So many parents are concerned about how stressed out their teens are. Helping them cope with stress can be tricky when it seems like they don’t want our help or interference. I asked Jennifer Salerno to write a blog for you based on her book, Teen Speak, an essential guide in communicating with your teen. Teenagers seem like they don’t want us around, but when we connect in ways they can hear, we provide the support they both need and want.
During my career working with adolescents in a variety of settings, a surprisingly common theme among teens is their intense levels of stress. Unfortunately, many adults tend to blow off the seriousness or validity of teen stress, often considering their problems insignificant. It may be surprising to think that teens often experience higher levels of stress than adults. A study of more than 1,000 teens revealed an average stress score of 5.8 on a 10-point scale—with 3.9 being a healthy level of stress. The research by my team at Possibilities for Change continues to validate stress as a major issue among teens, as 13 percent of nearly 4,000 teens surveyed indicated they had serious problems or worries at home or school. Additionally, 1 in every 5 teens indicated they often feel sad and had nothing to look forward to during the past month.
Why are our teens so stressed?
Well, it’s important to remember all the changes happening in their bodies, emotions and in their brains. These changes, coupled with the demands of school, social life and family obligations, can make any teen feel out of control. In the face of these challenges, parents need concrete strategies to open the doors of communication with their teens to establish strong, trusting relationships as they enter into adulthood. It’s important your teen feels like he or she can open up to you about feelings of anxiety and depression instead of resorting to risky behaviors like prescription drug abuse, underage drinking, self-harm or suicide.
I’d like to share three tried-and-true techniques that clinicians use to engage their teen patients, which work just as well (if not better) for parents who want to have real conversations with their teens about feelings of stress.
- Ask permission.When it comes to topics that can easily cause frustrations and tensions, set up the conversation with a strong foundation by getting the go-ahead to proceed: “I would like to talk with you about the stress you’re experiencing. When is a good time for you, so we can talk without getting distracted?” Be sure you ask in a genuine, neutral tone of voice. The idea of asking permission can seem counterintuitive, but asking permission gives your teen a sense of control over the discussion and a feeling of respect that you are talking with and not at them. It’s OK to press hold on the conversation by finding a time to talk later, especially if emotions are high. When you ask permission and it is given, your teen will be more open to hearing what you want to share. This is a critical first step for building a strong foundation for communication.
- Use empathy.A simple reflection that shows empathy goes a long way. “You had a hard day at school today. It must be stressful dealing with everything you have going on.” The choice of words is critical. Anything too extreme or too overstated may be perceived as sarcastic instead of empathetic.
- Ask open-ended questions.These are not easily answered with a “Yes” or “No” that immediately closes the conversation. Ask questions that lead teens into telling you what they need to feel better. You could ask, “What do you need to help manage your stress right now?” or “What changes could you make to decrease your stress?”
- Listening. This can be the hardest thing for parents when learning to build open lines of communication. People often perceive themselves as not being heard, especially when having difficult conversations. Try putting yourself in the role of facilitating conversations, not leading or dominating them. Actively listen by staying quiet, and using body language that shows you’re listening like eye contact, nodding your head or leaning in toward the person speaking.
With a little bit of practice, you will be well on your way to opening the door to conversations that help your teen overcome feelings of stress. These strategies and others are outlined in more detail in my book Teen Speak.