Managing Stress and Coping with Challenges
The choices adolescents make to manage stress heavily influence their health and well-being – even their safety, now and throughout their lifetimes. One of the most critical ways in which adults can protect teens is by preparing them to manage life’s unpredictable, yet inevitable, stressors, in healthy ways.
Learning about how to manage stress is important for caring adults to be able to guide young people, and for you as a person who deserves to be at your best. Caring for yourself is good for you and it’s critical for tweens and teens to see the adults in their lives model how to deal with challenges in a healthy way.
Stress makes us uncomfortable. In response to stress, we typically do something to make ourselves feel better. When we choose positive strategies to deal with stress, we gain long term relief and build our resilience. Unfortunately, some positive strategies are a bit of an investment. They do not always offer immediate comfort. On the other hand, negative coping strategies may offer near instant relief, making them attractive. These quick fixes include some of the behaviors we worry the most about when it comes to teens — drinking, drug use, self-mutilation, sexual behaviors, thrill seeking, and unhealthy eating patterns to name a few. They all offer fleeting relief but can be dangerous and lead to lower self-regard, increased conflict with adults, social failures, or educational under-performance. These poor outcomes just add to the stress. In turn, they create more of a need for an urgent escape. This can lead to reliance on unhealthy behaviors, and in the worst scenario, addictions.
Stress Management Across Ages
It is never too early, nor too late, to help young people develop healthy coping strategies. The manner in which we teach, however, will be different depending on their age.
We should offer young children opportunities to learn how to feel emotionally healthy and physically strong. Their early experiences prepare them for ideas they will be taught later. They learn how much calmer they feel after exercise and feel happier after they have expressed their feelings through art. Blowing bubbles teaches them about controlled and relaxed breathing. They feel better after an adult genuinely hears their fears and concerns. Play, dress-up, fantasy, and reading offer healthy escapes.
Pre-Adolescents and Early Adolescents
Young people in this age group may be more likely to listen attentively as they are taught stress reduction strategies. Strategies could include exercises to help them learn to relax, to distract themselves from stressors, and to more effectively manage what’s stressing them out. They appreciate adult guidance and acknowledgement that their lives are becoming more complex. And they benefit from opportunities to practice what they have learned.
Mid and Late Adolescents
Older adolescents may not want to hear about stress reduction from parents, but will likely still be receptive to guidance from other caring adults or professionals. They often learn from written or web-based materials. Give them opportunities to come up with stress management strategies that work for them.
Model Effective Coping
Kids of all ages will learn from watching us. Every day we teach them how to cope with stress. Do we reach for a beer after a long, hard day at work? Or do we call a friend to catch up and vent a little? Do we explode in anger when someone cuts us off on the road? Or do we practice some controlled breathing at the wheel? Do we shut down and pretend our feelings don’t matter? Or do we journal to organize and express our feelings? Do we avoid our responsibilities when we feel overwhelmed by all we have to manage? Or do we speak to a pastor about connecting us with support systems in our community that may help? What is the surest way to teach children of any age to make healthy wise choices? Model. Model. Model.
Build a Plan
For a stress management plan to work, it must be comprehensive and offer a range of different strategies to pull from. Each of us handles stress differently. It’s important to individualize our approach. One way of doing so is to create a personalized stress management plan so we are as prepared as possible to handle life’s challenges. It isn’t an easy task, so we thought we’d help you get started by offering a template that can be personalized. This tool was designed with input from young people. It draws from the full plan published by The American Academy of Pediatrics in Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings.
There are two critical things we can do to manage stress before getting into specific strategies. First, we have to manage how we react to stress in order to realistically think about and frame our stress in a way that empowers us to best address it. Second, we must recognize that there is no stress management strategy that is as powerful as reaching out for support from others.
A Wide Range of Strategies
An effective stress-management plan should include a wide array of strategies that prepare teens to:
- Effectively problem-solve
- Maintain the best health (both emotional and physical) possible for managing stress
- Manage (or avoid!) emotions in a healthy way
- Know how much we matter
There is no set order to approach stress. Rather, we need plenty of ideas to draw from at appropriate times. For example, some strategies require a lot of thought, making them unhelpful at times of severe stress. During these extremely stressful times, it may make more sense to exercise to burn off the stress hormones before attempting to resolve the issue.
Each of the strategies includes a variety of ways to manage stress. Young people should pick and choose those methods that best match individual needs. It is also important to remember that effective strategies must change with circumstances and over time. Considering how best to manage stress in our lives takes ongoing work and continued thought.
Problem Solving Skills
- Identify and Then Address the Problem. When we address a problem, we diminish the source of stress. However, sometimes when we feel overwhelmed by a challenge, we don’t even take the first step towards solving it. We gain hope and empowerment when we clarify what the problem is, divide it into smaller pieces, and commit to working on only one piece at a time. Doing so decreases the crushing sense of being defeated and increases our control. This strategy includes making lists and timelines followed by a plan to address each component of the problem.
- Avoid stress when possible. Life is complicated enough without having to deal with the stuff we can avoid. Its ok to bypass rather than confront problems when it is safe to do so. We gain power when we focus our energies. Avoiding trouble or things that trigger our emotions can be an act of tremendous strength.
- Conserve energy. People who waste time worrying about things they can’t change don’t have enough energy left to address problems they can fix. Furthermore, people who focus on things they can change gain a sense of control versus the powerlessness, frustration, and anger that comes from trying to fix things they cannot.
Ways to Build Healthy Bodies
- The Power of Exercise. Surging stress hormones prepare us to run or fight. They put us on survival-only mode which prevents us from focusing, reflecting, and problem-solving. When we are stressed and don’t exercise, our bodies are left feeling as if we haven’t run from danger. Exercise is tightly linked to increased health, and contributes to emotional well-being. It positively affects focus and attention while lowering symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and ADHD.
- Active Relaxation strategies help us regain focus and can be a first step to problem solving. Relaxation, just for its own sake, also contributes to mental, physical, and emotional well-being.
- Eat well. Proper nutrition is essential to a healthy body, a clear mind, and to managing stress.
- Sleep well. Exhausted people cannot solve problems well and are prone to irritability. Proper sleep is key to stress management. Some people do not sleep well because of poor sleep habits and others lose sleep because they are stressed. Either way, we must find ways to break the cycle of sleeplessness.
Tips for Managing Emotions
- Take instant vacations. It can be helpful to take breaks from stress by taking advantage of our imagination and focusing on other interests. The key is to choose settings and topics that allow us to “escape” and that prevent other thoughts from intruding. Healthy escapes provide us with safe, effective, ways to feel better. They also prevent us from needing to turn to dangerous quick fixes.
- Release emotional tension. A bit of stress is energizing; it brings us to peak concentration or performance. But too much stress shuts us down. It is important to learn to find ways to express emotions so they do not build up inside. We want to be able to express emotions with anything that completes this sentence, “I _________ it out!” For example, “I ran it out”, “I wrote it out”, “I danced it out”, “I talked it out.” Many different strategies can fill in this blank, the key is to find a comfortable, healthy outlet for expressing feelings.
Reinforcing We Matter
- Contribute. Contribution to others pays off in many ways. The personal rewards of service make us feel better about ourselves — it is good to know that we can make a difference. Perhaps more importantly, it may make us more comfortable asking for help in times of our own personal need. When we serve others, we learn firsthand how good it feels to give back. We come to understand that it is done not out of obligation or pity. And therefore when we ultimately need help will likely be more open to receiving it without shame or stigma. There is yet another level that contribution serves to benefit young people in particular. They will be surrounded by gratitude and will rise to the positive expectations!
We’ve given you the tools to get started in helping tweens and teens learn to manage stress. When they are equipped with skill-sets that offer productive, meaningful ways to deal with life’s stressors they can thrive in good and tougher times. Building resilience in this way is more effective than telling them what not to do. We can’t protect teens from all of life’s pain, but we can work our hardest to be sure they have a wide variety of healthy strategies to manage stress effectively.
These strategies aren’t just for teens. Take a look and see what may apply to you. As we manage our own stress, we model successful strategies for teens.
[The full plan is published by The American Academy of Pediatrics in Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings.]
Image by: Aisa Binhashim / Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia