Taming the teen stress monster

Trapped by emotions: stress can push teens to tipping point.
Trapped by emotions: stress can push teens to tipping point. Photo: Getty

For many teens stress levels continue to rise and they are ill-equiped to handle it.

We know from Mission Australia's 2014 Annual Youth Survey that the three main issues of concern for our teens are: coping with stress, school or study problems and body image.

With suicide still the number one cause of death for our adolescents, it's clear all teens need lots of support and encouragement to navigate the bumpy road from childhood to adulthood.

While we all wrangle with stress daily, for our adolescents who are operating in the world with an immature brain structure, stress is hugely risky.

I often liken the experience of being an adolescent as seeing the world through a cracked windscreen – things seem skewed and distorted. Often this means that well-meaning parental guidance is seen as criticism.

Add to that pressure from media and social networks the expectation to be more, have more, look perfect, dream big and be famous; is it any wonder our confused adolescents run the very real risk of crashing?

Among the brain changes that occur during adolescence, the one that most significantly impacts on behaviour is that they have not yet developed their pre-frontal lobe.

One consequence of this is that they rely heavily on their amygdala, a more emotional part of the brain that makes basic fight, flight or freeze responses more likely than a reasoned response to stress.

The danger of this is that adolescents have a very sensitive emotional barometer and once they reach tipping point, the slightest comment or incident can feel catastrophic.

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For example, when I used to work as a youth and family counsellor I met with a woman whose son had committed suicide. She was devastated by their last encounter. She'd been cooking dinner and he'd walked into the kitchen and gone to grab a handful of biscuits from the biscuit tin.

Mum had cautioned him with an off-handed remark (one we've probably all said to our kids a thousand times) not to eat too many biscuits or he'd spoil his dinner.

This young man then walked down to the shed and took his life.

What this poor mother didn't know was that her son had reached his tipping point and instead of hearing her comment for what it was – words of concern for his dietary choice – he heard something else. Perhaps it was rejection or a sense of failure. To a struggling teen the final straw can be tiny.

This young man's mind was probably raging in a storm of confusion, negative self-talk (or ANTs – automatic negative thoughts) and emotional despair.

From the outside, we cannot always see the signs that someone is reaching their tipping point (i.e. racing heart, dry mouth, suicidal thoughts, feeling frightened, struggling to sleep to name a handful).

However what we can all do is make sure that the adolescents in our lives understand that because of their developing brains, they are more likely to feel overly emotional, be forgetful, struggle with ANTs, feel self-conscious and make unsafe choices.

We can give them strategies to counteract this, to manage their stress, to be as healthy as they can.

What can parents do?

1. Teach your adolescents what's going on up there – Talk about the brain changes they're experiencing. Daniel Siegel's book, Brainstorm, is a fantastic resource.

2. Encourage and model good sleeping, eating and exercise habits – adolescents need as much sleep as toddlers and lack of sleep affects everything from their mood to their learning.

3. Show them how to survive ANT attacks – Encourage teens to see problems as a temporary setback saying things like: "oh that's a bugger moment", "this too shall pass", or "I guess I just wasn't wearing my lucky undies today"

4. Make positive brain chemicals – Doing things you enjoy, which are respectful of yourself and others, creates positive brain chemicals. That might be: sport; artistic and creative expression; deep relaxation using calming audios, quiet time at beach, etc.; safe, honest human connection through family, friendship; time in nature; acts of service; discovering new purpose and meaning – starting something new, gratitude journal; ritual and ceremony; celebration; laughter and lightness

5. Use caring, empowering communication not shame – Avoid using shame-based language; if there is a problem focus on the issue being your teen's choice, not THEM. Use words of suggestion rather than direction, don't argue with your adolescent (discuss later when emotions are not so high), don't say 'don't', instead say 'next time'.

6. Make your home a safe base – that welcomes them and their friends – no matter what. Small gestures of kindness and support can make a huge difference.

Above all, we can focus on the upside of the teenage brain: adolescence is a hugely creative time and the best time to tap into a person's potential.

If we can better help our teens to understand their capacity for this potential, honour their gifts and talents, and nurture their passions and interests, we can help them find their spark and keep it lit.

Maggie Dent is a parenting and resilience specialist, an author, educator, speaker, and mother of four sons. She has just released a video seminar based on her book Saving Our Adolescents, as well as an online course for people who live or work with adolescents. http://www.maggiedent.com