Coping with Stress
- Prevention & Early Intervention
- Counseling and Community Services
Teenagers, like adults, experience stress everyday. The sources of stress are varied and changing. Most teens experience stress when they perceive a situation as dangerous, difficult or painful, and they do not have the resources to cope. Some sources of stress for teens include:
- On-going family conflict
- School demands
- Negative thoughts and feelings about themselves
- Problems with friends
- Unsafe living environments
- Separation or divorce of parents
- Chronic illness or death of a loved one
- Moving or changing schools
- Taking on too may activities or having too high expectations.
The kind of trauma resulting from events in the world (tsunamis, war, terrorism) impact adolescents the same way it affects adults - creating sadness, fear, confusion, anger, a sense of nervousness and stress. These reactions can occur soon after the event or be delayed. They can affect those directly involved as well as those witnessing it on television. These reactions can compound the normal stress experienced by teens and be overwhelming.
Stress overload or inadequately managed stress can lead to anxiety, withdrawal, aggression, physical illness and/or experimentation with drug or alcohol.
When we perceive a situation as difficult or painful, changes occur in our minds and bodies to prepare us to respond to danger. This "fight, flight or freeze" response includes faster heart and breathing rate, increased blood to muscles of arms and legs, cold or clammy hands and feet, upset stomach and/or a sense of dread.
The same mechanism that turns on the stress response can turn it off. As soon as we decide that a situation is no longer dangerous, changes occur in our minds and bodies to help us relax and calm down. This "relaxation response" includes decreased heart and breathing rate, and a sense of well-being.
Teens that develop a "relaxation response" and other stress management skills feel less helpless and have more choices when responding to stress.
How Parents Can Help their Children
- Monitor if stress is affecting their teen's health, behavior, thoughts or feelings.
- Listen carefully to teens.
- Watch for overloading.
- Learn and model stress management skills.
- Support involvement in sports, music and other pro-social activities.
- Be mindful of creating more stress.
- Allow some time to just relax and have fun together.
Behaviors and Techniques To Decrease Stress
- Exercise and eat regularly.
- Get enough sleep.
- Avoid excess caffeine which can increase feelings of anxiety and agitation.
- Avoid illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
- Learn relaxation exercises.
- Develop assertiveness training skills. For example, state feelings in a firm and not overly aggressive or passive way. Rehearse and practice situations that cause stress.
- Learn practical coping skills. For example, break a large task into smaller, more attainable tasks.
- Decrease negative self-talk; challenge negative thoughts about yourself with alternative neutral or positive thoughts. “My life will never get better,” can be transformed into” “I may feel hopeless now, but my life will probably get better if I work at it and get some help.”
- Learn to feel good about doing a competent or “good enough” job rather than demanding perfection from yourself and others.
- Take a break from stressful situations. Get involved in activities such as listening to music, talking to a friend, drawing, writing or spending time with a pet which can reduce stress.
- Build a network of friends who can help you cope in a positive way.
By using these and other techniques, teenagers can begin to manage stress. If a teen talks about or shows signs of being overly stressed, a consultation with a qualified mental health professional, physician, trusted teacher or school personnel may be helpful.
Did You Know?
Spending 15 minutes everyday in uninterrupted conversation with your kids can make a big difference. Real communication with a child begins when we listen and talk to them about what's important in their lives.
Unofficial Rules of Adolescence
Adolescence represents a developmental stage during which both teens and their parents test the limits and boundaries of control. The following rules, while not advocated, can be expected in today's society.
- Fitting In - Finding a group in which you can feel accepted.
- Trying Out - Testing boundaries by trying out new experiences.
- Trying On - Trying on different identities or “costumes” that may or may not ultimately fit.
- Saving Face - Avoiding feelings of rejection, humiliation, failure and shame.
- Getting Over - Breaking, bending or ignoring rules just to prove you can.
- Getting Some - Coping with sexual tension generated by changing brain and body.
- Getting Mine - Sense of entitlement born of exaggerated focus on materialism.
- Getting Out- Avoiding the claustrophobic perception of dependence and subservience.
This article includes excerpts from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry pamphlet No. 66 "Helping Teenagers with Stress" and "Unofficial Rules of Adolescence" by Scott Frank, M.D., M.S., director of Shaker Heights Health Department and the Master of Public Health Program, Case Western Reserve University.