According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), 13- to 17-year-olds are experiencing stress at a higher level than they themselves consider to be healthy. What’s the main source of this stress?
School tends to be the top stressor for teens while getting into a good college or deciding what to do after graduating comes next. For some teens, stress is a source of motivation to achieve, which can lead to growth, but for others, it can lead to emotional problems such as anxiety, sadness, irritability and anger. Due to this, it is important to take a hard look at the stress that is being placed on teens and consider ways that this stress can be mitigated.
How do I know if my teen is overly stressed?
Recognizing the symptoms of unhealthy stress levels is the first step in helping your teen. According to the APA, the signs to look out for include irritability, anger, excessive worry, insomnia or sleeping difficulties, and disordered eating (either over- or undereating). If stress goes uncontrolled, teens may even start engaging in the use of illegal drugs or engage underage drinking. Studies have also shown that teens that are experiencing unhealthy stress levels may start engaging in self-harming behaviors and begin to have thoughts of suicide.
Because of this, it is very important to keep the lines of communication open so that your teen can open up to you about their experience. Spend some one-on-one time with your teen each day, during which they are allowed to lead the conversation. Avoid lectures and instead allow your child to share with you whatever might be on their mind. Ask open ended questions and listen intently.
What are the specific steps I can take to help my teen cope with stress?
There are several things that both you and your teen can be doing to help mitigate stress. Some steps include the following:
- Maintain rituals and routines – Constancy, which rituals and routines can provide, is important for teens during turbulent times. These rituals and routines also provide a time for family members to connect. Try to establish seasonal (e.g., holidays), weekday (e.g., dining out on Wednesday nights), and daily (e.g., ending the night with a special TV show together) routines that your teen can count on and look forward to.
- Help your child manage stressful tasks by teaching them certain skills – Take time to sit down with your child and help them break down larger tasks into steps. You can also help them write out “to do” lists and set target dates for when each task needs to be completed. Help them organize their school materials in folders – one for each subject.
- Encourage healthy behaviors – Physical activity and getting good rest each night are great ways to help manage stress. Help your child identify physical activities that they might enjoy and either encourage them to engage it in alone, join a class, or join a team. Help your child create a bedtime routine that includes relaxing activities (e.g., reading, taking a shower/bath, drinking tea) for them to engage in, which will help them fall asleep rather than activities that will keep them awake such as screentime, studying, and watching TV.
- Model healthy behaviors – The best way to teach and encourage your child to manage their stress is to show them healthy ways that you manage your own. Show your child that you take time for self-care, including engaging in relaxing activities (e.g., spa days) as well as healthy practices such as exercising and eating right.
- Be honest with your teen (and with yourself) about the high expectations and requirements of selective colleges – If your teen has their eyes set on a selective school, assist them in identifying the certain admittance requirements of the school and talk about whether or not they are feasible. Talk with your teen about the potential things that they might miss out on if they are devoting their time to fulfilling these requirements and discuss the potential emotional impact of focusing on admittance to that particular school. Help them understand that a great education can happen at a number of other schools that may not be as selective and talk with them about specific individuals who have been very successful without attending a selective school. According to Randye Hoder from Your Teen for Parents, “When teenagers are not competing to get into the most selective schools, they can focus instead on deep learning, creativity, a sense of purpose, and personal connection with friends and family.”
- Make sure that your teen knows that you value them for who they are and not what they achieve – Spend time with your teen during which achievement isn’t the focus of the conversation or activity. Identify your teen’s interests outside of school and engage in them with them.
What are the specific things that my teen should be doing in order to manage stress?
There are several things that your teen can be doing as well to help mitigate stress such as:
- Listening to music
- Visualization – Taking a break by closing their eyes and visualizing a space in which they feel calm and content. Encourage your teen to visual their space in as much detail as possible by having them thinking of what they see, hear, taste, feel, and smell in that space. Your teen may also want to visualize performing just as they would like to on a test, music performance, etc.
- Deep breathing – Deep breathing is a great way to slow down the heartrate and increase mindfulness, which can lead to stress reduction. Have your teen close their eyes and take deep breaths in through their nose and then out through either their nose or mouth. Have them focus on their belly rising as they fill up their lungs with air and then falling when they expel it.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) – Your child can practice tensing and relaxing the different muscles groups in their body. Have them start with their face and work their way down. Tense and relax each muscle group (e.g., face, neck, shoulders, arms, fingers) repeatedly before moving on to the next one. This type of activity can release tension from the entire body and reduce overall stress.
- Staying organized
- Eating right
- Positive thinking and affirmations – Self-talk can be very helpful during times of stress. Have your teen identify negative statements that they might have on their mind and replace them with positive ones. For example, if your teen repeatedly thinks, “I will fail this test,” have them reframe this though by saying instead, “I have studied hard for this test and will not fail. I will do my best and that is what matters.”
Although following the aforementioned tips may lead to a great reduction in stress, if symptoms persist or increase in severity, it is important that you seek professional help for your teen. Psychologists are experts in helping teens mitigate stress and are available to help.
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Written by Erika Stapert, PsyD