Helping Kids Cope With Stress

Show me a teenager in a Texas school, and I will show you one stressed out teenager.  Kids deal with stress more diversely than you might imagine. This is mostly because, unlike adults, teens haven't fully developed the ability to process and approach stress like adults do. For this reason, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimates that stress accompanies lots of challenges kids face, like depression, anxiety, or problems with attention.

But what causes teen stress?

Stress puts on the same clothes for kids that it does for adults.  This is largely because our culture is designed by adults who have forgotten what it was like to be a kid.  So we sometimes put adult demands on kids, expecting high performance.  And although we do our best to make the world a healthy place for kids, no one is perfect.  For this reason, kids stress for many of the same reasons adults do.  But while adults know we can talk about our stress, work it out on a run or a punching bag, or rely on the safety of a supportive partner, kids don't always know they can do these things too.  To make matters worse, our society sometimes discourages teens' open and expressive relationships with parents.  So what should parents do to help their teens cope with stress?


Don't be afraid to take a break from our success-driven culture.  Your teen's brain may be screaming at him or her to slow down.  Literally.  Stress occurs when cortisol levels in the body soar, which causes emotional and physical symptoms of stress.  Your brain needs time to launch anti-stress hormones before it becomes too flooded with cortisol to do anything productive.  


Psychologist and researcher Gina Biegel and her colleagues suggest that one of the reasons teens stress out is because they engage in a kind of "time travel" where they ruminate about the past and develop anxiety about what's going to happen in the future. Some of this is healthy and natural.  Teens need to study for a test in order to perform well.  But parents usually know how much is too much.  Help your teen by taking inventory of their daily and weekly activities. Reduce what you can and encourage routine. Some kids respond to stress by simply shutting down, which can look like apathy. But in actuality, this may be your teen's way of telling you that she or he doesn't feel up to the task. 


After you have a solid inventory, a good way to stop time travel is by helping your teen live in the moment.  We call this mindfulness, or mindful attention.  A trained clinician can help you with this, but you can also find resources for mindfulness here. Ultimately, your calm response to stress will be your teen's best model for handling multiple responsibilities. So do yourself and your teen a favor by staying in the moment.  For help with this, call me at 512-329-5540.

Dr. Mathis Kennington