Stressed-Out Teens: Ways to Help Them ChillSep 30, 2020 09:30AM ● By Ronica O’Hara
Being a teenager is never easy, but it’s even harder these days, with the upheaval of the pandemic intensifying the normal academic, social and hormonal turmoil of these pivotal years. It’s no wonder teens are reporting record levels of stress, anxiety and depression: In a Pew Research survey, 70 percent of teens said mental health was a major problem among their peers—and that was in February, before the pandemic hit. A recent online poll found that most teens are worried that the pandemic will affect their family’s physical or financial health and that many feel lonelier than usual and worry about losing ground in academics and activities.
Extending a helping hand to teens is not always well received. They can be notoriously resistant to advice, even when they’re stressed, partly because of their brain chemistry, explains Gail Saltz, M.D., clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell School of Medicine and host of the Personology podcast. A teen’s highly active amygdala makes risk-taking a thrill even as the frontal lobe that weighs consequences is not fully developed, while at the same time, a teen seeks independence—an identity and freedom to be more like an adult. “This combination means their capacity and interest in taking parental direction is not there,” she says. “As a result, parents in reaction often get louder and more insistent in telling them what to do, which fails and drives them further away.”
The best way to communicate with a stressed teen, say many child psychologists, is to listen deeply while letting them do most of the talking, and offering sympathetic support while withholding judgment. Instead of giving advice, “Validate your teen’s experience and attempt to step into their shoes. Let your teen know that you hear them, that you support them in their decisions and ask your teen what you can do to help them,” advises clinical psychologist Alyssa Austern, PsyD, of Chatham, New Jersey. Other steps can help a teen weather this time of high stress:
1. Back up the basics. Make sure there’s healthy food and snacks in the fridge. Encourage teens to exercise daily, especially outdoors, and support them in getting eight to 10 hours of sleep.
2. Make self-compassion a family habit. The self-compassion approach to self-care, which is rapidly gaining ground among psychologists, has three elements: treating ourselves as kindly as we would a dear friend, realizing that many other people have the same problems so we’re not alone, and mindfully and nonjudgmentally observing our emotional state.
This method has proven to be helpful not just for adults, but for teens, as well. A University of Edinburgh meta-analysis that synthesized 17 studies of more than 7,000 teens in six countries concluded that those with high levels of self-compassion had lower levels of stress caused by anxiety and depression. University of North Carolina researchers found that teens exhibited lower stress, anxiety and depression, as well as more resilience and gratitude, after six self-compassion sessions.
A good place for parents to start is with themselves: If they are anxious, overprotective or fearful, a teen is likely to follow suit, reports a study in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. Helpful books, websites and programs for both teens and adults can be found at Self-Compassion.org, operated by Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who was a pioneer in the concept.
3. Engage them with creative activities. As teens can seek independence, making sure they spend quality time with the family is also important for their well-being, research shows. “Find ways to connect, converse and unwind together as a family,” advises Crissy Fishbane, of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, co-founder of HER Health Collective, an online community for mothers. “Teens need to see their parents engaging in self-care behaviors themselves, and it’s even better if you can engage in self-care as a family.” She suggests taking a virtual or outdoor yoga class together, playing a board game, having sudoku competitions, learning deep-breathing techniques or starting a family book club.
4. Encourage reaching out to help others. A study in the Journal of Adolescence suggests that altruistic behaviors, including large and small acts of kindness, may increase teens’ feelings of self-worth, especially if it involves helping strangers. In Poland, the more teens helped out others in a flood, the more supportive and proactive they became, another study found. Depending on their interests, teens may be drawn to local environmental, social justice, religious or political activities. DoSomething.org offers useful ideas and links, and environmental projects for teens can be found at Earth Force, Sierra Club and Global Climate Strike.
Ronica O’Hara is a Denver-based health writer. Connect at [email protected].