Helping Adolescents Learn to Manage Stress
It’s the job of parents to prepare young people for the rigors of adult life.
Part of this preparation has to do with helping them gather sufficient knowledge and discipline to support the range of responsibility true independence takes. An equally important part is teaching them to cope with the stress that comes from living with unrelenting daily demands.
What I suggest to parents is that they treat “stress education” as important as the financial education, employment education, relationship education, substance use education, and sex education that they are responsible for providing their adolescent. Young people who leave home without this education have a lot to learn from hard experience.
Consider three aspects of stress to discuss. There are: identifying the major source of stress, recognizing the warning signs of stress, and controlling three gatekeepers of stress.
IDENTIFYING THE MAJOR SOURCE OF STRESS. Talk to your teenager about those times in life when she has created or been given more to do than she can realistically or comfortably accomplish with the resources available or within the time allotted. On these occasions, two threatening questions typically arise. Can she get it all done? If she can’t get it all done, what will happen to her then? The dominant emotion of stress is anxiety because demand feels overwhelming.
Most, but not all, stress results from this experience of over demand. Why? Because meeting demands takes energy, and everyone’s supply of energy (one’s potential for doing and action) is limited. When demand exceeds readily available energy, we rely on stress to force our system to meet dire circumstance. Intensely focussed and extremely efficient, stress is a survival response. It is also very costly.
So, behind in her work after being sick, with the assistance of stress your teenager forces herself to stay up all night to finish a school project she wasn’t sure she had the time and energy to get done. And the next day she is very tired.
That’s the consequence of occasional stress. After that emergency effort, she feels blown out. When, however, she relies on stress continually and not just occasionally to meet the demands of life, significant physical and psychological costs can be incurred. This is why you want to encourage her not to make stress a habit.
RECOGNIZING THE WARNING SIGNS OF STRESS. Because the costs of stress from constant over demand have serious consequences, your teenager needs to know the major warning signs in her experience to look for. Here are four, in descending order of severity.
1) Beware of constant fatigue: “I feel tired all the time.” Fatigue is like a mind and mood-altering drug that causes a person to become increasingly discouraged and negative over time. Stress can wear your outlook down.
2) Beware of nagging discomfort: “I worry and ache all the time.” Medically check it out, but factor in that body and mind can register stress in painful ways. Stress can actually hurt.
3) Beware of burnout: “I have lost caring for what I usually care about.” When what traditionally matters ceases to matter, that is a sign of loss worth attending to. Stress can be depressing.
4) Beware of break down: “I can’t seem to get myself going anymore.” When less than normal functioning feels beyond the reach of effort to correct, attention to demands of life must be paid. Stress can become debilitating.
Unfortunately, because these levels of stress are frequently additive, by the time someone reaches breakdown, he or she is usually burdened by some degree of fatigue,discomfort, and burnout.
Tell your teenager, that because the effects of continual stress from over demand can be serious, she must constantly monitor her well being. Don’t just ignore her experience or pop a pill to medicate away the message, but attend to what the warning signs are saying. Then tell her how to moderate demand.
And of course, as parents after a hard day you need to beware that you do not contage your stress to your teenager. How can your stress be catching? Very easily: from how stress causes you be to live with. Fatigue that makes you feel negative can cause you to become critical. Discomfort that makes you oversensitive can cause you to act irritable. Burnout that makes you insensitive can cause you to act nonresponsivle. And breakdown that makes you stop functioing can cause you to act unavailable. So if you come home or end the day feeling stressed, talk it out by explaining what has been going on; don’t act it out by taking it out on family.
CONTROLLING THE GATEKEEPERS OF STRESS. It is by keeping demands from oneself, from others, and from the world within energy expenditures one can afford, that stress from over demand can be moderated. Tell your teenager that the gatekeepers for controlling major sources of demand are three: goals, standards, and limits that she decides to set for herself. Each regulates a different source of demand.
Goals have to do with how much she wants to accomplish for herself. This is the problem of ambition. If she is committed to becoming a cheerleader, working extra hours for a raise at her job, and trying out for the lead in the high school play, she is creating a very high demand life for herself, one that has a high likelihood of stress.
Standards have to do with how well she must perform all the time. This is the problem of perfection. If she is determined to maintain a 4.0 grade average, to win all competitions, and to never make a mistake, stress is more likely to come her way.
Limits have to do with how attentively she should respond to the wants of others. This is the problem of obligation. If she believes that she must satisfy all that others desire from her, must not displease or disappoint anyone, must not turn anyone down, then social relationships can become extremely stressful.
Simply put, the higher a young person’s goals, standards, and limits, the more demand she builds into her life, the more she is at risk of stress from over demand. To reduce this stress, the only way is to reset goals, standards, and limits to moderate demand.
Goals, standards, and limits are not genetically ordained, they are chosen. When she was a child her parents set them for her, but over the course of adolescence they increasingly turn those decisions over to her.
After all, responsibility for self-regulation that they want to maximize by the end of high school requires that she be in charge of setting personal goals, standards, and limits for herself. To let others continue to do so is to invite overdemand. This is the dilemma of jobs: one is paid to work on other people’s terms, so self-regulation of goals, standards, and limits, at least at work, is less up to you.
Young people who can’t say “no” to them selves because they can’t resist the temptation of getting more for themselves, and who can’t say “no’ to others for fear of disapproval or disappointment from doing less than is wanted or expected, are set ups for a high stress life. They can truly say, as the cartoonist once so aptly put it, “we have met the enemy, and they are us.”
Finally, the other side of controlling stress through moderating demand is investing in personal health to maintain maximum energy. One of the besetting problems of high stress people is being too busy meeting demands to attend personal wellbeing.
Therefore, by example and instruction, teach your teenager to practice healthy self-maintenance and adequate self-care. Getting adequate nutrition, sufficient rest,regular exercise, and enough relaxation are good places to start.