Teaching Teens Stress Management

April is Stress Awareness Month… in case you were not already aware of your stress.

Stressed Schoolboy with Head in HandsManaging our stress level is an important life skill and can make us a happier and healthier person, so it clearly is a skill we want to teach to our teens. Studies show that adolescents are more likely to start risky behaviors – such as drugs, alcohol, sex, or gangs – as a way to cope with stress. For example, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America says that the top 3 reasons teens use drugs are: (1) to combat loneliness, low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression, (2) to mentally check out of family issues or school trouble, and (3) to ease discomfort in an unfamiliar situation.

Everyone needs methods for coping with stress. The key is to teach our children positive problem solving skills and stress relievers so that they can manage stress in a healthy way.

Adolescent Stressors

stressed adolescentAlthough parents may think there is nothing for a teenager to worry about when compared to the large-scale problems facing an adult, children feel a great deal of stress, too. They need to learn how to manage the stress of their smaller problems before they are faced with larger problems in adulthood. Additionally, hormones complicate an adolescent’s ability to handle problems calmly. Things that make teens stressed are:

  • Hectic schedule
  • Moving to a new home and/or school
  • Loss – divorce or death
  • Increased family conflict or misunderstanding
  • Pressure to live up to idealized images of family life, body image, or other ideas the mainstream culture promotes
  • Changes in diet and routines
  • Dating
  • Tests and homework
  • Too-high expectations
  • Peer pressure
  • Too fast or too slow physical development
  • Family problems including conflict, abuse and alcohol
  • Money problems

Stress Relievers

Teach your child some positive ways to relieve stress. Encourage them to find a method that works for them and their personality. Offer your teen these suggestions:

  • Exercise. It releases tension and energizes. This can mean working out, bike riding around the neighborhood, jogging, skating, or even shooting hoops in the driveway.
  • Eat regular and nutritious meals. Eating sugary and high-fat foods will make mood swings worse. Avoid excess caffeine intake, which can increase feelings of anxiety and agitation. Overindulgence adds to your stress, and can also make you feel guilty.
  • Avoid illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco. These are not positive methods for managing stress and, although they make your problems feel better in the moment, they will inevitably create additional stress and/or increase your agitation.
  • Get enough sleep. Being tired automatically increases your tension and impacts your ability to react maturely to situations.
  • Take a break. Spend time relaxing or doing an activity you enjoy. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, can refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do or feel more relaxed. Stress-reducing activities are 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.
  • 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 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 doing 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. Be realistic and prioritize plans. All aspects of your life – schoolwork, 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 that cause stress. One example is taking a speech class if talking in front of a class makes you anxious.
  • Get organized. Develop organizational skills, such as time management and the ability to break a large task into smaller, more attainable tasks.
  • Let go of perfection. Try to enjoy things as they are, not as you think they should be. 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 is generally not possible. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all of your expectations.
  • 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.
  • Reach out. Build a network of friends who help you cope in a positive way. Talk to trusted adults or friends that will really listen to you and not judge you or overreact. Talking about stress will help you verbalize feelings, feel validated and may help you get started solving your problem.
  • 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 thoughts. While it takes a little practice to develop a more positive frame of mind, it can really change your whole experience of life and how you live it.
  • Volunteer. Helping others is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.

Problem Solving

Another tool that teens need to reduce their stress 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 your teen what they have tried before in similar situations, and what outcomes they experienced. Ask your teen to predict likely consequences, both positive and negative, for each possibility. Review the pros and cons of the different solution options, 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. For a detailed explanation of how to teach teens to solve problems, visit our previous blog: Teaching Problem Solving Skills.

Final Thoughts…

Be sure to set a good example. Demonstrate self-control and coping skills, since teens learn best through role modeling. Use humor appropriately to buffer bad feelings and keep situations in perspective. Youth who don’t have an available repertoire of coping skills can easily turn to anger, 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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