Why we need to teach our teens how to handle stress

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Stress is something we, as adults, are all too familiar with.

For teens though, because of what is happening for them developmentally, stress can be particularly problematic and they can react in a more heightened way.

Change of any kind can trigger stress because it brings up a sense of uncertainty as we begin something new, different or unknown.

So given the transformative nature of adolescence and that the world around us is also full of change and uncertainty, is it any wonder many of today's teens are drowning in stress?

Stress-related illnesses are well-documented and stress is a contributing factor in many mental health disorders particularly depression, anxiety disorders and OCD.

It's helpful to chat to teens about what stress actually is and what triggers it.

Stress is often described as a feeling of being pressured, wound-up tight, tense and worried. For some there is a sensation of being out of control or possibly unable to cope with what is happening.

Essentially our primitive brain has perceived a threat to our survival and has triggered, to some degree, our fight-flight response.

Sometimes our stress response kicks in when our thoughts trigger the perception that we are under threat when technically we are imagining it.

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Unhealthy thinking sometimes called 'stinking thinking' can trigger significant stress especially in our children and our teens.

As their support people, we have to be watchful for when teens are nearing their "tipping point" and know how to respond.

It is important to remember (and remind them) that stress is quite a normal feeling and it's not all bad – indeed at times a little stress can help us get motivated to finish a task, take on a sporting challenge, study for an exam or even get the house tidy.

My top tips for helping teens handle stress

1. Know the signs: help your teen to identify when they may be experiencing unhealthy levels of stress or anxiety (i.e. having three of these main symptoms for a prolonged time).

  • Headaches, other aches and pains
  • Upset stomach, indigestion, diarrhoea
  • Changes around eating habits – either excessive or no appetite
  • Anger, irritability, entrenched moods
  • Lethargy, low energy
  • Racing heart/palpitations and/or hyperventilation.
  • Tension in muscles and/or excessive perspiration.
  • A dry mouth.
  • Often feeling restless, apprehensive or on edge.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Difficulty concentrating or feeling scattered.
  • Difficulty getting to sleep, disturbed sleep.
  • Avoiding usual activities, especially friends.
  • Feeling frightened for no obvious reason.
  • Morbid thoughts regarding people close to them.
  • Constant worry/apprehension about the future.

2. Be honest: Share your own signs that you notice when you are struggling with stress. This can help teens realise that we too can struggle and they are not alone.

3. Measure it: Create a 0 to 10 stress scale – maybe use a visual like this below, which, can be adjusted easily:

0________________5______________10

You could put this on the side of the fridge, a mirror or even on a window. It can be helpful if all family members have their own scale. When a challenging family conflict or emotionally unpleasant experience occurs, the person responsible can mark where they are on their own personal stress scale. As teens often struggle to find words to express their emotional world, this simple scale can be insightful, helpful and deceptively simple.

4. Find the feel-good neurochemicals. When a high level of stress is present, the feel-good neurochemicals of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins are often low. Help your teen work out the top three ways to create more positive neurochemicals to help them feel better:

  • Spend time with people you love.
  • Go for a walk, go to the beach, climb a tree, swim, surf – connect with nature
  • Do something you love – shoot some hoops, dance wildly, sing loudly, cook, watch fainting goats/funny cat videos, have a bubble bath
  • Favourite snack/hot chocolate/smoothie
  • Call and chat to a friend rather than text/message

5. Model the power of the pause – pause, breathe, pause – then act! Also never take an outburst at you, the parent, personally. Respect the unique challenges of being a teen now. Be the parent you wished you had at the same age.

6. Deliberately make home a calm, safe base – play calming music, burn essential oils, leave screens off when no-one is actually watching. Chill.

7. Practise moments of lightness – even better, be deliberately stupid. Wear a fluoro wig, flashing glasses, a tiara or a cape – not to pick them up from school though. Being silly at home is one thing but embarrassing them in public will simply add to their stress!

8. Ask – 'how can I help right now?' Then really listen – especially when they say nothing at all. Also encourage them to chat to a 'lighthouse' – a significant adult ally who is not mum or dad.

9. Offer them good resources to promote calmness like the free app Smiling Mind or any other closed eye relaxations that can work at calming 'stinking thinking.'

10. Safe touch: Hug 'em even when they resist especially from behind so they can't escape!

11. Practice small acts of kindness and give peace offerings after a heated moment. A cup of Milo/juice and a home-made biscuit always meant "it's ok" in our home. Be kind.

12. Remind them often that you love them fiercely and unconditionally – no matter what happens on this bumpy ride to adulthood. Write them notes/write on their mirrors and tell them, because they can struggle so much with feeling they do not deserve or are worthy of your love. Give them hope that one day things will get better.

Stress can be distracted, even tamed, and these habits which your teens can learn in your home can support them throughout life.

Maggie Dent is one of Australia's favourite parenting authors with a special interest in early years, adolescence and resilience. Maggie was invited by Channel 7's Telethon trust in WA to put together an expert panel for a Masterclass on Raising Teens in Perth on 15th August for their 50th Anniversary. She will be joined by Dannielle Miller, Dr Justin Coulson and Clark Wight.