You can’t take away — or take over — your teen’s stress, but experts offer collaborative coping strategies focused on mindfulness, problem solving, and resilience.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with social distancing, remote schooling, and social unrest, teen stress is palpable.
Considering your teen’s stress may naturally fill you with fear.
But Ivan Lopez, a counselor at Wakefield Public High School in Arlington, Virginia, suggests a calm approach works best.
“These are not ‘normal’ times. The stress and anxiety your teens are expressing are real,” Lopez says and adds “but growth can happen through stress. Kids can build resilience. Don’t be afraid to let them [toil] a bit.”
Environmental factors, including COVID-19
- More than one-third of high school students reported mental health as a problem
- More than 50% of surveyed teens said their parents or caretakers did more to harm than help, including swearing at students or insulting them
- 29% of teens reported living with a parent or adult who had lost a job
- LGBTQ youth and girls reported more emotional abuse by an adult in the household, compared to other teens
- Racism emerged as a source of stress for 36% of students overall before or during the pandemic. Specifically:
- 64% of Asian students
- 55% of Black students
- 55% of mixed race students
Therapist and Mindfulness Facilitator Travis M. Spencer, in Washington, D.C., sees the intense pressures facing young people and their families in his work with the Inward Bound Mindfulness Education Center (IBme) and the Maya Angelou Academy Youth Services Center.
He said he feels for kids whom he says experience so much overall “identity confusion, from the ages of 11 to 17.” Kids in groups who are vulnerable to prejudice and violence “must be extra strong in themselves,” reflects Spencer.
Principal David McBride of Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, says that while teens are back in school, many have forgotten how to socialize in person and are very stressed. During the pandemic, they learned to live and die by their phones. This exacerbates naturally immature judgment, such as taking on destructive TikTok challenges.
The U.S. Surgeon General’s 2021 Advisory Report on Youth Mental Health suggests social media connects teens but can also give rise to the bullying and social exclusion that causes them considerable stress.
McBride suggests having conversations with your teen about stress and seeking teen counseling as necessary.
The 10-second advice for stress management in teens
If your teen vents to you about a conflict, it can be natural to want to be “on it” for them. You might consider pulling back and instead using these short, helpful prompts:
- First, praise them for sharing, suggests Lopez.
- Try asking, “Do you want to just vent, or would you like suggestions?”
- Or, try Spencer’s similar question: “Would you like my food for thought?”
According to a 2019 American Psychological Association Report, when teen stress becomes chronic, it can have significant physical and psychological effects, contributing to:
- poor sleep
- less exercise
- high blood pressure
Chronically stressed teens are at increased risk for:
- substance use
- high-consequence behavior or sexual activity
If your teen is at experiencing self-harm or thoughts of suicide, immediate help is available.
1. Don’t wait for an emergency to check in
Lopez suggests creating space in the home and family culture for debriefing about the day. Spencer encourages walking while debriefing with your teen, to take the edge off.
You might try
This simple conversation starter can be something to look forward to: “Best part, worst part.”
Each family member can share the best part of their day followed by the worst part of their day.
It’s a safe and communal space to give good news and vent equally. It also improves other family members’ practice of active listening.
It can also help detect patterns and symptoms if the “worst parts” continue to outweigh the “best parts.”
2. Address your own stress levels and behaviors
Asking your teen to avoid substances or limit social media while you’re engaging in similar behaviors (maybe you’re having a third glass of wine and scrolling through Facebook) sends mixed messages, experts say.
But seeking therapy or support groups for assistance with addressing your less helpful stress-reducing methods can model health-promoting self-care for them.
3. Give guidance, but put your teen in the driver’s seat
- If your student has problems with a teacher, you might encourage them to draft an email.
- An issue with a friend? Try suggesting they role-play back-and-forth dialogue.
- Consider helping your teen develop their own list of helpful resources.
- Consider discussing the importance of extracurricular activities and then allowing them to choose what kind of activities they might like to do.
4. Help your teen prioritize
Your teen’s homework is theirs to do, but helping them set up a study and time management style could help address stress caused by undeveloped executive functioning.
Parents can’t take away their teen’s stress, but extending attention, validation, or encouragement can help teens access their own inner strength and emotional intelligence.
If you’re interested in mental health support for you or your family, consider the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI) Family-to-Family support groups.