One of the many challenges of tackling stress and anxiety is how to do it without increasing stress and anxiety! Luckily, I know a few ways to help parents like you understand your teenager’s emotional state without becoming overwhelmed yourself.
Stress is a response to challenging life circumstances. It could be triggered by a real threat or a threat we’ve concocted in our heads. On any given day, your teen is probably experiencing one, the other, or a combination of the two.
A major stressor in teenage life is the social scene. Do you remember navigating the social universe as a teen? Chances are, you wanted to fit in, to be part of a group, to have friends, and maybe to have an intimate relationship.
Today’s teenagers are no different. They want to feel like they belong. Keeping the friends they have, cultivating new friendships, building close relationships – these are a huge source of stress. Add social media to the mix – where one embarrassing post or pic can live on the web forever, never to die a natural death – and the well of potential stressors deepens.
Then there’s the whole issue of getting through high school and preparing oneself for the world beyond. For the typical teen, vocation and career are looming question marks. They have to think about what interests them, what they’re good at, and whether they’re good enough to make a go of it. They have to manage that alongside their expectations for themselves, their families’ expectations, and their community’s expectations for them.
Teens with learning differences have an added layer of potential stressors to manage, particularly in the educational realm. For 12 years, all we ask of kids, for the most part, is to “Go to school and make good grades.” We make it their job. If you have learning challenges, then you may feel every day like you’re not doing a good job! Going into a typical high school classroom and having to either pretend that you’ve read the material or that you’ve registered the material – that is extremely difficult. No one wants to look stupid. No one likes to feel stupid. It’s very stressful, especially for students with attention deficits and learning disorders such as dyslexia and dyscalculia.
Teenagers with learning challenges also understand that what comes after high school is probably going to be college. And the thought of more academics – four more years in an environment where they have never felt terribly successful – is daunting. That’s just terrifying for a lot of kids.
So teenagers have a lot to sort out. Teenagers with learning differences have a few more stressors to handle.
Complicating all of this is the fact that teens have to process stressors with brains that still have about 10 years of development in front of them. The parts of the brain that help adults plan, organize, and problem solve won’t be as helpful to a teen until his or her mid- to late-twenties.
Stress Versus Anxiety
Stress is our body’s response to the demands that we have to deal with. Anxiety is worry taken to the extreme. It is nervousness and apprehension that a person cannot turn off.
Time is an important element of anxiety. People may be anxious about something they said or did wrong in the past. Often anxiety involves worry about the future. It is not present-focused.
For that reason, dealing with anxiety and stress really requires us to deal with the present, with what’s right in front of us. So the therapeutic approaches to stress and anxiety are often very much the same. More on that below.
Defining the Breaking Point
Parents are right to wonder where to draw the line between, on the one hand, “normal” stress about homework or tests, and, on the other hand, behavior that seems beyond the bounds of “normal.” You can trust yourself to know the difference between a teen who is stressed out the night before a midterm and a kid who is kind of falling apart.
People in my field would look for whether the anxiety is creating an impairment in functioning. Is your child unable to sleep, to eat, to get schoolwork done? Is your child unable or unwilling to spend time with friends? Any impairment in an area of functioning would be a good time to seek out a psychologist’s advice.
You can help your child work through a certain amount of stress and anxiety. When you start witnessing changes in appetite and weight, changes in their ability to muster up the gumption to work through a problem, or they frequently call you from school or college to say, “I can’t go to school today; I can’t go to classes; I’m too anxious; I can’t settle down; I can’t eat; I’m throwing up everything” – if that becomes the norm, or if it happens a lot, then I think there is definitely a good reason to look for some assistance.
There is no cure for stress, but there is an antidote: Resilience. Build resilience. Here’s how.
Stage 1: Acceptance
They love hearing that. (I’m kidding.)
The hard truth is, there will be stressors in college, in relationships, in marriages, in jobs, in parenting. That’s kind of the nature of the beast. That is precisely why we need to put the work into becoming resilient human beings.
Stage 2: Perspective
Have you ever used the phrase, “in the grand scheme of things”? Those six words can help a teen put a stressful situation in context, minimizing feeling of upset and anxiety.
You can try to use this phrase to help kids put things in perspective. For example, “In the grand scheme of things, how big a deal is it not to be super prepared for a chemistry test?” Students will generally recognize that it’s not a catastrophe. So while you can acknowledge that it is stressful, you can remind them that it’s not the end of the world. Once you’ve established that, the question can turn to, “Now what do you want to do about it?” You can start them on the path to problem solving.
A few years ago, a book came out called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (and it’s all small stuff.) It’s not all small stuff. But rarely do we have to deal with catastrophic stuff, and practicing putting small and medium stuff in perspective prepares teenagers to cope with the bigger things. In short, it builds resilience.
Stage 3: Self-care
As a parent, you can also teach yours kids about self-care, which I don’t think we focus on enough. By self-care, I mean taking care of yourself in a regular, ongoing way. This means engaging in activities that you like to do and that de-stress you in healthy ways.
Some self-care tips for your “present self”:
Walk with a friend.
Drink a cup of tea.
Disconnect from devices.
Pet a dog or a cat.
Take a warm shower or a bath.
In addition to taking care of your “present self,” stress management ought to include taking care of your “future self.” If you know you have a chemistry test in two weeks, then procrastination or avoidance is not a great strategy for taking care of oneself. Doing what you have to do in the present is a way of taking care of yourself for the future.
Stage 4: Self-advocacy
When it comes to your child’s stress, you are not in it together. If your kid is freaking out and stuck in a hole, they don’t need you to jump in the hole with them. They need you to be standing at the top of the hole, yelling encouragement and chucking down a ladder, or a rope, or a flashlight. If you jump in the hole with them, and you’re stressed and crazy and anxious with them, then now we have two people in the hole. Not helpful!
What is helpful is for us – as the adults – to help our children do this work on their own. It’s not so different from teaching children to tie their shoes. You can only help so much. Then you have to leave them to figure it out. They always do, eventually. As a parent, you need to be confident in that, because you want to send the message of confidence to your child that he or she can take care of it.
Sometimes your teenager will come up against “the system.” They may need you to be at the table when they sit across from an authority figure to air a grievance. My advice: Make a plan with your child. Role play the scenario. Make sure they know, that, “Hey, I’m not going to jump in and be your mouthpiece, but I am your advocate and your backup.” Send the message that, “I feel like you can certainly take care of this, and I’ll help you. If your attempts don’t work then we’ll go back to the drawing board, we’ll go to Plan B. But I’m not going to get involved, unless it’s absolutely necessary, and then I will do it with you.” Which is different from, “I’ll do it for you.”
Give your teen your faith in their ability to manage stressful situations, and they will be a lot less likely to call you at age 25 and 35 asking you what to do. In other words, they will grow to be adults fully capable of self-advocating.
Stage 5: Ongoing Support
When stress and anxiety begin to get in the way of your teenager’s ability to function, that’s when it’s time to call in reinforcements. Where do you begin to look for help?
I tell a lot of parents that, a lot of times, the best way to start is with your child’s pediatrician. Pediatricians know your child, your family, your community. They know who is practicing psychotherapy, who is working with children and teens, and who’s gotten good feedback from other families. Sometimes a school guidance counselor or social worker is a helpful resource.
Be prepared to try two or three different people, because there isn’t always a good fit, and it’s worth not just settling on the first one. I think most of us sort of know when there’s a good fit. Teenagers will tell you, “I like that lady,” or, “I don’t like that guy. He didn’t say anything; he just sat there staring at me.” That’s fair. That kid is saying, “I need a more active therapist.” And, “I don’t want a psychoanalyst who just says, ‘Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.’” I think it’s reasonable to say to a teenager, “I made an appointment with two or three people. We’ll meet with each one, and then you can pick the person you feel the most comfortable with.” Facilitate the process in a reasonable way; you are likely to find someone your child likes.
No matter how strong a self-advocate your child is becoming, he or she will continually turn to you as a source of support. Teenagers really count on parents to be the voice of reason in what feels like a really crazy time for them. They need you to be calm. So whatever you need to do to get that way, you ought to do: Practice self-care. See a therapist. Manage your own stress so you can be fully present with your child if they start to fall apart. Because when they’re falling apart, they don't need to see us falling apart. Being mindful of your own stress level and what you need to manage stress is really useful.
The last form of support I suggest is planning. Faced with stressful situations, brainstorming helps. It helps reduce everyone’s stress level when we know there’s a plan. It doesn’t mean the plan is going to work, but we have a plan. We’ll try it, and if doesn’t work – just like we all do in our lives, in our jobs – if it doesn’t work then we go back to the drawing board and we go to Plan B. We try something else, or we tweak Plan A a little bit. A great support can be simply reassuring kids that, “We will figure this out, and if we don’t figure it out, then we’ll at least figure out a way for you to live with the situation.” Because sometimes we can solve a problem, and sometimes we just need to learn how to live with a situation that can’t be changed or solved.
Parents are on the front line in the fight against stress. It isn’t easy to raise teenagers who can get out of holes themselves. But with these few rules of thumb, the stress of building resilience should be a lot more manageable.
Dr. Barbara Tarkin
School Psychologist, Forman School
Clinical Psychologist Barbara Tarkin joined Forman School in 2015 after 23 years in a private practice, doing individual, group, and family psychotherapy focusing on teens and adolescents. She earned her Ph.D. in School Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.