Helping Teens Cope with Stress

Dr. Greg Allen, Ph.D., LMFT

Stress is a common problem among teens, and as a parent, you have a role in helping the teen in your life cope with it. So what exactly is stress? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stress is the body's physical and psychological response to anything perceived as overwhelming. This may be viewed as a result of life's demands—pleasant or unpleasant—and the body's lack of resources to meet them.

 

While stress is a natural part of life, it often creates imbalance in the body, especially a teen's body, which is already experiencing so many changes. Girls also report feeling "frequently stressed" more than boys.

Visit Teens Today: An Inside Look to learn more about how teen girls and boys change from early to middle to late adolescence.

A certain amount of stress can be helpful as a way of keeping your teen motivated. But too much or too little may render them ineffective and interfere with their relationships at home and socially, as well as their physical well-being. According to a recent survey, 43 percent of 13- to 14-year-olds say they feel stressed every single day; by ages 15 to 17, the number rises to 59 percent. The day-to-day pressures teens experience, such as the pressure to fit in and to be successful, can lead to stress. Jobs and family economics can also prove stressful for teens, as nearly two-thirds of them say they are "somewhat" or "very concerned" about their personal finances.

 

If stress becomes unmanageable and teens are left to their own devices without guidance from a parent or caregiver, they may find their own ways of coping. Sometimes these coping mechanisms involve unhealthy behaviors such as drinking, smoking marijuana, and engaging in other risky behaviors. Here's how you can help the teen in your life with healthy, productive coping strategies.

 

  • Recognize when your teen is stressed-out. Is your teen getting adequate rest? Are they eating well-balanced meals? Do they ever get to take breaks to restore their energy? If these needs are unmet, your teen will show it through chronic moodiness, irritability, anxiety and/or long bouts of sadness. If you have a teen daughter, be particularly aware if she is obsessing about looks or weight.

  • Introduce positive coping strategies to your teen. Let's face it, stress will be a part of your teen's life. Help them identify ways in which they can relieve their stress in a healthy way. It can be as simple as having your teen talk to you about their problems or pressures. Other ideas include: exercising, getting enough sleep, listening to music, writing in a journal, keeping a healthy diet, seeing a counselor and reminding them of their accomplishments.

  • Be a good example. Young people often pick up their coping strategies by watching their parents. If a child sees a parent drink an alcoholic beverage or smoke a cigarette every time they are overwhelmed, they are more likely to imitate the same behavior. So, be mindful of your own reactions to stress and set a good example for your children.

If signs of stress persist, ask for help. Some sources you can consult include: a health care provider, mental health center, social worker, counselor, nurse, therapist or clergy.

 

 

Be a role model of the person you want your kid to be. What stronger message is there?

Keep these tips in mind:

 

  • Be a living, day-to-day example of your value system. Show the compassion, honesty, generosity and openness you want your child to have.

  • Know that there is no such thing as "do as I say, not as I do" when it comes to drugs. If you take drugs, you can’t expect your child to take your advice. Seek professional help if necessary.

  • Examine your own behavior. If you abuse drugs or alcohol, your kids are going to pick up on it. Or if you laugh at a drunk or stoned person in a movie, you may be sending the wrong message to your child. Be the person you want your kid to be. What stronger anti-drug message is there?

 
Be a Good Role Model for Teens

Promote Positive Behavior

What encourages a kid more than his or her parents’ approval? The right word at the right time can strengthen the bond that helps keep your child away from drugs. Emphasize the things your kid does right and restrain the urge to be critical.

 

Try to:
Reward good behavior consistently and immediately. Expressions of love, appreciation and thanks go a long way. Even kids who think themselves too old for hugs will appreciate a pat on the back or a special treat.

 

Accentuate the positive. Emphasize the things your kid does right. Rein in the urge to be critical. Affection and respect that make your teen feel good about himself will reinforce good (and change bad) behavior far more successfully than embarrassment or uneasiness.

Teenagers experience stress every day and can benefit from learning stress management skills. School demands and social relationships are UNLIKE anything we as parents have ever imagined. Technology, blurred boundaries, academic expectations, and the daily bombardment of hyper sexualized media are just some of the stressors facing teens today. Most teens do not have the skills needed to cope with teen anxiety and these stressors. Unchecked stress can lead to anxiety, depression, aggression, physical illness, and drug and/or alcohol use. The Partnership for a Drug Free America states that 73% of teenagers reported that school stress was the primary reason for drug use.

 

Parents can help their teen in these ways:
  • Monitor if stress is affecting their teen’s health, behavior, thoughts, or feelings

  • Listen carefully to teens and watch for overloading

  • Learn and model stress management skills

  • Support involvement in sports and other pro-social activities

Teens can decrease stress with the following behaviors and techniques:
  • Exercise and eat regularly

  • Avoid excess caffeine intake which can increase feelings of anxiety and agitation

  • Avoid illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco

  • Learn relaxation exercises (abdominal breathing and muscle relaxation techniques)

  • Develop assertiveness training skills. For example, state feelings in polite firm and not overly aggressive or passive ways: (“I feel angry when you yell at me” “Please stop yelling.”)

  • Rehearse and practice situations which cause stress. One example is taking a speech class if talking in front of a class makes you anxious

  • Learn practical coping skills. For example, break a large task into smaller, more attainable tasks

  • Decrease negative self talk: challenge negative thoughts about yourself with alternative neutral or positive thoughts. “My life will never get better” can be transformed into “My life will get better if I work at it and get some help”

  • Learn to feel good about doing a competent or “good enough” job rather than demanding perfection from yourself and others

  • Take a break from stressful situations. Activities like listening to music, talking to a friend, drawing, writing, or spending time with a pet can reduce stress

  • Build a network of friends who help you cope in a positive way

Outside Resources: 
www.stressfreekids.com

http://kidshealth.org/teen/your_mind/mental_health/anxiety.html

http://www.lifepositive.com/mind/psychology/stress/anxiety-in-children.asp

http://kidshealth.org/teen/your_mind/emotions/stress.html

http://www.kickoutstress.com/

http://www.kickoutstress.com/Guide_to_raising_a_healthy_teen.pdf - Free Guide to Raising a Healthy Teen

 

Body Image:

Adolescence marks a time of rapid and intense emotional and physical changes. There is an increased value placed on peer acceptance and approval, and a heightened attention to external influences and social messages about cultural norms. Body image and related self-concept emerge as significant factors associated with health and well-being during this developmental phase, as youths begin to focus more on their physical appearance. How adolescents formulate and define their body image ideals and subsequent self-comparisons is strongly influenced by personal, familial, and cultural factors. Many adolescent girls believe physical appearance is a major part of their self-esteem and their body is a major sense of self (American Association of University Women, 1991). The experience of body dissatisfaction can lead to poor health habits and low self-esteem. These negative feelings may contribute to a higher prevalence of depression and lower self-esteem among girls (Siegel,et al., 1998) and can affect health behaviors associated with poor eating habits, dieting, depression and anxiety, and eating disorders.

 

Outside Resources:

http://www.socialworkers.org/practice/adolescent_health/ah0204.asp

http://kidshealth.org/teen/your_mind/body_image/body_image.html

http://www.pamf.org/teen/life/bodyimage/

http://teenhealth.about.com/od/emotionalhealth/a/teenbodyimage.html

 

This tip sheet offers advice about how you can improve your body image and make sure your children grow up with a positive body image, too:

 

Eating Disorders

 

http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/uploads/file/information-resources/50-Ways-to-Lose-the-3Ds.pdf

 

Binge Eating Disorder: This fact sheet describes the symptoms, causes, complications, and treatment of binge eating disorder, and gives a profile of those at risk for the disorder: http://win.niddk.nih.gov/publications/binge.htm

 

Compulsive Exercise: This publication provides information on compulsive exercise, its warning signs, and the serious effects it can have on a teenager's health: http://www.kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/compulsive_exercise.html

 

This Web page describes the psychosocial and medical consequences of eating disorders over the long term. It has information about what happens to the different functions of your body, and other conditions that people with eating disorders are likely to have:
http://www.aedweb.org/Consequences_of_ED/1454.htm

 

This Web page describes the warning signs of various eating disorders and discusses how they are diagnosed. If you are worried about a friend or family member, this site can help you find out if certain behaviors could indicate an eating disorder:
http://www.aedweb.org/Eating_Disorder_Diagnoses.htm

 

This detailed booklet describes symptoms, causes, and treatments of eating disorders. It also includes information on getting help and coping:
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/summary.shtml

 

Cutting:

When teens feel sad, distressed, or confused, the emotions might be so extreme that they lead some to harm themselves with self-injury (also called cutting, self-mutilation, or self-harm). Most teens who inflict injury on themselves do so because they are experiencing stress and anxiety, and/or because they were abused as children.


Burning, cutting, scratching, hitting/bruising, biting, picking at skin, and pulling out hair are some of the ways teens use self-injury to cope with intensely bad feelings. Sometimes teens injure themselves regularly, almost as if it were a ceremony. Other times, teens may injure themselves at the spur of the moment, as a way to find an immediate release for built-up tension. Self-injury is an unhealthy and dangerous act and can leave scars, both physically and emotionally.

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