Is there a secret to making sure your teen grows up happy, healthy, and ready to take on the world? Dr. Stuart Shanker, founder and chief executive officer of The MEHRIT Centre, thinks so. Shanker believes in the power of self-regulation, the ability of individuals to manage stress. He says it’s the foundation of healthy relationships, learning, and mental health.
In this latest Q&A in our groundbreaking series with child development experts and authors, Shanker tells Allison Gilbert, Center for Parent and Teen Communication’s senior writer, how parents can best support teens and young adults in developing the essential skills necessary to cope with challenges.
AG: Why is self-regulation such an important piece in adolescent development?
SS: We know there are massive changes occurring in the brain during adolescence. One of them is teens’ reactivity to stress. The challenge for teens is they can choose to manage stress in ways that are either maladaptive [bad for them] or promote growth [good for them]. An unhealthy way to manage stress is to focus on feeling good in the moment, perhaps using drugs or alcohol, realizing this only leads to greater stress down the road. Healthy approaches to stress — for example, exercise, art, music – are activities that restore energy and reduce tension.
AG: You’ve developed a unique approach that aims to teach self-regulation skills. What are the most important skills?
SS: We refer to our method as the 5 R’s. Here’s what it involves:
- Reframe: Teens should be encouraged to reframe their behavior. Are they engaged in real misbehavior or poor behavior caused by stress? Teens have to learn this distinction for themselves.
- Recognize: There are five kinds of stress and it’s helpful to recognize what they are and how each plays out for teens. These are: physical, emotional, cognitive (stress over schoolwork), social (this is often made worse by social media), and pro-social (the stress individuals feel when they consider other people’s distress).
- Reduce: It’s essential for teens to learn strategies for turning down their stress dial.
- Reflect: Too many teens don’t know what it feels like to be truly calm, or recognize when they are becoming over-stressed.
- Respond: Determine if growth-promoting periods of self-regulation are a daily part of your teen’s life. If not, figure out if there’s an opportunity to add more activities that are going to restore their energy for their daily or weekly routines.
AG: How is self-regulation different for tweens, teens, and young adults?
- For tweens, there is a sudden jump in internal (biological) stress. Their bodies are going through massive changes. It’s critical to enhance self-regulation in this group so parents can work on preventative skills.
- For teens, this is the time when they face the most social stressors – with friends and classmates. These difficulties may be exacerbated by social media.
- For young adults, the stressors are different and they are profound. They have uncertainties about their professional and personal lives. This is when some young adults begin to show more maladaptive behaviors.
AG: If a parent sees a college student having difficulty with self-regulation, what should they do? Is it appropriate for parents to help a 19-year-old? A 20-year-old? Should this age group have the autonomy to learn from their mistakes and discomfort? Should parents allow them to sink or swim?
SS: What we don’t want parents to do is manage their young adult’s stress for them. Parents should never infantilize their 20-year-old by stepping in and taking over. By the same token, we don’t want to let our son or daughter drown. Parents can point out what they see and help their young adults understand their stress-load. They can also begin working with those five self-regulation steps (see the 5 R’s above).
AG: Related to stress, how can parents help teens who have anxiety and ruminate over little and big challenges?
SS: This is the work of self-regulation. That said, if a young adult continues having these specific challenges, parents must take a hard look at themselves. If a parent is not regulated, if a parent is unable to remain calm, that rise in tension is communicated. And it’s important to note, strain and upset are communicated not just with words but with tone of voice and how parents hold themselves physically. (For more on the importance of role modeling, read Peers May Matter to Teens But Parents Matter More! and How Parents’ Calm Impacts Teen Behavior.)