Guest Post by School Counselor Julie Laing
“I’m stressed out!” Sound familiar? It’s a phrase we may hear so often from our teenage children that we become desensitized to it. Additionally, it can begin to sound like a whine or complaint rather than what it might be – a cry for help.
The truth is, we are ALL stressed out, and sometimes our own stress causes us to not have the patience, compassion or quite frankly the time to truly hear what our kids are saying. Students sometimes tell me that their parents “don’t care” or “don’t understand,” or that they are too afraid to ask for help. Maybe so, but I believe it’s more a matter of poor communication and misunderstanding. With final exams and the heightened emotions of graduation on the horizon, now feels like a good time to take a deep breath, acknowledge that teen stress is a real issue, and see what we can do to support the ones we love.
Here’s a statement that will probably shock no one: Sometimes teenagers complain that they feel stressed in order to avoid something or to manipulate a situation. I think these tactics become a bit like the “boy who cried wolf.” As a parent you get so used to hearing this complaint that when their stress turns into something more, something like anxiety, it is easy to overlook it and not take it seriously. The truth is that stress is not always negative – feeling a bit of pressure can be a great motivator to try harder or dig deeper. So how, as parents, can we tell when that healthy dose of stress becomes overwhelming and possibly damaging? Sometimes all it takes is little extra attention and observation. Here are some things to consider.
Is It Benign or Harmful?
One of the most important factors is if your child has been experiencing stress for an apparent and prolonged period of time. When I say “apparent” I mean more than just your child complaining. If you notice significant negative changes in their demeanor that last for two weeks or more, it is probably a good idea to speak with your child and consider taking them to see a health professional.
Symptoms that the stress/anxiety is beginning to reach dangerous levels may include, but are not limited to: your child may seem physically unable to relax; your child might complain of physical ailments such as headaches, heart palpitations or nausea; they may become extremely sensitive to criticism; they may become extremely self-conscious or uncomfortable in social situations; they may become avoidant of things that used to be comfortable for them or of new situations; they may begin to socially isolate themselves; they may experience sleeping issues, such as trouble falling asleep or staying asleep; your child may become overly forgetful or distracted; he/she may have obsessive thoughts or images that they say they cannot get out of their head. It’s very important to note that not all of these signs have to be present. If your child shows any of these signs enough to concern you or others who are close to them, then seek help. Call their pediatrician, their school counselor (me), or their therapist, if they already have one. Reach out for assistance from someone. Just as you wouldn’t be expected to single-handedly manage a medical emergency, you are not expected to handle mental health issues alone, either.
What You Can Do to Support Your Child at Home
- First, acknowledge your child’s feelings. Don’t dismiss or ignore them. Simply letting your child vent and acknowledging that you’re there to support and care for them can go a long way.
- Gently encourage your child to do whatever it is that’s stressing them out. Resist the impulse to do it for them or let them avoid it. For example, if they’ve been avoiding studying because they are overly anxious about an exam, you can help by providing a quiet place and time for them to study while you are nearby to monitor and reassure them, if necessary. It will probably backfire on you if you try to study with them. Plus, it is really beneficial for them to be able to complete the task that they have been avoiding on their own. Structuring the activity and gently guiding them towards it could be immeasurably helpful, as long as you don’t lurk and even worse, “nag” – that’s a surefire way to have your child react negatively, and more than likely, you might get blamed for their stress, even if it’s not true.
- Praise your child when they do something they’re anxious about. Even if you think the task or event should be easy or worry-free, if it was difficult for them, praise will help boost their confidence. That pride may give them the incentive to continue pushing themselves outside of their comfort zone and set them up for more successes and less anxiety in the future.
- This may be very difficult for some parents, but it’s important that you wait until your child actually gets a little anxious before you step in. As I said earlier, moderate stress can be a healthy thing. If parents step in or rescue their children every time they’re stressed, they’ll never have the opportunity to learn to be resilient. I jokingly refer to this approach as “benign neglect”. It’s difficult at times, but it is important that parents back off and allow children to struggle sometimes. You are there to catch them if they need you, but you also need to provide the opportunity for them to catch themselves.
- Perhaps the most important thing we can do as parents to support children at home is to be a good role model for managing your own stress. People of all ages are living in an increasingly complex world that breeds anxiety and stress. If you are not modeling how to manage stress, then it will not be a priority for them. Aside from traditional therapy, some things you can do on your own might be a yoga class, a bike ride or a brisk walk after dinner to unwind. You can gently encourage your child to join you and maybe one day they’ll take you up on it. The trick is to continue modeling this behavior and continue asking them to join you. Also, there are apps you can download to increase mindfulness, promote relaxation, and help alleviate tension. Two apps you can explore and encourage your children to explore are called “Headspace” and “Buddhify.” Both will help your child begin learning how to self-regulate productively. And since they can download them to their phones, they’re much more likely to buy into it. Another bonus: the apps are a coping tool that travels with them.
So as we ease our way into the tail end of the school year and as exams loom, please remember that you are not helpless in supporting your child, even when they make you feel that nothing you do is right. Remember that stress is always not a terrible thing, because only through being uncomfortable can we learn how to adapt and rise to the occasion. However, being able to tell when your child’s stress has morphed into something unhealthy is important. Pay attention, actively listen to them, and fight every urge inside of you to “fix” their problems for them. Ask for help if you need it. Your child is doing the best that they can, and so are you.
Julie E. Laing, M.Ed
215-862-5261 ext 181