This week the American Psychological Association released the results of its annual Stress in America survey, a national survey regarding stress in the United States. This year’s report places a key focus on the stress experience of teens. I invite you to read the full report, but I will note a few summary points here.
Teen stress levels higher than they consider healthy
Teens estimate that a healthy level of stress is a 3.9 on a 10-point scale. However, they report that their stress averages a 5.8 during the school year and a 4.6 during the summer months, with just about one in three indicating that their stress has increased in the past year. Teens report that their top sources of stress are school (83 percent), concerns about life after high school (69 percent) and worries about their family having enough money (65 percent).
While more than half of teens indicate that managing stress is important, only 41 percent believe they are doing a very good job at it, or better.
The results suggest that teens need adult help in understanding stress, as more than half of them report an opinion that stress doesn’t affect their physical or mental health. Moreover, some of the teens’ reported responses to stress include playing video games (46 percent), going online (43 percent), eating unhealthy foods (26 percent) and skipping means (23 percent).
So, what’s a parent to do? Here are 9 suggestions:
- Don’t underestimate a teen’s stress. Realize that our proclivities to hurt worse when our teen hurts, and to hold ourselves over-responsible for our teen’s outcomes, leaves us vulnerable to underestimating our teen’s stress.
- Spend one hour a week doing an exercise called “special time” with your teen. This hour involves doing nothing but offering undivided attention to your teen, expressing proportionate and specific praise for what your teen is saying or doing and expressing positive thoughts and feelings about your teen.
- Prioritize empathy over instruction. We so much want our teen to do well that we sometimes close him or her off to our offerings by trying, albeit with wonderful intentions, to insert our wisdom flash drive brutishly into his or her developing hard drive. A more effective approach is facilitated when we remember that empathy is usually to our teen what a warming sun is to a spring tulip: it facilitates opening up.
- Get your teen’s perspective before offering yours. Our teens, and their developing brains, are fraught with ambivalence and confusion. Many points we would hope to make our teen already knows. So, if we can agree with his or her wisdom, instead of acting like we are imposing ours, it may take deeper root.
- Separate technology and sleeptime. Charge it the kitchen instead. This will help to increase the odds that a proper night’s sleep is accomplished (i.e., 8.25 to 9.5 hours), which is also something to prioritize.
- Get moving. Do what you can to promote an hour of sweating and breathing hard five to seven days a week. And, limit sedentary electronic pleasures to 2 hours a day. Talk about “physical activity”–which can be more easily equated with fun–instead of “exercise,” which is often equated with agony and a need to deploy white knuckled willpower
- Eat well together. Try to have as few processed carbohydrates in your home as possible and share family meals as often as you can.
- Be a model for healthy stress management. Try to model how you would have your teen behave, as our walk tends to be more impactful than our talk. (However, keep in mind that, when it comes to parenting models, hypocrisy is an upgrade over disengagement.)
- Let me cheat by collapsing a few together: share as much fun and humor as you can (including through email), be open to your teen winning some arguments (this tends to reduce lying), monitor well (i.e., always know who your teen is with, what she is doing and what adult is responsible for monitoring, if only from a distance), promote adaptive rituals and remember that your teen may sometimes open up more, and seem less prickly, when texting.
And if the DIY approach to helping your teen isn’t enough, consider connecting with other another option. Psychologists everywhere are are willing to partner with you in understanding and responding effectively to all of yours and your teen’s mental health needs.
Good luck in your efforts! And, keep in mind that your teen will likely be grateful some day. Perhaps not for many, many years, but someday.
Have questions about handling your stress or helping your teen’s stress? I’ll be taking questions and giving answers on Thursday, Feb. 13, from 8-9 p.m. EST during a Facebook chat. Ask me anything!
David Palmiter, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa, a member of this year’s Stress in America steering committee and the author of Working Parents, Thriving Families: 10 Strategies that Make a Difference . His blog is at www.hecticparents.com Follow him on Twitter at @HelpingParents.