Teens are stressed.
That phrase has been true for many years, perhaps as far back as the beginning of time. The teen years are ones of major challenge and change: physical, mental, emotional, social, and relational, among others. All this is occurring while they lack the brain development and experience from which adults benefit. Add to that more recent causes of stress such as social media and smart devices, and it becomes easy to understand why adolescents are feeling the effects.
In a 2018 study by the American Psychological Association, teens reported higher levels of stress and worse overall mental health than all other age groups. Then, in 2019, a study by San Diego State University psychology professor Dr. Jean Twenge found that since 2005, teens have been experiencing a significant increase in serious psychological distress, depression, and suicide. These trends have continued into 2020. Most recently with the COVID-19/Coronavirus, situation, people in general (teens included) are dealing with yet another layer of stress, and an unfamiliar and unique one at that.
Teen stress, in and of itself, is concerning enough and requires us to help the teens in our lives. It’s even more important to take action once you realize that chronic stress can be a risk factor for other mental, behavioral, and physical health issues. Physically, chronic stress can cause or contribute to issues such as decreased immune function, fatigue, heart disease, and high blood pressure. In the realm of mental and behavioral health, chronic stress can be a trigger for depression, self-injury, and substance use, among other things.
Therefore, it’s important for parents, grandparents, guardians, and other adults with teens in their lives to be aware of ways to help teens who are dealing with stress. The good news is that we are able to help, and that the strategies for assisting stressed out teens don’t have to be complicated. Here are some steps for helping kids cope.
1. Encourage Them to Speak Up – Let them know that you’re available and willing to listen. Make it clear that you will set aside time to be there for them, but know that you may need to be the one to start the conversation sometimes. Make it clear that them coming to you with a problem is not an inconvenience.
2. Listen – Let them speak, and actively listen. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say in response. Don’t feel as if you need to solve all of their problems. You don’t, and realistically, you may not be able to solve all of them. What you can do, however, is listen and make it clear that they are being heard.
3. Believe Them – Don’t downplay their feelings or act as if their stress isn’t real. Perhaps in comparison to what we deal with as adults, teen stress may seem less serious or complicated, but it’s very real to them. Minimizing your teen’s stress will make them less likely to come to you with their problems, and may cause them to withdraw or isolate instead of speaking up.
4. Empathize – Make it clear that you acknowledge their feelings as their truth and their reality. Phrases like “I understand how difficult that must be for you” or “I can tell this situation is painful for you” can be very powerful in making it clear to your teen that they’re not alone and that you have been listening.
5. Help Them Identify What They’re Feeling – There is a concept in dealing with emotions known as “Name it to Tame It.” Research has shown that being able to identify and label emotions can make it easier to deal with them, adapt to them, and make the necessary adjustments or changes. Ask them to use words to describe what they’re feeling.
6. Be Self-Aware – Be conscious and cautious of your own reactions to stressful situations around them. They look to us for guidance and leadership. It’s alright to acknowledge that you may be under stress too, as it validates their own feelings and shows them that it’s alright to be honest and open about what you’re feeling. But it’s important that we maintain control of our emotions around them. If they see or sense us panicking, it may add to their anxiety and worries.
7. Help Them Protect Their Body – During the teen years, sleep, exercise, and nutrition are important, and even more so when a teen is dealing with stress. Yet multiple studies in recent years have indicated that teens are not getting enough sleep. One of the ways parents can make sure that their teens are getting more sleep is by not allowing them to take their smart phones, tablets, or laptops into their bedrooms at night and to end screen time two hours prior to bed time.
Exercise can be a very healthy and effective way of dealing with stress and preventing some of the physical impact of stress as well. Meanwhile, adequate nutrition provides the fuel needed to navigate difficult times. Making sure that our teens are getting enough sleep, exercise, and nutrition sets them up for success.
8. Balance Their Technology Use – Smart devices have become many kids’ primary method of communication and contact with the people in their lives. We don’t want to completely restrict their use, or we risk shutting down our child’s ability to stay in touch, especially in situations where people are required to stay at home for extended periods of time. But it’s important to know how to keep their device use in balance with the remainder of their lives. Designate certain periods of the day for device use, designate other times for other things, and make the schedule clear from the start.
While we’re keeping our child’s device use in balance, we need to set the same example ourselves. Staying updated on news is important and beneficial, but know when to take breaks to keep from over-saturating yourself with concerning news. The latter will only add additional stress.
9. Encourage Self-Care – Make sure your teen is spending time doing things they love, things that help reduce their anxiety, and things that can cause a natural release of feel-good neurotransmitters. These things can include yoga, meditation, art, music, writing, sports, skateboarding, deep breathing exercises, making or reading memes, watching humorous videos, getting outdoors, time with pets, etc. You know your teen and what fills them up. Encourage them to be intentional about doing those things.
10. Serve Others – Have your teen join you in doing something nice for someone else. It can be as simple as an encouraging phone call, making someone a gift, or taking the time to listen to someone else. One of the best ways to reduce over-focusing on your own worries and anxiety is to shift that focus outward and on someone else. Serving others provides multiple benefits in that it helps you while it helps them.
11. Restore Control – During times of stress, life can feel out of control, especially for young people. Provide them options that restore some control back to their lives. Let them be the one to pick what you have for dinner, what movie you watch, or what activity you do as a family. It’s small and subtle, but it can be a nice change from them feeling like they have no control over anything.
12. Take Care of Yourself – We can be much better prepared to help our kids if we have helped ourselves. In the same way that airlines require adults to put on their oxygen masks prior to putting their kids’ masks on, we as adults need to be sure that we are taking care of our basic physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional needs. It’s impossible to pour from an empty glass, so we need to ensure that we are full, or at least partially full, before we pour into others.
We also featured these 12 tips in podcast format on our “Win This Year” podcast episode here: