Developing Coping Skills in Teens

Adolescence is a stressful time in life. It’s the perfect time for parents to teach their children positive coping mechanisms and problem solving skills, both of which are necessary for them to become responsible and productive adults. Part of growing up is learning how to take care of oneself. Teens who are not taught methods for coping with stress end up finding destructive ways to manage their lives, such as drinking and drug use, eating disorders, self-injury, teen violence, sex and other risky behaviors.

Talking it Out

Talking gives kids practice in verbalizing feelings, helps them feel validated, and can serve as a springboard to problem solving. Help teens identify several people with whom they feel comfortable discussing their problems. For kids who aren’t yet comfortable airing issues out loud, journaling can provide another outlet for confusing feelings. For parents of teens who won’t talk or journal, make sure that your child knows that you are available to talk anytime without judgment. Also, pay attention to their behaviors and moods so that you can identify when they are stressed.

Problem Solving

Another tool that teens need to be successful is the ability to find solutions for his or her own problems. Problem solving can be as simple as sitting down together and brainstorming a list of possible solutions to the given situation. Ask kids what they have tried before in similar situations, and what outcomes they experienced. Ask them to predict likely consequences, both positive and negative, for each possibility. Make a list of options together, and then let teens choose the one they’d like to try. Check back frequently to process how the solution is or isn’t working, and help modify as necessary. The goal here is for kids to learn to feel confident about solving their own problems.

Stress Relievers

Adults must help kids find ways to relax that fit their personality and interests. Below is a list of activities that you can encourage the teens in your life to try to see which work best for them:

  • Exercise. It releases tension and energizes. This can mean working out, bike riding around the neighborhood, jogging, or even shooting hoops in the driveway.
  • Eat regular and nutritious meals.
  • Avoid excess caffeine intake which can increase feelings of anxiety and agitation.
  • Avoid illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Take a time-out. Everyone needs a break from stressful situations. Activities like listening to music, dancing, drawing, writing in a journal, playing a musical instrument, taking a long bath, reading a good book, taking a walk, or spending time with a pet can reduce stress.
  • Learn relaxation exercises (abdominal breathing, muscle relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, etc.). Breathing exercises are a great way to relieve stress anytime and anywhere. They’re simple to learn, simple to use, and can be done on the spot when you feel tension, immediately helping you to feel better. One very effective exercise is to ‘inhale peace’ and ‘exhale your stress’.
  • Learn to say no. Being overcommitted is a major source of stress, even if the activity you’re considering is fun (such as spending time with friends). Although fun activities can be a way to relax, they can also become a source of stress when time management is not used. All aspects of your life – school work, family life, social life, structured activities (such as sports) – must be in balance to minimize stress. It’s sometimes hard to say no – especially if you’re concerned about disappointing or offending people – but learning to diplomatically refuse requests is essential to taming stress.
  • Role play. Rehearse and practice situations which cause stress. One example is taking a speech class if talking in front of a class makes you anxious.
  • Develop organizational skills, such as time management and the ability to break a large task into smaller, more attainable tasks.
  • Learn to feel good about doing a competent or “good enough” job rather than demanding perfection from yourself and others. It’s important to push yourself to do your best, but perfection isn’t possible.
  • Listen to music during your regular activities. Music has proven health and stress relief benefits, and can be easily played during daily life to relieve stress.
  • Build a network of friends who help you cope in a positive way.
  • Develop a positive attitude. Optimists and positive thinkers experience better health, less stress, and more ‘luck’ in life. Decrease negative self talk by challenging negative thoughts about yourself with more positive, or at lease neutral, thoughts. While it takes a little practice to develop a more positive frame of mind, the practice takes little extra time and can really change your whole experience of life and how you live it.

Additional Ideas for Parents to Help Teens Cope With Stress

  • Compliment children when they do well.
  • Don’t burden them with your problems. But, do tell children about the family’s goals.
  • Give your children ample time and attention to talk. Often, that is exactly what kids are craving, though they usually won’t come out and ask for it. Listen to them without interruption. Give them respect. Don’t belittle them or make light of the situation that is stressing them out. To you their problem may be trivial, but to a child the problem may feel huge. Use the problem solving skills described above to help them realize the true consequences of the situation and work through the issue.
  • Use humor appropriately to buffer bad feelings and situations. A child who learns to use humor will be better able to keep things in perspective.
  • Don’t overload your child with too many after-school activities and responsibilities. Let children learn to pace themselves. Don’t enroll them in every class that comes along, and don’t expect them to be first in everything.
  • Set a good example. Demonstrate self-control and coping skills. Your child can benefit by seeing how you cope successfully with stress.

Kids who don’t have an available repertoire of coping skills can easily turn to rage, violence, or self harm when upset and vulnerable. On the other hand, when we work to help kids develop a full toolkit of positive coping skills, we give them alternatives that can help them turn problem situations into positive outcomes.


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