How to Help Your Teen Deal With Stress

It’s OK for kids to be uncomfortable on the path to finding calm.

“Are your kids totally happy and squared away?” a reporter recently asked me earnestly during an interview. Gah. I really hate that question.

My kids are awesome. Easy to raise. Fun to be around. But they aren’t perfect, and, ironically, I worry that they will be as anxious as I was for the first 40 years of my life.

I come from a long line of anxious women, on both sides of my family. My grandmother, whom I’m supposedly the spitting image of, was reportedly prone to “nervous breakdowns,” which seems like a genetic heritage worth worrying about. And now, two of my kids would probably tell you that they’re pretty anxious (especially the one who looks just like me).

Fortunately, even at their most anxious, my children seem positively laid back compared to how I was as a teenager. And, over the last decade, I’ve really come a long way toward dialing down the stress in my own life.

But, generally speaking, Americans’ stress levels only seem to be increasing. The American Psychological Association recently released its 2017 Stress in America survey, and for the first time in the decade since the annual survey began, the average stress level of Americans has risen significantly. More Americans say they’re experiencing physical and emotional symptoms related to stress than ever before.

What’s more, another annual survey – this one from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors – suggests that our kids are not growing up to be more chill than we were. Colleges and universities continue to add mental health services staff to meet the needs of students, and on campuses nationwide increasing focus is being placed on helping students manage stress. It’s no surprise that anxiety continues to be the most predominant concern among college students, with 51 percent of the students who seek counseling doing so for anxiety.

This calls for action, folks. So here are three things we can do to raise kids who aren’t so anxious:

1. Stop doing things that stress you out. This goes even for those stressful tasks you take on because you think you’re doing what’s best for your kids. Psychology researchers Robert Epstein and Shannon Fox compared the effectiveness of 10 important parenting practices, including how well parents support their children’s education and to what extent they provide educational opportunities for them. Not surprisingly, they found the most important thing for a kid’s health and happiness is to be loving and affectionate – to support and accept the child, be physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.

But the next most important “parenting competency” – as reported by Epstein in the magazine Scientific American Mind – in terms of its influence on kids’ health, happiness, school success, and the quality of the parent’s relationship with their children, did surprise me. It’s how well parents manage their own stress. Parents who take steps to reduce stress for themselves, practice relaxation techniques and promote a positive interpretation of events have happier, healthier and more successful kids.

If you’ve ever needed permission to take care of yourself first, this is it. Skip the stressful parenting stuff you’re doing just because you think you should. Really. For example, I skip morning PTA meetings because they make me feel too pressed for time. I’ve backed down on my rigid health food rules at dinner so that I can enjoy a little conflict-free time with my kids. And I let myself go to bed before my older teens usually do, even though part of me feels like I should stay up and make sure that they are in bed on time. Why? Because these things are not as key for my children’s health, happiness or school success as for my own ability to cope.

2. Curb the family’s technology use. The latest Stress in America report makes the relationship between technology and stress clear. A stunning 86 percent of Americans constantly or often check their emails, texts and social media accounts, and these “constant checkers” are far more stressed than those who do not engage with technology as frequently. Millennials and younger Americans report the highest stress levels related to technology.

Reduce kids’ stress by creating structural solutions that curb constant device checking for your entire family. After all, technology is designed to be addictive. Here are a few suggestions of places where you should put technology aside:

  • In the car: Put phones in the trunk. Seriously.
  • At mealtimes: No devices allowed in the dining room, ever. Even silenced ones.
  • Bathrooms: Nothing good comes from derailed morning and bedtime routines or emails sent from the toilet.
  • Homework time: Have kids work from a family computer that doesn’t have social media or email apps loaded on it.

Don’t make exceptions once you create these parameters, either. Otherwise, you may find yourself becoming a (possibly ineffective) technology nag, which is no fun.

3. Let kids be uncomfortable. Odds are, if you take your kids’ phones away in certain times and places – especially the car – they will be bored. They will want you to think that this boredom is a form of pain.

As parents, we naturally want to protect our kids from pain. This means that we step in and try to shield them from it, even in its minor forms, such as discomfort, disappointment and boredom.

But there is an enormous difference between discomfort – which is fine – and a full-blown stress response, which can actually damage our health.

The truth is that life can be difficult. Sometimes it’s just uncomfortable. At other times, we experience outright pain. Our kids need to know how to deal with both. More than that, it’s critical that they learn not to let discomfort become stress.

When parents shield kids from discomfort, it can lead to a downward spiral where smaller and smaller stressors cause a greater and greater stress response. This hypersensitivity to stress does not make kids stronger; it makes them fragile and reactive basket cases. It also makes them more likely to avoid the challenges that will help them grow intellectually and emotionally.

The way to prevent this downward spiral is to allow kids to be uncomfortable, rather than letting them numb discomfort with distractions, such as video games or social media. This means we let them deal with their boredom when faced with a long wait and nothing to do. We let them feel the deep disappointment that comes with not getting a part in the play or not making a team, instead of taking them out for ice cream “to cheer them up.” We acknowledge that their mistake was pretty embarrassing, instead of blaming someone else or denying that there is anything wrong.

As in all things parenting, we’ll best help our kids by helping ourselves, first. Feeling a little stressed? Please take this as permission to turn off your phone and leave your family to make their own dinner tonight, while you go to yoga and exhale.

Originally posted on US News & World Report, May 2017

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