How to Help Your Teen Manage Soul Crushing Stress:
It’s Not What You May Think
It’s no secret that teens today are very stressed. School, social and extracurricular demands can feel too intense, too demanding and just too much. As a school psychologist working in a local high school, I see that much of the stress is placed on teens by well-meaning parents, teachers and guidance counselors who are attempting to prepare them for “the real world” of work and college. However, with due respect to those caring adults, I think we are missing the mark and doing our kids a grave disservice by placing so much on their young shoulders and hoping they will turn out ok, happy, healthy and successful.
No one feels successful when they are faced with an overwhelming pile of tasks to do, deadlines to meet and meetings to attend. Imagine your workday with 7 meetings to attend, all with homework assigned and deadlines to meet. Now imagine that every day, 5 days a week. That is your child’s life in high school. Then add after work activities where coaches, tutors, therapists and other adults all have equally high expectations of some level of performance.
Does that feel stressful? It does to me.
I’ve attended many stress management workshops focused on helping teens cope. They recommend mindfulness, “relaxation toolboxes,” and other ways to support teens carrying such a heavy load of demands. Demands are demands and no amount of chanting “om,” or imagining a field of daisies is going to relieve daily stress with no relief.
I have a few other suggestions to help our teens be happier, healthier and much less stressed (and they probably aren’t what you may think would be useful).
- Take demands off of your teen’s plate. It is time to STOP expecting our teenagers to be superhuman and manage a life full to the brim with tasks, deadlines, homework, grades and to perform at a high level. Enough is enough. When the teen culture is fascinated by a Netflix series on suicide (“13 Reasons Why”), we have a big, big problem. While it would be nice for schools to back off, colleges to expect less, coaches to loosen up, the reality is that parents drive the bus when it comes to how your child spends their time and energy. If your kid seems to be chronically overwhelmed and stressed, you need to step in and take some stuff off their agenda ASAP. No amount of mindfulness is going to correct an endlessly stressful life.
- De-emphasize grades, performance and preparing for “the real world.” Here’s something we adults forget–our children are living in the real world NOW. They are whole, complex humans with diverse interests, talents, strengths and weaknesses. In 10 years no one will ever care what grade they got in US History, but they will be living with the outcome of 4 years of constant stress and demands that they get a good grade in all classes. Don’t leave your child with that mental health burden. Instead, let your child explore their diverse interests, invest time in helping them find a passion and pursue it.
- Know that emotional health is more predictive of lifelong success than grades, SAT scores or what college your kid attends. All the research tells us that emotional intelligence is a more robust predictor of success in all life areas–work, relationships, health–than grades or academic achievement. This makes sense because if someone is anxious and depressed they really can’t live a healthy, joyful life regardless of how many degrees they have or what their GPA was in high school or college.
- Resist adult peer pressure to commiserate and compare. Let’s admit it, we adults compare our kids’ life trajectories. No one brags at the cocktail party that their child is graduating high school to become a YouTube star. We, adults, are looking for benchmarks of our kids’ “success” including grades, schools attended, jobs achieved, etc. Alternatively, we can often get caught up in lamenting all our kid’s struggles to other parents. Neither approach helps our children. I recommend we adults not discuss our kid’s plans with other parents at all. Respect their privacy and autonomy and let their life be theirs, not something we discuss over coffee.
- Embrace the fact that your child’s job probably hasn’t been invented yet. Ten years ago, would you ask a teacher to prepare your child for a job at Facebook? How about grooming them to produce a show on Netflix, or create an Airbnb empire with real estate?There was no way we would know these kinds of jobs and careers existed, so it would be impossible for us to prepare them for these realities. Instead, try to focus on supporting your child to develop curiosity, a love of learning and a creative mindset to be ready for the new world of work they will enter as a young adult.
- Relax. What your child needs is to feel competent, confident and supported. With those in place, the sky is the limit! A stressed out teen with straight A’s has less of a chance to achieve a happy, healthy adulthood than a confident, relaxed teen who feels good about themselves. As a parent, you model what healthy looks and feels like. If you are relaxed and believe in your child, then they will be relaxed and believe in themselves.
The reality is, helping students manage stress is about creating a more realistic lifestyle now and not asking them to white knuckle through stress until they reach adulthood. Happy, healthy teens and young adults have time to work, play and socialize. Give your teen the flexibility to have a full, fulfilled life and you will see them thrive now and in the future.