MSU EXTENSION: Stress and teens

By Terry Clark-Jones

Michigan State University Extension

The adult world is full of situations and events that cause stress. For teens, these stressful events might look different: parents’ divorce, peer pressure, school responsibilities, illness or situations with relationships. Even positive events can create a degree of stress.

The ability to evaluate stress levels and to develop coping skills increases for teens as they grow older and wiser. Often, it is 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 be 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 than any single traumatic event, the cumulative effect can be just as detrimental. Perception of stress is often related to experiences and development. What is stressful for one person may not even amount to a small issue for another.

Every teen’s response to stress will be different. Some will have mood swings while others will take part in attention seeking behavior, avoid certain activities, isolate themselves, 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, caregivers and mentors of teens do?

  • Don’t place unnecessary expectations on teens. We all want teens to be successful and there should be expectations for behavior and performance. If stress starts to show, it may be time to question if your expectations are unreasonable.
  • Listen to teens when they start describing events and situations. Good listening skills will allow you to have a better understanding of 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 teens problem-solving skills. Stress can cause the feeling of being overwhelmed. Help teens learn to break down a situation into smaller ones that they can deal with one at a time. Share how you have dealt with similar situations. You may have to practice problem-solving with them. 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 trial 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 to look at life events more realistically and more positively.
  • Teach relaxation techniques to teens. Often parents and caregivers forget to give teens ideas on how to relax during stressful situations. Talk about imagery, deep breathing, counting to ten and mindfulness practices.
  • 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 a 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 nonviolent 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 is helping 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 education programming for parents, caregivers and adults working with teens