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5 Ways to Help Girls Survive Adolescence

Normalize mistakes, make your U-turns visible, and more.

Key points

  • Sadness, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidal ideation have been on the rise in teen girls for a decade.
  • Teaching self-compassion is a supportive and effective way to help teens deal with difficult emotions.
  • Self-compassion requires normalizing failures and responding to them with understanding.

If you’re worried about the health and well-being of the teenage girls in your life, you’re not alone. Alarm bells have been sounding recently, with reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealing that U.S. girls are suffering record-high levels of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide ideation.

While the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have played a role, emotional distress for teenage girls has been consistently on the rise for the past decade. Male adolescents, and those who identify as other than female, are certainly not immune; however, there are certain factors that seem to be contributing to this disturbing trend for girls. For example, the tendency to experience higher levels of rumination, self-criticism, and shame may be contributing factors, which may be exacerbated by social media and its link with reduced sleep, comparisons to others, and feelings of exclusion.

Modeling—or teaching—self-compassion may help our girls navigate this rocky terrain less scathed. In other words, we can help them relate to themselves with greater kindness and understanding, especially when confronted with failure, insecurity, or the many imperfections of being human.

Self-compassion is about learning how to act as our own best friend and ally. Its benefits are impressive: It has been shown to decrease depression and anxiety; help with emotional regulation; reduce eating disorder behaviors, suicide ideation, and PTSD risk; increase motivation and performance; and more. While self-esteem is an evaluation of ourselves based on certain standards, self-compassion is about unconditional acceptance of ourselves.

How to Help Teen Girls Cultivate Self-Compassion

Here are five, science-informed strategies that you can employ to help the teenage girl in your life cultivate more self-compassion.

  1. Normalize mistakes and failures. I once read an article about a writer who set a goal of receiving 100 rejections from publishers, because fear of rejection loomed large. Unsurprisingly, she ended up with a book deal somewhere along the way, but it wasn’t before many rejection letters piled up. The more that we can respond to mistakes and failures—our own and our kids—with visible compassion and perspective on their inevitability, the better. We can tell stories about how we moved through failures or how our mistakes have benefited us in some way. When we model responding to these difficult moments with tenderness and understanding, we are also modeling shame-resilience. Our imperfections do not mean that we are inherently flawed; they simply make us human.
  2. Name your feelings. Self-compassion has three parts: mindfulness, kindness, and common humanity. The mindfulness part means learning to identify what we’re feeling when we’re feeling it, without exaggeration or over-identification. There are endless opportunities within the day for us to make our own emotional rollercoaster more visible. Rather than keep these normal human experiences private—or, worse, act them out—we can practice verbalizing what we’re feeling. “I am feeling overwhelmed right now and need to take a breath.” “A wave of sadness just came over me.” “I feel angry and need to take a moment.” Giving girls language for their feelings helps build emotional awareness and agility, so they can respond more effectively in the heat of the moment.
  3. Make your U-turns visible (even if you’re faking it). In a similar vein to the above, when you find that you’re beating yourself up, name it—and show your daughter how you’d ideally like to handle it. “I realize that I’m being hard on myself right now. Whew. I know I tried my best and that’s what matters.” Why do this? Research on social learning theory shows that we are prone to mimicking the behaviors of others. Through observation, our girls may learn to catch themselves sooner and cultivate a kinder self-dialogue.
  4. In times of distress, ask “What do I need right now?” This is the quintessential self-compassion question. When we ask this, we pay attention to our needs and, importantly, cultivate a willingness to meet those needs. Learning to act on our own behalf, whether it’s reassuring or standing up for ourselves, is an important component of both agency and resilience. As we practice this, we can also begin posing this question to our teens in times of distress. Eventually, they may start to ask themselves this fundamental question and learn how to better meet their own needs.
  5. Offer skill-based resources. There are books and courses out there with which your teen might be willing to engage. I enrolled my own child in a six-week self-compassion course for teens that normalized so many of the difficulties they face, while teaching basic skills. I’m pretty sure she zoned out on some of it, but a foundation was laid. There are other useful tools out there, as well, such as The Self-Compassion for Teens Workbook. Or you could share what you’re learning as you go. You never know what might help; it can’t hurt to offer, suggest, or ask.

Step by step, emotion by emotion, you can help the teen girls in your life learn to be self-compassionate—in other words, their own best friends and allies. The payoff can be immense and ongoing. And, as we set our intention to model self-compassion, we get the extra benefit of bolstering ourselves in the process.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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More from Erin Dullea MAPP, CPPC
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