Teens and Stress
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Most parents agree that dealing with moody adolescence just comes with raising kids.
But when does normal teenage anxiety cross over into exceedingly stressed-out territory? Here with their expert opinions are Dignity Health Medical Foundation’s Dan Delanoy, MFT, clinical psychiatric counselor, and LaToya Cheathon, MFT intern.
Just what are the warning signs of the exceedingly stressed? In teens, look for noticeable increases in physical complaints (headaches, stomachaches, muscle pain or fatigue) and changes in emotional responses (irritability and increased anger toward people or circumstances). Isolation and withdrawal from activities normally enjoyed can signal a high level of stress, as can difficulty concentrating (your teen goes blank during tasks or conversations, for example). Changes in eating or sleeping habits, along with feelings of hopelessness, chronic worry or nervousness, panic attacks and substance abuse are all indicators, too.
Today’s teen grapples with significant pressure from a slew of external and internal sources—from exceedingly high expectations, future fears and peer conflict, to academic demands, parental distress, rapid developmental growth and more. While low levels of stress, stemming from experiencing taxing tasks or situations that teens feel competent to manage, can be helpful, explains Delanoy—unhealthy stress “comes about when teens perceive their abilities or resources are inadequate for the challenge.” Coupled with excessive worry over mistakes or missed opportunities can, when misperceived, render “an exceedingly stressed person to the point of infectiveness.”
Taking teen stress to the next level is technology, with texting before bed resulting in disturbed sleep and inconsiderate social media comments boosting anxiety, etc. “Teens face expectations of immediate availability thanks to texting and instant messaging,” echoes Delanoy. “They may face relational consequences for not quickly replying to a text. This can be a problem when the task at hand is homework or studying.” Add to these increasingly less-filtered social-media interactions.
Naturally, parents want to shield their teens from as much stress as possible, but, crucially, they must also let them learn to cope with it—a necessity needed long after they’ve left the nest. In the absence of healthy coping systems, teens may turn to stress-inducing mechanisms like substance abuse to manage pressure, further reducing whatever ability they had to deal with stress, thereby going immediately into crisis mode the moment a small problem arises, possibly over-dramatizing it with catastrophic thinking or personalizing blame.
No need for overwhelm, parents: Minimizing and managing teen stress is simple with these anxiety-free tactics.
It seems obvious, but bears repeating: Make sure your teen is getting plenty of rest, exercise and eats a good diet. And start ridding the house of stimulants; caffeine intake perpetrates physical stress.
Practice stress management—together. Meditating side-by-side every day (even if it’s just for five minutes) can help re-channel energy, calm frayed nerves and re-centers stressed psyches. It also reminds teens to take a deep breath in stressful situations.
Art, music and creative writing (journaling) all help alleviate stress.
Communication equals support—but don’t lecture. Rather, notes Delanoy, “Remember that part of feeling stressed out is feeling out of control, so taking over their problem-solving efforts may backfire. This means listening without judgment and monitoring your parental drive to protect and problem solve.”
break down large tasks
Component parts are easier for teens to tackle, which, in turn, stimulates success and momentum to solve other issues. As a comparison, Delanoy offers this scenario: “Think about how much easier it is to clean a terribly messy room in sections rather than standing there overwhelmed by the entire scene.”
“Parental worries often affects a teenager's stress levels as well,” says Cheathon, listing job loss, marital discord, and drug or alcohol misuse as impacting stress levels. Self-regulate your own stressors to lessen the anxiousness your teen may feel as a result.
pare down to-do’s
A too-full slate can greatly increase stress. Cheathon advises prioritizing tasks. “It is important teens participate in activities they enjoy,” she adds. “Add whatever brings them joy (even if it’s 30 minutes) to their daily to-do list.”
regroup as a family
“How often do teens choose to go into their rooms and talk to friends exclusively online, losing coping skills, real interpersonal connections and communication skills while increasing social isolation?” Cheathon asks. Once you’ve made this eye-opening calculation, she advises setting limits around technology use within the home to reduce the overall level of stress not just for your teen, but the whole family, too.
If your teen’s stress is simply beyond your skill set, consider counseling. But, warns Delanoy, “A teen may perceive counseling as another stressor they will have to deal with, so hearing out their concerns and trying to collaborate on a plan is more likely to result in meaningful engagement in counseling.” In short, approach the conversation optimistically.