Teenagers now report higher stress levels than almost any other age group, according to a new report from the American Institute of Stress. Teens feel stressed for lots of reasons, including academic pressure, negative thoughts and feelings about themselves, family financial problems, or the illness or death of loved ones. And teens deal with this full-scale stress without the benefit of an adult’s coping skills or life experience.
Nothing is harder for parents than seeing their child struggle and not knowing how to help. It’s important to remember that while there’s no single solution to stress, parents can do a lot to help teens recognize, reduce, and manage stress so it doesn’t get overwhelming. Here are four research-backed, time-tested stress strategies for teens.
1. Teach teens the difference between stress and anxiety.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress is “the physical or mental response to an external cause, such as having a lot of homework or having an illness.” Anxiety is the body’s internal reaction to stress, and it can happen even when there’s no current threat. In other words, stress goes away when the problem is resolved, but anxiety recurs, usually as a “persistent feeling of apprehension or dread that doesn’t go away.” When teens understand the difference between stress and anxiety, they can break down a big feeling of overwhelm into more manageable chunks. Since stress is external it often has an external solution, like getting help from a teacher, adjusting their schedule, or talking to a counselor. Taking concrete steps can help relieve internal anxiety by reducing the external causes of stress.
2. Teach teens to recognize how stress affects them.
Stress impacts teens physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. Some common physical symptoms include headaches, stomachaches, and more frequent colds or other minor illnesses. Stressed teens may have trouble sleeping, feel more irritable or moody, struggle with learning and concentration, or isolate themselves socially. Negative self-talk and worry are also signs of stress. Parents can help teens understand the link between stress and symptoms like these and address the stress before it gets worse. If you notice a change in your teen’s health or behavior, simply asking, “Do you think this might have something to do with stress?” is a great way to start a conversation about the root cause.
3. Help teens build a strong network of relationships.
Social support equals better mental health for teens. Parents can’t do it all alone, and each trusted relationship in a teen’s life is a potential source of support when they’re dealing with stress. According to Search Institute, the most powerful relationships for teens to cultivate are developmental relationships with adults who express care, challenge teens to grow, provide support, share power and respect, and expand their possibilities. Teens might form developmental relationships with parents, teachers, mentors, coaches, or extended family members. And solid friendships with peers are important, too. One study found that adolescents who spent time with peers after a stressful event were less likely to feel sadness or worry than those who spent time alone.
4. Help teens build a toolkit of coping skills.
The teenage years expose kids to a whole new set of potential stressors, from academic pressures to more complex relationships. When parents help teens develop coping skills for everyday problems, they have a ready-made toolkit to deploy for life’s bigger stresses. You can make managing stress a family project and help your teen figure out what works best for them. A few ideas: see our picks for the best mindfulness and meditation apps for teens, or try these techniques for re-centering with nature. And don’t forget simple practices like keeping a gratitude journal; studies show that experiencing gratitude builds resilience and buffers against depression.
Stress is a part of life, but remember that it’s not always negative. Healthy stress, for example, can motivate teens to study hard for a test or practice until they master a new skill. Stress becomes dangerous when it becomes too much for teens to manage and affects their mental and physical health. These techniques empower teens to recognize, reduce, and manage their stress: a skill that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
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