Let’s face it. We’re all stressed, and our teenagers are no exception. They have higher expectations to perform better in school, excel in extracurricular activities and community service, and respond to social media. It’s no surprise that teen stress levels often rival those of adults.
So how can parents help their teens manage it? Here are a few techniques I suggest to my patients in the Division of Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology that you might find helpful:
- Help your teen to determine what’s within his control and what isn’t. Teens today are often involved in multiple activities. While extracurricular involvement is helpful to a teen’s overall functioning, there are times when it can be overwhelming. Parents can help teens learn to pace themselves by identifying which activities are likely to be helpful and which could be detrimental. Can your teen take on fewer activities or responsibilities? This can help take some of the pressure off and make room for necessary free time.
- Suggest ways to get the basics back in place. If your teen has been stressed for a long period, she has likely developed some poor lifestyle habits along the way. Help her get back to a consistent bedtime and routine. It helps to maintain the same sleep routine (for the most part) on the weekends as well as on weekdays. Avoid screen time an hour before bed. Eat regular, healthy meals throughout the day. Exercise consistently, but not too close to bedtime. These healthy lifestyle habits can go a long way to help your teen’s body handle stress more effectively.
- Brainstorm stress-relieving distractions. Help your teen figure out how he can incorporate fun, stress-relieving activities into his day, week, and month. Does he like playing an instrument? Shooting hoops in the backyard? Painting? Hanging out with particular friends? The message here is that no matter what it is or how briefly he does it, enjoyable activities provide a fantastic distraction for the brain, which can relieve stress.
- Help your teen find time for relaxation, especially during stressful moments. Relaxation looks a little different for everyone. Some teens find it relaxing to sit and pet their dog for a few minutes with no other distractions. Others might like to try closing their eyes, taking deep breaths, and sitting in silence. Prayer might also be helpful. Or a walk alone. It might take a little trial and error to find something that sticks, but encouraging your teen to find something that quiets the mind in the heat of the moment can serve her well now and later in life.
- Set limits for social media. Teens today are growing up in a very different world than their parents did. Peer pressure follows them home on electronic devices. They are messaged, texted and tagged day and night. And may feel obligated to respond immediately for fear that their friends will be mad at them. Parents can help their teens set social media limits and expectations with their friends by establishing “social media free” hour(s). Explain to your teen that if she sets that expectation up front with her friends, they shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t get a response from her. Many of the teens with whom I work initially shudder at the thought of limiting their electronics time, but most report feeling emotionally “free” when unplugging during the day. Social media should be totally tuned out at bedtime as this can often disrupt their sleep.
- Teach your teen to practice “calm self-talk.” Help your teen to become aware of his stressful thoughts and to practice rationalizing them. For instance, when he’s running late to an activity and feeling stressed out about it, have him ask himself what will happen if he arrives a few minutes after the start time? Most likely nothing catastrophic.
- Be a good role model for your teen. Whether they like to admit it or not, teens are still learning from their parents, and one of the best ways to teach stress management techniques is by setting a good example. If your teen is with you and you’re feeling stressed, talk about it out loud. Say something like, “Wow, I’m feeling really stressed right now. I’m on deadline at work and I need to leave to pick your sister up from practice. I’m going to take a few deep breaths and then problem-solve.”
It’s important for both teens and parents to remember that it’s impossible to eliminate stress completely. In fact, it plays an important role in our lives. If your teen is feeling little to no stress, she may be bored and have very little motivation to do anything at all.
Teens feeling too much stress may experience an impairment in performance (e.g., “freezing up” while taking a test) or feel miserable in the process of performing their task because of the high stress. Finding a “happy medium” of stress is the best way to perform well while maintaining a healthy mind and body. When your teen feels too much stress, it can impact her:
- Sleep: trouble falling asleep, sleeping too much or too little
- Diet: eating too much or too little
- Performance: academically or physically
- Emotions: irritability, ability to manage emotions appropriately; anxiety or depression can emerge when stress is poorly managed
- Physical symptoms: headaches, stomachaches, and even cardiac problems for those experiencing chronic stress
So how do you know when to seek help for your teen? If you find that he is struggling to manage stress despite trying some of these techniques, or his stress is impacting his daily functioning, you might consider speaking to his doctor about it. He or she may recommend scheduling an appointment with an adolescent psychologist for further assessment and/or therapy to build stress-management skills. Fortunately, for most teens experiencing high levels of stress, therapy is very effective.