with lots of great information and a few activities teens can do on their own. Online, there's a component for parents. In fact, I learned a bit about myself from reading through the book. (Frankly, we all could use a reminder to be kinder to ourselves.)

"People who are self compassionate are more motivated to get things done and get work done," she said. "Teens feel like they have to be mean to themselves. The self compassion message is really, 'You don't have to do that. You can be nice to yourself.' For a lot of teens, it's really eye opening."


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