We all know stress is a part of life. But it seems like today’s teens are faced with far more stress than we had to deal with at their age. My eighth-grade son recently had to choose classes for his first semester of high school, and the pressure to choose the right path was massive, as if one badly chosen class could end up being the difference between a life in a penthouse or a life of poverty and struggle. It’s unbelievable how much pressure our kids are under. Yet, it remains true that stress is simply a part of life. We have to teach our teens how to cope. So how do we do that without overloading them?
Dr. Ginsburg, Co-Founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communications at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, helps parents and teens learn to manage stress. He reminds us that because stress is uncomfortable, the typical reaction to it is to do something that makes us feel better. Sometimes that thing we do to relieve our own stress is a positive action, which both gives us relief and leads to a positive outcome. But sometimes we choose unhealthy coping mechanisms, like scrolling on social media far too late in the night, or drinking too much.
It’s no different for teens. They can develop healthy coping mechanisms or turn to unhealthy quick fixes like drinking, drug use, risky sexual behavior, or thrill seeking. As with adults, these negative coping mechanisms may offer temporary relief, but the long-term outlook is generally just added stress, and in some cases, addiction.
So how do we help our teens cope with the intense pressures that are put on them?
Model appropriate ways to deal with stress.
The most important thing we can do to teach our kids effective strategies for coping with stress is to model that behavior ourselves. Nobody’s perfect, and I’ve certainly been known to slam a cabinet too hard or scream profanities in my less proud moments of dealing with stress. So if you’re worried you don’t cope with stress well, you and I are in the same boat.
But, overall, I lean more toward having a glass-half-full attitude and being determined to always find the answer or solve the problem even when it seems like there are no answers and no solutions. When it comes to dealing with stressful situations, I try to let my kids see my tenacity. I may shout out a profanity or two in the process, but I don’t give up. My kids hear me talk about how I need to take a couple of hours to get in some exercise. They see me taking some “me time” to snuggle up with a book. They see me doing deep breathing exercises. They’ll pick up on that self care, even if it doesn’t seem like they’re watching.
Teach problem-solving skills.
Problem-solving is not always intuitive, so we need to teach our kids how to do it. For our teens, much of the time, this means affording them the autonomy to handle their own problems, but it may also mean helping them break down a large problem into smaller, more manageable steps — actually demonstrating or walking through the steps to show them to do this.
We shouldn’t helicopter over our teens, but it’s also okay to step in and show them how to manage. That might mean sitting and coming up with a checklist to prioritize a difficult homework week, or it might mean talking through options for how to approach their manager at work to resolve conflicts in their work schedule.
Sometimes the solution is to accept that there is no solution.
It’s also okay to choose not to deal with a stressful problem. If a stressor is avoidable or pertains to something that is out of our control, it is reasonable to simply choose not to address it. We can model for and teach our teens to learn to recognize when a problem isn’t fixable, and to choose not to waste energy worrying about it or trying to fix it.
Self-care isn’t just for grownups.
We should also encourage our kids to live as healthy a lifestyle as possible. Eating nourishing foods and getting enough exercising are great ways to keep our stress hormones in check so that we are better equipped to deal with challenges as they arise.
When it comes to managing emotions, Dr. Ginsburg points out that some stress is actually good for us – it “brings us to peak concentration or performance.“ But, of course, too much stress can be overwhelming and cause us to get into a kind of emotional gridlock. Dr. Ginsburg suggests we teach our kids to find ways to release their emotions so they don’t build up, whether that’s by running or writing or talking with a friend.
Building self-worth by doing for others can reduce stress.
A big piece of managing stress is self-confidence — having a solid foundation of believing that we matter as an individual. It’s one thing to just tell our kids how much they matter to us. Dr. Ginsburg suggests reinforcing our teenager’s sense of worth by encouraging them to volunteer and contribute to their community. Our teens are busy, but stepping outside of ourselves and doing something for someone else has the interesting effect of also making us feel better about ourselves.
Our kids need to learn how good it feels to give back. They need to learn that giving back to their community is not about beefing up their college resume or checking a box on a to-do list out of obligation. It’s about being part of a community and giving back. Volunteering can take the focus off of themselves and help them to witness firsthand that the world is so much bigger than the stressors of homework, social life, and extracurricular activities.
These tactics combined can help our teens manage their stress, build confidence, and practice resilience. We can’t and shouldn’t cut the stress out of their lives, but we should model coping behaviors and lifestyles that promote appropriate reactions to the everyday stresses of life.