Dig into teen stress: coping strategies start at home

So, what’s special about adolescent coping? As discussed in the first installation of this series, teens are particularly susceptible to stress and are faced with a variety of unique stress sources. As parents, you can help them develop healthy, effective coping strategies that will protect them from toxic stress accumulation.


In general, it’s pretty common to see your teen trying to change the stressful situation, but this tends to decrease as they focus more on strategies related to managing their emotions.

Here are teens’ top three coping strategies:


1. Support seeking

Support seeking is significantly associated with approach coping. During the teenage years, your teen is more likely to seek out information or emotional support from their friends rather than you, which is indicative of healthy development. However, as they get older, be reassured that they will reach out to adults more, especially for big life decisions. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that teens are more receptive of support when it aligns with their needs for growing independence.


2. Problem solving

Another kind of approach coping, problem solving for the source of the stressful situation relieves stress. Teens begin to rely more on themselves in their everyday planning, decision making, and reflecting, especially in late adolescence. While it’s intuitive to think that all development is linear, it actually isn’t. During puberty, young teens engage in less problem solving than in late childhood. This may be because young teens are more responsive to stress than children, which means that teens’ capacity to problem solve becomes more limited.


3. Distraction

Everybody engages in some level of distraction, a type of avoidance coping, when facing and managing stress. As you would expect, distraction involves thinking about something other than the stressful situation itself.


While there are unique attributes to adolescent coping, stress management is a skill that everyone can and should work on, including parents. Try to be more aware of how you and your teen are coping with to-be-expected stress.


Here are some specific ways to foster a more supportive home environment.

Tip #1: Adopt the growth mindset

One can view stress management through the lens of the growth mindset, whereby our abilities to deal with stress change over time. Keep this in mind as you talk about your own stress. Refrain from “I can’t deal with this” and “This is impossible,” and instead, adopt “Next time, I will plan my day ahead of time” and “I acknowledge that this is difficult, but I will get through it.” Also, practice healthy stress management habits, like taking self-care days. Parents shape their teens by modeling healthy behaviors.


Moreover, the growth mindset is also vitally important in how you respond to your teen spilling about their own stress. Instead of blaming them because of their laziness or bad time management skills, which might lead them to form the negative identity of being bad at stress, turn adjectives into verbs. The attribute of “being bad at stress” is more permanent and discourages improvement, whereas helping your teen turn the phrase into a verb (“I didn’t manage stress so well this time around”) frames the situation as a temporary opportunity to grow and become better at stress in the future.


Tip #2: Tackle stress head-on

Warm, connected, structured, supportive family environments contribute to the adoption of more active coping strategies. Not only can you provide social support for your teen by being a comforting presence and actively listening to them, you can also gently remind them that tackling stress head-on is a difficult but ultimately rewarding task. Sometimes, it’s immensely helpful to simply change how we are thinking about stress. Help them identify their stress-promoting thoughts (which sometimes can be irrational!), and learn how to challenge and restructure those thoughts into something more helpful.


For example, if your teen is venting about how they think that their friend no longer likes them because of one bad conversation, encourage them to step out of the rabbit hole they’re spiraling down towards. Ask them to talk about how this situation makes them feel, and gently push them to talk to the friend to deal with the situation directly.


Tip #3: Embrace stress

Many agree that stress needs to be coped with. The connotation of this sentence implicitly suggests that stress is something bad that needs to be mitigated. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal asks us to look at it under a different, more positive light. She asserts that more people should embrace stress. Stress is social, since it releases oxytocin in the brain, which motivates one to seek out support from others. So, it already encourages us to adopt the positive coping strategy of social support. Moreover, one’s racing heart in response to an anxiety-inducing situation can be interpreted as a helpful “surge of energy that is encouraging” one to engage with and solve the problem at hand.


So, when your teen is stressed about performing in a play, for example, help them reframe the situation. Their heart racing backstage is giving them the energy they need to remember their lines and perform at their best. Instead of thinking about what could go wrong, think about what could go right.


And, how one thinks about stress changes how one responds to stress. One is more likely to utilize certain coping strategies (like social support, problem-focused coping) if one embraces stress. Therefore, McGonigal asserts that “stress [can be] helpful and should be accepted, utilized, and embraced.” This is a mindset that you can help your teen adopt, as everyone can be better friends with stress.


Let us know how these strategies fare when tackling teen stress. Cherish also has free COVID-19 resources (SMS coaching, community groups for parents of teens). And if you’re interested in a personal parenting coach, please sign up here! Stay tuned for more content!

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