Among the adolescents I see in my office, some common topics of conversation include friends, family, school and stress. Most often, the stress is connected to school, with adolescents feeling that they have too much to do in too little time, and that the stakes-getting into a good college and setting themselves up for a successful future-are very high. Among some of them, pressure from parents along with a feeling that credit is only given for high grades instead of hard work is also a theme.
The stress that teenagers feel is very real and quite pervasive. According to a 2015 study conducted by researchers at NYU which surveyed juniors at private high schools, almost half reported feeling “a great deal of stress” on a daily basis and one third stated that they were “somewhat stressed” on a daily basis. The greatest sources of stress were grades, homework and preparing for college. In fact, according to a 2014 study looking at stress levels, teenagers had a higher overall stress level than adults (5.8 versus 5.1 on a ten-point scale).
When I speak with the parents of these teenagers, they often express their own feelings of stress and worry regarding the pressures their children are under, combined with a determination to push their child to always do his or her best work. This tension in families-between competing desires for success and a greater feeling of calm-can be difficult to navigate. Parents may feel pulled between wanting to tell their child that it’s ok not to sign up for an extracurricular activity and worrying that if they don’t sign up it will affect their chances of getting into the college of their choice, or that it will send the wrong message to their child about hard work and will lead down a slippery slope of decreased effort. Adolescence can be a wonderful time of great fun and personal growth. It can also bring about many challenges and difficulties, both for the teenager and the parent, high levels of stress being one of them.
The following are some recommendations for helping your teenager effectively manage and cope with their stress levels:
1. Prioritization and Time management:
Help your child to figure out what is important and how much time they need to do it. You can support your child by helping them to plan out the night, week or month so that they have enough time set aside for nightly homework as well as longer term projects. This strategy is an important preventive step in making sure that work does not pile up and become overwhelming.
First and foremost, this means making sure that your adolescent is getting sleep, since being chronically tired is (obviously!) not good for decreasing stress levels. But self-care is more than just sleep, it also means having enjoyable activities that your child is involved in and making sure that all of the tests and homework and school visits don’t crowd out the time set aside to read a magazine, play a game of pickup basketball, go to a yoga class or spend time with friends.
3. Physical Activity:
Being physically active is a great way to decrease stress since it increases endorphins, a “feel good” hormone, and can help regulate sleep. Exercise can come in many forms, from team sports to walking to school, so there are many options for your teenager to choose from in order to be physically active.
4. Putting things into perspective:
Despite our best efforts we all fail sometimes. This is not a bad thing and as a parent, it is an important lesson to teach your children. A bad test grade is disappointing and that feeling should be acknowledged, but it is not, as your teenager might believe, the end of the world. As parents, it is important to remind your teenagers of this fact and to even go one step further by helping them to reframe the failure as a learning opportunity. Doing this can be helpful in both figuring out where things went wrong and making changes for the future, as well as learning how to cope with the uncomfortable feelings that failure can bring about.
5. Focus on the process:
One source of pressure for teenagers comes from the weight of very high expectations to always succeed. This expectation can come from a variety of sources including family, internal pressure, peer pressure and cultural/societal pressures. Although it is both natural and healthy to want the best for our children and to have high expectations of them, focusing only on a test grade or the score of the game is a missed opportunity to also pay attention to the hard work that went into those results. Even more so, genuine praise for the effort, persistence and perseverance can be very powerful when the outcome is different from what was expected. Often, when we give praise to other people, it is outcome based, meaning that we praise the final product but not the effort that went into it. Effort based praise focuses on the process and can be given as your child is studying for the exam or practicing for the recital and is not contingent on the test grade or how the recital goes. Some examples are: “I’m really impressed with how much time you’re putting into this paper” or “I can see that you’re putting a lot of time and effort into practicing for your piano recital and I’m really proud of you for that.”
6. Model healthy coping habits:
One important source of information for children about how to cope with stress comes from their parents. As parents, you are always “on” because you are always modeling for your children. When it comes to stress management, this may mean taking a step back to look at your own coping skills and possibly making some changes so that you are modeling healthy strategies for your children.
7. Get outside help:
Sometimes, despite both you and your child’s best efforts, the strategies don’t seem to be working and the stress level doesn’t seem to be going down. In this case, it might be that there is something else going on, such as undiagnosed ADHD or learning issues or issues with mood or anxiety, that are getting in the way of decreasing stress levels and that need to be addressed for things to get better. In these situations, a psychologist can help to diagnose and treat the underlying issues so that everyone’s stress levels will decrease. Some treatment options include Executive Function Coaching for difficulties with planning and organization or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for difficulties with mood or anxiety.