Eleventh grade felt like the 7th circle of Hell, a place so sinister and drained of joy that I despaired of my kids or I ever emerging from it.
My family was on a hamster wheel as college admissions bore down upon my sons. Between the school work that often threatened to overwhelm them, the activities that left little family time and the barrage of exams, the pressure seemed unending. I worried about my boys. They are young, and while I had learned coping mechanisms for stress, they were still finding their way.
Soon I came to see that my job was two-fold. As one of the two people who loved them most in this world, I wanted to help ease them through this period with little things I could do to help. But far more importantly, I needed to show them what I had learned about coping with stress in the years since I walked in their shoes. Research shows teens feel even more stress than their parents so teaching them to cope is a major part of parenting adolescents.
10 Ways Parents Can Help Their Teens Manage Stress
1. Help teens find a stress-free zone.
Everyone has a place that lets them decompress, a place where the pressure seems to fade, if not disappear. Teens are still kids and sometimes they may not see their place so clearly. For one of my kids it was working with his hands creating things, for another it was listening to music and for a third, I am sorry to say, it was computer games. Our job as parents is to recognize where that place is for them, if they cannot see it, and from time to time, when the going gets rough, encourage them to make a visit.
2. Let teens know that it is all about the effort.
Sports experts teach us that we can master and control process but not outcome. The focus, any coach will tell you, should be on practice and the mastery of skills. With every set of midterms and finals, one of my kids and I have the same conversation. He asks if I think he has studied as hard as he could/should. I then acknowledge his effort. Then we agree that the rest is out of our hands and therefore not up for discussion.
If he puts in the effort and tries hard on his exams, I agree to shut up. This is, of course, much more difficult for me than it sounds but I have been trained by a kid who understands far better than I that teens need our praise, not for what they have accomplished, but for what they have attempted.
3. Take away stresses that teens don’t need.
Helicopter parenting has crashed and all around us we hear the rallying cry for not doing things for our kids that they can do themselves. I am on board with this most of the time. But sometimes the best way to help someone with stress is to take a little something off their plate. I would do this by making them a coffee to take in the car in the morning or filling my gas tank which they had left empty.
I would pack gym bags when I could see they had forgotten to do it the night before. Sure, they are teens and could and should do this by themselves. And certainly, this could be construed as disabling them, but here is the thing: they will be gone soon and those little ways we show love and support every day will be gone too.
4. Teach teens to talk to teachers, if they don’t do this already.
So much school stress comes from worrying what a teacher thinks, wants, or expects. So much anxiety is produced by conjecture. Learning to speak up and ask questions of a teacher, whether it is clarification on an assignment, an explanation of a grade or a request for more time is helpful in reducing stress.
Many students may be more comfortable with electronic communication, which works well if it leads to clarity. You can never remind your teen too many times that teachers like to talk to students. And this is a lesson that will benefit your student if they go off to college and need to communicate with professors and teaching assistants.
5. Make a sleep plan with them.
Teens need a lot more sleep than they get, and part of the problem is their inability to plan their time and recognize that, at the end of the evening, they simply have not left enough hours. Ever try to discuss sleeping at 11:00PM with a teen who has not finished his homework? Not pretty. Teens need to be reminded that sleep is not what we do with whatever time we have left over, but that like every other activity, has to be allotted with sufficient time in their day. Like exercise it has a major impact on their mental and physical health as well as their safety. Sleep cannot fall to the bottom of their to do list.
6. Treats worked when teens were little, they still work now.
Treats work for teens not as a bribe, and not as a reward for some accomplishment but rather as a way of acknowledging that you see the effort they are putting into whatever challenges are in front of them and you are proud. Whether it is having a special coffee drink or smoothie when you pick them up at school or baking their favorite cookies, the message is that, as parents, we appreciate and acknowledge their endeavor, we applaud their efforts and simply want to see them smile.
7. Don’t talk about the past and what life was like for us as teens.
Parents like to reminisce about their teen years and recollect that the demands made on teens in another era were lighter or different. Sometimes they stray into inveighing against some of the demands that teens now experience and opining that it isn’t right or fair that such pressure is placed on them. It is not the 1980s or 90s and telling teens they should not have to do what they clearly have to do is far from helpful. Rather than pining for a world that our kids will never know, we should be helping our kids learn to manage in the one they live in.
8. Exercise works as a de-stressor for us and it does for them, too.
Unless your teen is on a team, physical activity may be one of the first things to go as time constraints make it tough to get to the gym. It needs to be one of the last. Everything we know about the health benefits of exercise means that it needs to be in all of our lives, but the profound benefits as stress relief is something our teens need to remember.
9. Provide a judgement-free zone.
So much of teen pressure arises around fitting in socially and the myriad of pressures to conform. Teens have always felt this pressure just walking through the halls of their schools. The difference now is that there is little escape as social media brings these pressures right into their bedrooms. But home can be a true respite from the real or perceived judgments that teens feel in their daily lives with support from parents and siblings. Although I am the first to acknowledge that it is impossible and probably not helpful, as parents, to keep all of our opinions to ourselves, our words should be weighed carefully given the onslaught that many teens experience elsewhere in their lives.
10. Remind them that there are 168 hours in a week. It is enough to get everything done, with planning.
Research has shown that teens have an impaired ability to plan with the late development of their frontal lobes. While it is tempting to act as that frontal lobe for them, a better suggestion might be to model planning for them. Open up a calendar app and show them how 24 hours really is enough to do everything they have committed to, or if not, what plans need to be abandoned. Sometimes putting their time demands on a piece of paper or electronic calendar allows them to literally see how they will deal with their responsibilities and have time for the things they enjoy.