Teaching Teens (and yourself) Strategies for Coping with Stress

Date Posted

November 1, 2018


Woman tensley biting a pencil.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced stress. If you don’t have your hand raised, we hate to break it to you: no one is immune to stress. Not you, and especially not the teens in your life.

In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, teens reported levels of stress higher than levels reported by adults! If these stress levels aren’t concerning enough, consider that 30% of these teens reported being depressed or sad as a result of their stress.

What can caring adults do? We can implement strategies that encourage youth to take better care of themselves so that they are less vulnerable to the negative symptoms of stress (e.g., muscle aches, headaches, worried thoughts, etc.). You might even pick up some new skills yourself.

Set Limits

Believe it or not, young people want and need limits. Developmentally, teens tend to focus on the present with limited ability to consider long-term consequences. For example, a teen may want to stay up late to play a video game without thinking about how tired they will be at school the next day. It’s often about the short-term gain—which can lead to longer-term pain.

Work with your teen to create reasonable boundaries together. Consider setting limits around a teen’s access to social media and screens (TV, computer, and phone). Be respectful and practice active listening so you really hear what your teen is saying about their concerns and priorities, and collaborate on how to address those issues. Once you come to an agreement, continue to check in and highlight how setting limits positively impacts day-to-day life.

Spend Time with Positive People

Not all social groups are enjoyable. Teens (and adults) can feel immense pressure to look and act a certain way around their peers. It may not seem like it, but who we spend our free time with is a choice.

Help your teen think about the people in their life that make them laugh, feel at ease, and provide caring support. Make a list of these people together and encourage your teen to seek these people out.  If your teen is looking for new ways to connect with positive peers you might suggest joining a new club or volunteering with a local organization.

Try Gratitude

We know, trying to practice gratitude seems like an idealistic coping strategy, but it really works. Gratitude is the act of intentionally naming things in your life that you appreciate. Learning to pay attention to the good parts of life can improve quality of life over time.

You can practice gratitude a few different ways, but it’s usually great to start right when you wake up, right when you go to bed, or both! Think of two to three things and name them out loud or write them down. Some families have a “gratitude” jar where they write their gratitude of the day on a card and collect them all month. At the end of the month they read them together as a family.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to the present moment without judgment. When you practice mindfulness, you are aware of sensations in your body, what you’re thinking, and how you are feeling. You learn to notice your experiences and thoughts without attaching a label.

Many of us tend to focus on the past or the present, but rarely think about the current moment. Learning to do an internal scan throughout the day can help teens focus on what they can control in that moment rather than things that already happened or could happen. For some more ideas on mindfulness, read “Ways You Can Encourage and Support Teen Wellness.”

Focus on Realistic Goals and Achievements

While it’s good for teens to have future plans, sometimes planning can get overwhelming. Goals like going off to college, learning a trade, and being a top performer in a chosen sport or activity are wonderful, but take a lot of time and hard work to achieve. Help teens break down big goals into small victories that encourage motivation over time.

For example, your son has a major test in two weeks and really wants to get a good grade. Break up the goal in to smaller steps like identifying what will be on the test, creating flash cards, studying 30 minutes a day for two weeks, getting well-rested before the test, having a good breakfast in the morning, and finally taking the test! Make sure you and your son recognize each achievement and see how the small steps lead to the bigger goal.

Pay Attention to Sleep, Exercise, and Eating (SEE)

As we hinted above, neglect of daily activities like sleep, exercise, and eating contributes to stress. Teens need roughly 8 to 10 hours of sleep to perform their best. How many of our teens are really getting that much sleep? Think about what you and your teen can control and try to make changes that may improve quantity and quality of sleep.

Exercise is one of the top ways to reduce stress! While some youth embrace exercise through sports, not all are so inclined. Exercise can be intimidating for some and entirely unappealing to others. Try things like taking a brisk walk, kicking a soccer ball, following along to an exercise video, or even something like hula hooping!

Eating plays a major role in wellness. Some youth skip breakfast to get more sleep. Others may choose foods that don’t hold a lot of nutritional value. Remember that food turns into fuel for our youths’ developing brains. While we don’t recommend specific diets, try to include your teen in healthy meal planning and work together to find meals that are nutrient-rich and satiating.

Schedule Family Time

Sometimes family can be a source of stress for teens. Do you ever have planned and expected time where everyone can let loose, play, and enjoy one another’s company? Activities like playing games, watching movies, making an art project, conducting a science experiment, preparing a new recipe, or exploring nature can help everyone relax and foster connection. Family time doesn’t have to be every week, even carving out time once a month can make a world of difference.

These are but a few of the many different ways you and your teen can practice coping skills to manage stress. Remember, stress is inevitable, but what you do with your stress is a choice. Be proactive and create habits that help you identify and release distress and tension.

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