Helping teens manage stress

Teens usually learn strategies to effectively cope with stress through everyday small hassles, but adults can help.

The adult world is full of situations and events that cause stress. For teens, stressful events might include parents’ divorce, abuse or neglect, poverty, school failure, illness or situations with relationships. Even positive events can create a degree of stress.

Michigan State University Extension says that the ability to evaluate stress levels and to develop coping skills increases for teens as they grow older and wiser. It’s not the situation that causes all the stress; it is the perception and belief about the situation.

It is important to distinguish daily life hurdles from significant stress. Parents and teens often experience daily challenges that can cause stress. Teens usually learn strategies to effectively cope with these small hassles. It is the significant stressors such as the death of a family member or friend or a serious illness that will cause adolescents to feel as if they are unable to cope. These events, when not dealt with, can result in serious consequences for the teen’s physical and emotional wellbeing.

While life’s everyday stressors have less negative impact, the cumulative effect can be as detrimental as any single traumatic event. Also that perception of stress is related to experience and development; what is stressful for one person may not even amount to a small issue for another.

Typical stressors for 12- to 15-year-olds:

  • New, unfamiliar or unpredictable situations, such as moving from middle to high school
  • Unclear or vague expectations
  • Anticipation of something unpleasant
  • Fear of failing
  • Major development hurdles, such as puberty, when youth are the same age with different body types
  • Teasing and bullying

Every teen’s response to stress will be different. Some will have mood swings. Others will take part in attention seeking behavior, avoid certain activities, isolate themselves and/or refuse to go to school, fail to prepare for class assignments and/or have physical complaints, like headaches and stomach aches.

So what can parents or caregivers of teens do? Don’t place unnecessary expectations on your teen. We all want our teens to be successful and there should be expectations for behavior and performance. If stress starts being revealed, it may be time to question if your expectations are unreasonable.

Listen to your teen when they start describing events and situations. Good listening skills will allow you to have better understanding on how you can help. Often good listening skills provide a safe opportunity for your teen to vent and receive validation. Remember what may seem trivial to you is not trivial to the teen.

Teach your teen problem solving skills. Stress can cause the feeling of being overwhelmed. Help your teen learn to break down a situation into smaller ones that they can deal with, one at a time. Share how you have dealt in similar situations. You may have to practice problem solving with your adolescent. By taking the time to do this, you are giving them a powerful life skill that is often neglected.

Practice stressful situations such as speaking in front of a group or making a call to someone you don’t know. Sometimes discussing how the teen wants the event to take place and doing a trail run will decrease the stress of the situation. It will also give the opportunity to trouble shoot possible difficulties that may occur.

Be aware of “irrational thinking” patterns. Sometimes we can overhear teens think aloud with sentences like, “If I don’t do this extra assignment, I’ll never get into college.” Or we only hear the first part of the sentence such as, “I have to do what the other kids are doing...” These “if…then” statements frequently hide core beliefs that young people accept as true, even if they are not logical. Help teens look at life events more realistically and more positive.

Teach relaxation techniques to your teens. Parents and caregivers often forget to give teens ideas on how to relax during stressful situations. Talk about imagery, deep breathing, counting to 10, etc.

Teach tools to deal with bullying. Start by instilling pride in them. Help adolescents develop positive self-esteem by talking about and encouraging pride in their unique abilities, skills and qualities.

Teach teens to listen to the tone, not the words. The teaser’s tone of voice is a good indicator of motive. When teasing is meant to be funny, your adolescent can try to laugh along, take the teasing in stride and offer appropriate responses. If it is hostile, the intent is mean-spirited. Teach the teen to walk away or to seek help from an adult.

Teach assertiveness, not aggression. A good approach to bullying is to teach firm, but non-violent responses, such as, “I don’t appreciate the way you are treating me.”

Model appropriate behavior when you are dealing with teasing and bullying. Teens who witness adults handling conflict appropriately and successfully are more likely to copy this behavior.

If you find that nothing you do helps your teen with their stress, seek help. Contact you family doctor, local health department, school social worker, counselor or psychologist, which are all good resources for assistance.

Michigan State University Extension will be offering training in 2013 for adults and teens called Be Safe - Safe, Affirming and Fair Environment. For more information on bullying, go to

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