How parents can provide stability as teens grapple with stress and uncertainty

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You might think that finals would be replaced with other lower-stakes projects that can measure mastery without the stress of memorization, but that’s not the case. For my daughter’s school and many others, the show must go on.

In my private therapy practice, teens and younger students echo my daughter’s experiences. Despite a revolving door of cases and exposures among students and staff, tests and assessments continue as planned. Even middle school students feel the additional stress of tests every week that require studying beyond their regular homework.

Despite the Surgeon General’s advisory about the current state of youth mental health across the United States, including the fact that 1 in 3 high school students report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, we expect our youth to trudge forward as if nothing is wrong.

Alicia Tetteh, mental health therapist and founder of Building Endurance in Charlotte, sees similar levels of stress and mental health issues affecting the families there. “We are seeing an increase in suicide in middle and high school students in this area,” Tetteh said. So much so that she has been called into local schools to educate parents about the warning signs of suicide and symptoms of depression, a resource not all schools across the country can access for their parents.

There isn’t a quick reference guide to help parents help their kids cope with the multiple layers of stress they confront each day during this complex time of growing up, but there are steps caregivers can take to provide comfort and stability during this ongoing uncertainty.

Engage in regular check-ins

I always tell parents to trust their instincts and make frequent contact with their kids. If something feels off, it probably is, but we also need to acknowledge that kids and teens do need their space at times to recover from the day. A closed door is not necessarily a warning sign, but a quick check-in helps parents and kids stay connected and shows support and comfort.

Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions about moods and behaviors. “You seem really tired lately, are you feeling stressed or having trouble sleeping?” communicate care and concern in a calm tone.

“I encourage parents to assess the four main pillars: interest, energy, sleep and appetite,” Tetteh said. “Any major changes in these baselines can indicate distress.”

Tetteh also advises parents to help their kids assess their own changes in moods and physical states. “It’s important for parents to notice changes but it’s also important to help kids know when they’re regulated versus dysregulated and understand the changes in their bodies.”

A simple tool to help teens make sense of their own dysregulation is a feelings, thoughts and needs assessment. Ask your teen to take a few slow deep breaths and state how they’re feeling physically and emotionally. Do they have any aches and pains or feel completely exhausted? Next, talk about the thoughts racing through their minds. Are there any worries that seem to play on repeat? Finally, what do they need to feel comfortable and calm right now? Who can help? This quick exercise gets family members into the habit of talking about mental health and finding solutions together.

Create a safe space for feelings

It probably comes as no surprise that it’s hard for kids and teens to open up and talk about hard things. When they are in survival mode at school all day, they often want to check out and forget about their stress at the end of the day.

Youth definitely need time to distract themselves and decompress after a long day, but it’s also essential to create an open-door policy for talking about all kinds of stressors they confront each day. Teens will talk when they trust their grown-ups to listen without judgment or immediate solutions.

Tetteh agrees that youth need a safe space to communicate with their caregivers. She suggests tying a ribbon around the doorknob to indicate that it’s a good time to enter and have time together or use a parent-teen journal to address difficult topics without the intensity of a face-to-face conversation.

Other ideas include talking while doing something together. Teens are more likely to engage in deeper conversations when they don’t feel watched, so shoot some hoops, play a board game, or cook something together while you talk. If it feels like nothing works, meet them where they are by connecting over text.

Balance downtime and positive family connections

Family time can be restorative for youth as they step away from their stressors and sink in to the comfort of positive interactions at home. To that end, create space for family time on the weekends, and give the kids a voice in planning how the time is spent. A family hike might sound fun and energizing to you, but a tired kid might really need a family movie with a side of hot chocolate.

Our youth also need plenty of downtime right now, though, as they don’t get much of it. “Family time is important but also build in plenty of free and creative time at home,” said Tetteh, “because they have very structured days at school.”

Teens often tell me that they feel a pressure to be productive, even when they have an open block of time in their schedules. The push for achievement to attain future success can get in the way of self-love and self-care.

One of the best gifts parents can give their teens right now is the gift of time to figure out who they are and what inspires them. To do this, they need to be creative, listen to music and explore interests that don’t have a grade attached.

There are no simple solutions to walking kids through this difficult time. My daughter spent her long weekend studying for finals and wrapping up any assignments before her first semester of high school ends. There were periods of stress and exhaustion, but we took walks on the beach, ordered our favorite food and binged “One Tree Hill” during her study breaks to make the experience less overwhelming. And then she got lost in her artwork to recover.

I can’t remove the stressors from her life, but I can walk by her side and support her as she works through them, and maybe, just maybe, that will fill her cup enough to help her thrive instead of just survive.

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