Helping teens to cope

Teenagers, like adults, might experience stress every day and can benefit from learning stress management skills.

Teenagers, like adults, might experience stress every day and can benefit from learning stress management skills.

Most teens experience more stress when they perceive a situation as dangerous, difficult, or painful and they do not have the resources to cope.

Some sources of stress for teens might include:

l School demands and frustrations;

l Negative thoughts and feelings about themselves;

l Changes in their bodies;

l Problems with friends or peers at school;

l Unsafe living environment or neighborhood;

l Separation or divorce of parents;

l Chronic illness or severe problems in the family;

l Death of a loved one;

l Moving or changing schools;

l Taking on too many activities or having too high expectations; and

l Family financial problems.

Some teens become overloaded with stress. When this happens inadequately managed stress can lead to anxiety, withdrawal, aggression, physical illness or poor coping skills such as drug and/or alcohol use.

When we perceive a situation as difficult or painful, changes occur in our minds and bodies to prepare us to respond to danger.

This "fight, flight or freeze" response includes faster heart and breathing rates, increased blood to the muscles of arms and legs, cold or clammy hands and feet, an upset stomach and/or a sense of dread.

The same mechanism that turns on the stress response can turn it off. As soon as we decide that a situation is no longer dangerous, changes can occur in our minds and bodies to help us relax and calm down. This "relaxation response" includes decreased heart and breathing rates and a sense of wellbeing.

Teens who develop a "relaxation response" and other stress management skills feel less helpless and have more choices when responding to stress.

Parents can help teens by:

l Monitoring if stress is affecting their teen's health, behaviour, thoughts or feelings;

l Listening carefully to teens and watch for "overloading";

l Learning and modelling stress management skills;

l Supporting teens' involvement in sports and other pro-social activities.

Teens can decrease stress with the following behaviours and techniques:

l Exercising and eating regularly;

l Avoiding excess caffeine intake which can increase feelings of anxiety and agitation;

l Avoiding illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco, or cigarettes;

l Learning relaxation exercises such as abdominal breathing and muscle relaxation techniques;

l Developing assertiveness training skills, like being able to state feelings in polite firm, and not overly-aggressive or passive, ways;

l Rehearsing and practising situations which cause stress. One example is taking a speech class if talking in front of a class makes you anxious;

l Learning practical coping skills. For an example, breaking a large task into smaller, more attainable tasks;

l Decreasing negative self talk, by challenging negative thoughts about yourself with alternative neutral or positive thoughts. Like - "My life will never get better" can be transformed into "I may feel hopeless now, but my life will probably get better if I work at it and get some help";

l Learning to feel good about doing a competent or "good enough" job rather than demanding perfection from yourself and others;

l Taking a break from stressful situations. Activities such as listening to music, talking to a friend, drawing, writing, or spending time with a pet;

l Building a network of friends who help you cope positively.

By using these and other techniques, teenagers can begin to manage stress.

If a teen talks about, or shows signs of being overly-stressed, a consultation with a child and adolescent psychiatrist, or a qualified mental health professional might be helpful. - AACAP