For Parents: Identifying, Helping Teens Through Stress

Houston Christian Counselor Carol Bartels, who is our LPC on campus, provides some guidance and useful tips on identifying stress overload and anxiety in your teen, and how to help them manage it. Read below for more information.
There is a difference between natural, healthy anxiety and anxiety overload.  Some teens experiencing the emotional discomfort become anxious because they think that any level of either is bad.  So, they are anxious about feeling anxious, causing additional stress that is not needed nor helpful. Our teens need to know that emotional discomfort isn’t always a bad thing and that a degree of anxiety is normal. God built into us a sophisticated warning system that, when we feel stressed or anxious, is doing its job.  Teach teens to acknowledge, feel, and move through the emotion rather than fight it. 
However, when it begins to disrupt their day-to-day functioning, it’s tipped the scale. 
How much stress tips the scale is dependent upon the stressor and the individual facing it.  The source of the stress is less important than whether the individual has adequate resources – personal, emotional, social, and physical – to handle it.  The more resources available to mitigate the effects, the better.  Parents can help build these resources. 
Foster Relationship:
Teens need a place where they can dump emotions, sift through them, and decide what is valid. For teens, everything is processed through the emotional center of the brain due to an undeveloped frontal lobe which is the emotion regulator.  Teens need someone with whom they can have open, honest conversations. It is important to listen with empathy, acknowledge the emotions, and then guide them with gentle questions and feedback that help them to process logically. Help your teen identify other go-to, safe adults with whom they can talk and process with if you aren’t available. Lastly, encourage your teen to choose healthy, reliable and wise friends who can also listen, understand, and know when an adult needs to be notified.
Make your home a haven of predictability, consistency and routine:
Just as with younger children, consistency and routine in the home is important. For teens who have high levels of stress and anxiety, going each day to a place where they know exactly what to expect is important. Set routines provide security. The more certainty they have at home, the better they can manage the uncertainty they may face in their outside world.

Encourage overall wellness with an emphasis on sleep!
On average, a teen needs nine to ten hours of sleep a night in order to recharge adequately. A fully charged brain is more equipped to handle stress. Sleep disruption or sleep loss is a well-documented link to the development of anxiety disorders. Even losing sleep for one night can make both teens and adults more anxious the next day as the emotional regulatory abilities of the brain decrease and the levels of emotional reactivity increase.
Also, encourage a healthy diet. Eliminate energy drinks that disrupt sleep and raise anxiety from the high caffeine doses.  

The other component in the wellness trifecta is exercise. It is a great way to work out some of the anxiety and stress-related tension. Natural endorphins are also released which mitigate the effects of anxiety and stress on the brain. Exercise also improves focus, making students much more productive and efficient when doing homework.
Set social media boundaries:
Create boundaries around social media. Research connects higher usage of social media to increases in anxiety and depression. Teens often see it as an escape mechanism from dealing with their own thoughts and feelings. What they do not realize is that it can drive the very thoughts and feelings they are trying to escape. If you regulate, they can work and can go to bed earlier. As a side note, if the phone and/or computer stay in the bedroom with the teen, sleep and social pressure only increase. 
Be tuned in and know when to seek support:
Lastly, the more tuned into your teen you are, the more likely you are to catch a slide into stress and anxiety overload. Here are some things to watch for:
  • Worry that is consistent or excessive and does not go away with reassurance from others
  • Frequent physical complaints of things like headaches or stomach aches without any evident physical cause
  • Excessive tiredness and/or the problems sleeping
  • Being overcritical of themselves or low self-esteem
  • Avoidance of social events or friends, school, missing the same classes
  • Irritability or moodiness beyond that of a typical teen
  • Perfectionism
If you do see these things, the next logical step is to seek support for your teen.  A good starting point is a conversation with a counselor at school. They are well-trained to identify a possible stress or anxiety storm in addition to pointing you in the direction of therapists and doctors who can develop a plan to help move your teen back towards balance in their life.