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Helping Teens in Difficult Times

Self-compassion can make a difference.

Key points

  • There has been an increase in depression and anxiety among teens.
  • The pressures teens face are unprecedented, and many do not receive mental health treatment.
  • Self-compassion techniques like these can help protect teens from depression.

For over 40 years, I’ve been studying Adolescent Development, teaching the Psychology of Adolescence, raising two teens, treating teens, and now treating their parents as well. Without question, this is one of the most difficult times that I’ve witnessed. And it isn’t just the pandemic and its aftermath. There seems to have been a gradual increase in depression and anxiety over the past years. According to Pew Research Center data from 2016, 13 percent of U.S. teens aged 12 to 17 reported having at least one major depressive episode in the past year, which was up from 8 percent in 2010. In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General stated that the pressures teens face are unprecedented. In a 2019 CDC survey, depression and sadness increased by 40 percent, and those with a suicide plan increased by 44 percent. Unfortunately, in 2019, fewer than 15 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 17 received mental health treatment.

There are many factors contributing to this increased despair. Our teens have been increasingly isolated with school closings and lockdowns, limiting their ability to connect with peers. War, violence, climate disasters, political divisions, and sexual abuse all play a role. John T. Walkup, chairman of psychiatry at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying: “Pre-Covid we had a mental-health crisis. The biggest misconception is that Covid makes people mentally ill. From my point of view, Covid unmasked people who have underlying vulnerabilities.”

Silent symptoms

Like so many other clinicians, I’m seeing evidence of this “unmasking” in a troubling but often silent and hidden increase in depressive symptoms. In my own practice, I’ve noticed more self-harming behavior, more promiscuity, and increased use of drugs. Yet there is one story that I keep returning to and which for me speaks eloquently in its silence. I have felt the need to write about it. A friend told me that a social worker in her child’s school, responding to concerns about the mental health of the children, asked the class to draw a picture of themselves in the future. Over half the class drew pictures of gravestones.

I was stunned. Often the despair is quiet and hidden. And, clearly, attention must be paid. The question that I have is: How do we respond effectively and skillfully?

The symptoms are easier to manage when they are addressed early. When schools and pediatricians do a careful screening. And when parents are responsive. But often, parents don’t know what to watch for. Withdrawal from usual activities is one warning sign, as is acting out or aggressive behavior.

Having a conversation with kids about what they are feeling and thinking is important, and often not easy. Parents are often wary of asking if children are feeling sad, fearing that it will make this worse, but it won’t. It is important for children to know that we care and that we are here for them. If there is an issue, don’t turn away, and don’t ignore it. Don't think that they will outgrow it or that it will magically go away. Helping your child envision a future with meaning is crucial.

As teens are often very hard on themselves and tend to respond to themselves and others with impulsive belligerence, learning the skills of self-compassion and mindfulness can help reduce despair and self-loathing. These skills can help them respond to difficult times.

In mindfulness, we often teach phrases of kindness that a teen can repeat as an anchor when things are hard. I like the following phrases for teens in distress:

Phrases of self-compassion:

  • May I accept myself as I am.
  • May I be kind and gentle with myself when I’m suffering.
  • May I trust that I’m doing the best I can at any given moment.
  • May I find peace in body, mind, and heart.

Meditation: A circle of kindness

I also like to teach the following meditation to teens, as well as parents and health care workers. I find that envisioning a circle of care is very sustaining during times of despair and isolation. This can be done with eyes open or closed, standing, sitting, or lying down.

  • Assume a posture that is comfortable for you. Find a place where you feel safe.
  • Feel the body touching the chair, seat, or ground.
  • Let yourself feel grounded. Get in touch, if you can, with your dignity, your kindness, your essential worth.
  • Feel your feet on the Earth, supporting you.
  • Look up. Notice the spacious, open sky, the vast expanse of space.
  • Feel the back of your body. Think about people who have your back. Your teachers, friends, ancestors, family, mentors. Feel the support. Send them kindness and gratitude.
  • Get in touch with the front of your body—people in and around you, people you see daily, people you care about. Send them kindness and gratitude.
  • Finally, extend kindness to yourself and to what you are experiencing now, even if it is difficult, even if you don’t feel like you deserve it.
  • Whatever you are going through, you deserve kindness.
  • You matter. No matter what you feel, you have worth.

There are many excellent programs that can support teens in difficult times, including Inward Bound and Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens. You can also visit Psychology Today's Therapist Directory to find a therapist near you.