How to Help Teens Put Less Pressure on Themselves

This is a really tough time for teens. I know what you’re thinking—the teen years have always been tough. Youth mental health is in crisis. What’s been going on?

Of course, there are many external factors that play a role. But here I’d like to focus on something more internal: the exceedingly high standards many teens have for themselves. Whether it’s a desire for straight As, flawless skin, or athletic stardom, the quest to stand out as “the best” often drives teens to be relentlessly hard on themselves, which can lead to feelings of unworthiness and depression. Yet knowing that there is a way out—that they don’t have to relentlessly beat themselves up in order to be successful and happy—can be enormously relieving for teens.

Perfectionism in teens

Many teens feel like they aren’t good enough unless they are at the top of their class and excel in their sport of choice and are the best at the instrument they play and have a ton of friends and have hundreds of “likes” on whatever they post…you get the idea.

Some of this feeling of not being “good enough” comes from comparing themselves with others, or social comparison. Although it’s perfectly natural to measure yourself against others—it is rooted in our inherent need to belong and be accepted—it isn’t necessarily good for our mental health. The reason is that we become stuck in an impossible conundrum: We feel we can’t be worthy unless we’re better than those we’re comparing ourselves to and—get this—we must be better in everything.

Comparing oneself to others and striving to be perfect is a recipe for mental health problems. We know from research that self-critical perfectionism—the kind of perfectionism where you set high standards for yourself and criticize yourself when you don’t meet them, where you focus on your failures and constantly doubt yourself—is linked to depression and anxiety.

Ways to combat perfectionism in teens

Simply put, teens can learn how to be more self-compassionate. Self-compassion teaches us to treat ourselves with kindness and support. As defined by Kristin Neff, self-compassion is being aware that you’re struggling, understanding that difficult emotions like hurt, anger, disappointment, and loneliness are part of the human condition, and then taking an active role in supporting and comforting yourself when you’re feeling this way.

Self-compassion can be cultivated and nurtured, and various self-compassion programs have been developed and tested. One is Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens, the teen adaptation of Chris Germer and Kristin Neff’s Mindful Self-Compassion program. Formerly called Making Friends with Yourself, the program (which I co-created) has been found to result in lower anxiety, depression, and stress and, most recently, lower risk factors for suicidal ideation among transgender teens.

In the self-compassion program, teens learn that they don’t have to treat themselves harshly in order to motivate themselves. This is quite eye-opening for teens who think that they won’t get anywhere in life if they are nice to themselves. Second, they learn about common humanity—that other teens are struggling just like them.

Teens learn short meditation practices that they can do on the spot, whenever they’re feeling upset or anxious, and longer meditation practices that they can do when they have the time. Most importantly, teens learn that they have the ability within themselves to treat themselves with kindness, and that they don’t have to wait for someone else to treat them kindly. Furthermore, they don’t have to be perfect to be deserving of being treated well; they’re reminded that all of us roaming on this planet are imperfect, and being imperfect is, well, perfectly OK.

Excerpted from “How to Help Teens Put Less Pressure on Themselves” in Greater Good Magazine. Read the full article online.

Source: Greater Good Magazine | How to Help Teens Put Less Pressure on Themselves, | © 2022 The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley

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