None of my friends actually like me. I'm not going to get into college. Everyone else seems happy. What's wrong with me?"
Unfortunately, these types of negative thoughts are becoming increasingly common among adolescents and young adults. Today's teenagers are faced with higher levels of stress, and studies show that young adults in the United States are developing perfectionist tendencies, holding themselves to unrealistic standards. On top of that, lasting anxiety, stress, and mental health challenges surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic continue to affect adolescent mental health.
But there's good news: teenagers can take steps to build resilience to face life's challenges. According to a 2018 study, self-concept plays an important role in emotional health. When teenagers feel good about themselves, they can better cope with stressful life events and maintain positive mental health.
So, how can parents and caregivers help teenagers navigate their psychological concerns? Whether your teen is struggling in school or seeking treatment for depression symptoms, it's important to help them incorporate the practice of self-care into their daily life. Here's how to empower your teen with self-care to jumpstart their journey toward mental wellness.
Physical Self-Care Matters
Self-care isn't just about mental health—physical health matters, too. Adolescents can reap wide-ranging benefits from regular exercise, especially if they're used to sitting inside most of the day. According to a 2015 meta-analysis, physical activity can have a dramatic impact on adolescents' self-concept.
Self-concept is linked to an individual's sense of physical attractiveness—an area where many adolescents struggle. Beyond boosting confidence, regular physical activity triggers positive feelings by releasing mood-boosting endorphins. Exercise increases our heart rate, putting our body systems under stress. In turn, our brain floods our body with mood-boosting endorphins, which reduce our perception of pain and trigger positive feelings.
Parents should encourage regular exercise, support team sports, and help teenagers explore other activities. Studies show that regular physical activity can reduce the symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental health conditions.
If your teen struggles to exercise, try buddying up or encouraging them to work out with a friend. If you're not sure where to start, try signing you and your teen up for a guided class—either in-person or online—to stay on track. Your teen might even meet some new friends!
Focus on Self-Compassion
Instead of focusing on self-esteem, encourage your teen to cultivate compassion for themself. According to researcher Kristen Neff, self-compassion—treating yourself with kindness—is a healthier alternative than self-esteem. In her 2009 study, she found that participants with higher levels of self-compassion experienced greater wellbeing. They accepted their flaws, acknowledged their struggles, and treated themselves with kindness.
So, how can teenagers start cultivating more compassion for themselves? Encourage your teen to take a moment every morning or evening to write down what they appreciate about themselves, even the little things. Giving your teenager things to look forward to—whether that's a spa day, weekend trip, or lunch date with a friend—is a great way to improve their outlook for the future.
If your teenager has a mental health condition, such as major depression or an anxiety disorder, practicing self-compassion might take some extra time and effort. If they're struggling with feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, talk therapy can help your teen identify their strengths and develop healthy coping strategies to combat negative thoughts. Some other tips to help teenagers cultivate compassion include:
- Start small: Living with a mental illness can feel overwhelming. Sometimes, simple acts of self-care might be all your teen can manage. This might be anything that involves taking care of their own needs—from taking a shower to eating a healthy meal.
- Encourage your teen to acknowledge their feelings: It's important for individuals living with mental disorders to bring awareness to their experiences without judgment. If your teen is experiencing a depressed mood, they might acknowledge their experience by saying, "I'm having a really hard time right now." This way, they can start to see their depressive disorder as something they're experiencing, rather than who they are.
- Use positive affirmations: Positive affirmations might seem like cheesy sentiments reserved for greeting cards, but when used correctly, they can be a simple, powerful way to remind your teen of their worth. Help your teenager choose that are specific, realistic, and—above all else—honest. For example, you might say, "There will be good and bad days, but you can always keep going." instead of "Nothing will stop you."
By showing your teen how to treat themselves with kindness, you'll help them build more compassion. In turn, a greater sense of compassion leads to less stress, improved emotional resiliency, and better overall wellness. It might take some time to help your teen foster positive habits, but emotional self-care can make all the difference in their mental health.
Avoid Social Comparison
Sometimes, comparing yourself to others can be a useful way to set goals and keep yourself motivated. However, when we get stuck on the idea that the grass is greener on the other side, then no matter who we are or what we do, we're always going to be the one that comes up short. Especially for younger teens and adolescents, who often sense an "imaginary audience," ("Everyone is watching me"), comparison can take a significant toll on mental wellbeing.
Unfortunately, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media platforms can make comparison inevitable. Research has highlighted the relationship between social media and anxiety disorders, major depression, and other mental health conditions among adolescents. In addition, school environments are typically structured to encourage social comparison. Tracking students based on their academic performance doesn't honor the roadblocks and setbacks that are natural parts of the learning process.
To help your teen avoid comparing themselves to others, help them adopt a new perspective. Ask them to think about someone they often compare themselves to. Then, remind your teen that they can't experience that person's life—and they have no proof that the other person's life is better. It's also a good idea to encourage your teen to curb their social media use, and to avoid or mute profiles they find particularly triggering when it comes to making negative comparisons.
Ultimately, what you see outwardly isn't necessarily reflective of the reality of a situation. Once your teen shifts their perspective to account for this, they can stop automatically assuming that they're inferior to other people, and start feeling more confident in themself.
Help Your Teen Nurture Their Strengths
If you pay attention to your teenager's skills and talents, you can help them nurture their strengths. According to researcher Susan Harter, self-concept is domain-specific meaning that adolescents' sense of worth is rooted in eight domains, including social acceptance, romantic appeal, and athletic competence.
Maybe your daughter thinks she's a bad athlete, but she lights up when she's talking about art projects. When you help your teen find opportunities to do the things they're good at, you can help build a strong foundation of self-worth. In the short term, nurturing your teen's strengths provides an instant mood boost. They've completed what they've set out to do, so they're positively rewarded—either by praise or a physical reward. This helps instill pride and strengthen their sense of self.
When teenagers demonstrate true proficiency in the areas that matter to them, it helps them to develop stronger self-esteem and self-compassion. By cultivating their strengths, teenagers can stop those negative thoughts and doubts about their self-worth from creeping in.
Encourage Therapy as a Form of Self-Care
Fostering healthy lifestyle changes, getting enough sleep, adopting new hobbies, and practicing other forms of self-care can go a long way in helping your teen feel their best—but they're not always enough. If your teenager is experiencing psychological challenges, talk to them about the importance of therapy as a form of self-care.
Sometimes, teenagers feel hesitant to speak up about their mental health concerns, so it's important to show your unconditional love and support throughout every step of their journey. Tell your teen it's normal to feel some level of anxiety and to experience feelings of sadness from time to time. However, if those feelings interfere with their daily life, it's worth seeking professional help.
At any stage of life, holding onto too much negativity can feel exhausting. On top of that, the symptoms of bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and other mental disorders can make it harder for teenagers to function in everyday life. As an effective treatment for many mental health disorders, talk therapy (psychotherapy) provides a safe, supportive environment for teenagers to navigate these feelings, develop healthy coping strategies, and improve their sense of self.
Today's teenagers and young adults face countless challenges and pressures—from adjusting to virtual school to missing out on important milestones. No matter where you are in your journey toward mental wellness, there's nothing wrong with needing some extra support to feel your best.
At Charlie Health, our online therapy platform connects clients directly to an online therapist for live sessions. Unlike other online therapy services, our telehealth services are designed for patients and family members navigating a time of crisis who need more than once-a-week therapy sessions. Our expert team of clinicians will help you establish an individualized treatment plan based on your specific experiences, challenges, and needs so you can start feeling better.