Self-compassion for teens: An interview with Dr Karen Bluth

Our new series

Each month we’re going to bring you an interview with a compassion researcher. We’ll be finding out about their current work, new findings, and exciting developments in the field of compassion research – especially what it tells us about how we can all work to build a more compassionate and inclusive world.

Sitting down with Karen

This month we were deeply honoured to speak to Dr Karen Bluth. Karen is a renowned teacher and practitioner of self-compassion, especially self-compassion for teens and children. She co-created the curriculum Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens (formerly known as Making Friends with Yourself), and is author of The Self-Compassion Workbook for Teens: Mindfulness and Compassion Skills to Overcome Self-Criticism and Embrace Who You Are. She spoke to us about her new paper on the effects of self-compassion training for adolescents with depression.

Dr Karen Bluth

Karen, why are researchers interested in mindful self-compassion techniques for adolescents?

Youth mental health is in crisis now, with soaring rates of depression and anxiety, which have doubled during the pandemic. Researchers are interested in establishing empirical evidence for programs that can help youth navigate this challenging stage of development. Through research, we can see what formats or means of delivery self-compassion programs work best for teens. One thing that we’ve learned is that in general, most teens don’t do a lot of formal practice, but they do “informal” practice – in other words, noticing moments when they’re being hard on themselves and changing that inner dialogue to a voice that is kinder and more supportive. These “informal” self-compassion practices are pretty simple and easily applicable in teens’ everyday lives. It takes little time, and can be – as teens themselves have said to me – enormously eye-opening and effective.

So what is the intervention Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens (MSC-T) and how has it been adapted specifically for teens?

Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens (MSC-T)is a program that has been adapted from the adult mindful self-compassion program that was created by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. It’s eight sessions long, and each session is 90 minutes and can be taught either over the course of eight weeks or twice a week for four weeks. It’s crafted to be developmentally appropriate for teens. The sessions are interactive, start with a brief mindful art activity, and include short videos, guided experiential practices, mindful movement, music “meditation” practices, a few games, and of course, discussion. Unlike the adult program, we’ve included several pieces on the developing adolescent brain, and how this affects teens’ emotions. Overall, it teaches teens how to cultivate and “grow” their own self-compassion; in other words, how they can be kinder and more supportive to themselves. Most importantly, they learn that being more self-compassionate means that they won’t “lose their edge” – that they will still be motivated to do well, be successful, and be able to work towards their goals. In fact, they are often more effective and more able to work towards their goals when they’re more self-compassionate.

What is an example of a self-compassion exercise that the teens might learn through this intervention?

One exercise that teens seem to really like is Music Meditation. Music is often such a huge part of teens’ lives – it’s often something that’s going on in the background, or something that they’re dancing to, or something that gives them energy. With the music meditation, we guide them in listening to a piece of instrumental music that’s melodic and relaxing, with the instructions to pay attention to the music, and when they find thoughts arising – for example, they notice that they’re thinking about homework or an upcoming exam, they gently (without judgment!) return to listening to the notes and the different instruments of the music. So it’s a mindfulness practice in that it cultivates awareness and presence and returning to the “anchor” of hearing the music, but it’s also self-compassionate, because the music is soothing and relaxing. We encourage teens to find a piece of music that they like – taste in music is very personal – but we give the parameters that it’s best that the music not have words and also that it is relaxing. Words will take us into our “heads” and promote thinking when what we’re encouraging here is to simply use the sense of hearing to hear the music. We explain that of course, there are times for other music – rhythmic, loud, or fast music – but the purpose here is to pay attention and relax, so we use melodic instrumental music. Teens have fun trying out different pieces of music to use.

Another practice that teens really like is what we call “phone photos”. As a home practice, we ask teens to notice things that make them smile, bring them a moment of joy, or something that they’re grateful for. They’re asked to take a couple of photos each day of these things. When we come back for the next class session, teens share what made them happy and how they feel now as they’re sharing the photo with the group. This helps teens realize that they have moments in their lives that are positive, that bring them joy, things that are good in their lives. Because we’re biologically geared to pass over the positive in our lives and spend more time dwelling on the negative, we tend to not notice the good parts of our lives. We talk about this phenomenon – called negativity bias – why it exists, and what we can do to counteract it.

We encourage teens to create albums of photos of moments of joy, and use them to go to when they’re struggling, or use one for the background for their phone or computer. It’s a way to help them to cultivate joy in their lives – and to get in the habit of seeing these moments of joy, which are all around them all the time. 

The study found that both those in the self-compassion intervention and the control group had increases in reports of self-compassion, but only those in the self-compassion group experienced a decrease in depression. How should we interpret those findings?

This was an interesting and unexpected finding in our study, because previous studies have shown that self-compassion is inversely related to depression; in other words, when one goes up the other goes down. In this case, the control group increased in self-compassion, but their depression didn’t decrease. What we think happened here is that the healthy lifestyle skills that those in the control group were learning – nutrition, exercise, sleep, for example – instilled in them a sense of caring for themselves and therefore being kind to themselves, and this emerged in the finding of increases in self-compassion. The teens in the control group also shared some of their struggles with each other, which may have increased their common humanity, one of the aspects of self-compassion. However, the self-compassion components – mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness – likely did not work in a synergistic way that resulted in decreased self-compassion. So it may be that these individual components increased, but without the dynamic interaction of the components, did not result in a decrease in depression. 

How do you envision the MSC-T program being utilized by schools and the community?

We have a school version – a curriculum that has been adapted and formatted from the original MSC-T program – which is 16 sessions long and each session is 45 minutes – obviously, this format makes it possible to implement within a class, like a high school health class. Also, as school counselors requested short sessions that they could use in classes when they only had a few minutes to present, the school curriculum includes a number of 10-15 minute long “drop in” sessions. The school curriculum will be released through PESI publishers in June, 2024.

Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens is already being implemented in the community, in various places globally. We’ve trained teachers in the US, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Australia, Spain, Korea, the Netherlands, and this year in China. Those who come to our training are often  educators or therapists (but not always!), and teach groups of teens anywhere from age 11 to 18. Since the pandemic, classes have been taught online, but I think these days many teachers are moving back to teaching in person. 

This interview was carried out by researcher Michael Juberg.

Further reading

The Self-Compassion Workbook for Teens

The Self-Compassionate Teen

Mindfulness and self-compassion for Teen ADHD

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