Stress Management: Identify and Address the Problem
Supporting our teens as they move towards adulthood includes helping them develop strategies to address problems and manage stress. What better way to prepare them than to support them to build a comprehensive stress management plan. So whether there are tasks to be mastered or serious obstacles to overcome, teens will have problem-focused strategies in their back pocket to help. Such strategies include:
- Identifying and then realistically assessing challenges
- Breaking problems into manageable steps;
- Avoiding obstacles whenever wise and possible; and
- Conserving energy to more efficiently tackle challenges.
This piece focuses on learning to identify and realistically assess a challenge. And once done, how to break problems into more manageable steps. Both of these stress management strategies prepare teens to address problems throughout life. You get a twofer here! And know that the strategies we teach our children to manage stress work for us as well. You get three for one!
Challenges of Adolescence Offer a Blueprint for Life
The challenges faced in adolescence offer lifelong lessons. That’s one reason why we must never view adolescents’ struggles as trivial. It almost always backfires to tell a teenager their problems don’t compare to adult problems. Belittled, they may avoid sharing their thoughts and feelings. We must use every teachable moment to prepare our adolescents to navigate the adult world.
Let’s consider two common stressors for teens: school performance and peer relationships. Neither are true threats, but both feel greatly important to our tweens and teens. And both serve as models from which young people can learn how to address problems related to future adult issues. What they learn about managing school prepares them for the workplace. What they learn from peer relationships prepares them to be family members, community participants, employees, and leaders.
Identify the Problem
It’s important to take an attack-the-problem-first approach. Otherwise, even if we do other things to feel better, the problem persists. Why start with identifying the problem? Because when we are stressed, we often don’t think clearly. When something is the primary driver of stress, it often leaks into other areas of life. Reflecting on what started that overwhelming feeling, gives us clarity. Clarity, in turn, gives us the power to address the issue.
Take this typical conversation between a parent and teen as an example of how to help your teen identify the problem:
Parent: “You seem upset, what’s going on?”
Teen: “Everything! Nothing! I don’t even know.”
Parent: “I’ll bet there’s something you might be able to tackle. Let’s think this through together.”
This calm response creates the starting point for your teen to identify the issue at hand.
In times of highest stress, you may need to guide your tweens and teens to take some initial steps to be able to collect their thoughts. It takes a focused mind to name the problem. And once the issue is identified, you can help them begin to address problems.
Make a REALISTIC Assessment of the Problem
When we are unable to handle something we feel that we should, it can begin a cycle of catastrophic thinking in which we imagine the worst. When teens think catastrophically, they imagine long-standing consequences that may or may not exist. “If I do badly on this exam, I’ll NEVER get into college!”. They may take it a step further by imagining unrealistic far-reaching results. “And if I don’t get into college, I will disappoint my parents, and they’ll be ashamed of me, or even kick me out of the house!”. A common expression that describes this unhelpful thinking cycle is, “Making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Being overwhelmed feeds on itself. When teens (or adults!) become overwhelmed, their anxiety takes over and it becomes difficult to think clearly. Their fear of being incapable can become a self-fulfilling reality. They can’t handle a situation because they lack presence of mind and their problem-solving capacities are hard to access. Their brain is operating largely from their fear centers rather than their rational, thoughtful centers ( known as the cerebral cortex).
Catastrophic thinking gives too much power to a stressor. In order to solve a problem, we must start with a realistic assessment of what really needs to be tackled. In The First Step of Stress Management: Support Teens to Think Accurately About Stress, we describe how to use self-talk and reflective strategies to regain the clear thought and steady nerves needed to make a realistic assessment of a situation. Once focus is restored, it’s time to dive in and find ways to address the problem.
Breaking Mountains into Hills
One way to help young people gain control over their lives is to help them learn to break large problems into smaller, more manageable pieces. Let’s look at the “mountain” their fear has created. As long as the problem is seen as a mountain, they can’t imagine climbing it or getting around it. It’s challenging to take the first step to attack the source of stress if they’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect.
We want to help teens re-visualize problems from being unscalable mountains into hills resting one on top of another. As they consider how to conquer each hill, the summit appears within reach. The sense of being overwhelmed diminishes. We can teach them that as they approach each hill, they should focus energy only on the hill in front of them. When that hill is conquered, only then should they look up at the next one. In a short time, they can visualize the top of the mountain within reach. Smaller victories, gained by conquering each hill, restores control. A sense of control is at the root of confidence and is an antidote to anxiety.
Consider these strategies to help teens learn to break those mountains down into hills.
Problems Can Be Solved With a Single Word
Self-defeating thoughts often begin with words like “I never” or “I can’t.” These words define powerlessness and undermine hope. Adding the transformative word “yet” to our thoughts makes it clear that what is lacking is a strategy, not ability. “I can’t solve this problem” becomes “I can’t solve this problem yet.” Now an action plan can be made. Guide teens to see their limits as challenges they have not yet learned to overcome.
Climb the Easy Hill First
Mountains appear immovable. Breaking them down into hills helps. But sometimes even hills seem too challenging. Encourage your teens to attack the easiest hill first. To work on the piece of the problem that is most solvable first. Getting something (anything!) accomplished is often all it takes to gain confidence. That’s not the easy way out. It’s the smart way to get started.
Break Down Some Common Problems Into Smaller Pieces
Let’s consider a few problems teens might encounter, and how looking at the problem in smaller pieces may be the key to success.
Well-designed school assignments do more than transmit knowledge. They can prepare teens for life. Parents can reinforce the real-life lessons from school assignments in the following ways:
- Make lists of assignments and create an organizational plan.
- Schedule in time to relax and practice self-care. Pursue a hobby, eat well, exercise, and sleep well.
- Create a timeline.
- Take a break to relieve mental blocks. If that doesn’t work, just get something (anything!) done. Just getting started on one small task helps regain focus and confidence.
Fitting in with peers takes on heightened importance during adolescence. Conflict with friends can be overwhelming and trigger catastrophic thinking. Tweens and teens rejected by friends, may imagine never having another friend again. Our first job as parents is to console them with our presence. Our reliable, unwavering connection means more than words. Then, when they are ready for guidance, we can help them look at the bigger social picture. They will likely find inroads back to their social group, or perhaps they have other solid friendships to turn to. We can help them think about the situation from a different lens. So that, “I have no friends!”, can become, “I’m glad Emma always stands by me. I’ll go hang at her house.” Or, “I’m so glad I have my soccer team. That’s a group I can always rely on.”
In times of prolonged stress, it’s normal to feel “full” — like there is no room for any more feeling. This can lead to an explosion of emotions, where it’s feels impossible to contain all the swirling thoughts and feelings. Perhaps worse is a loss of feeling altogether, making a passive choice to become numb. We don’t want either of those things for our children.
One strategy to prevent emotional overload is to support teens to release emotions in a controlled way. First, they must give their feelings a name (identify them). This restores a sense of control. Remember how your three-year-old became less frustrated when she learned to name the feeling? Rather than throwing a tantrum, he or she learned to say, “I’m angry!” or “I’m frustrated!” Similarly, a sense of calmness can be restored when teens learn to thoughtfully identify what’s swirling in their heads. Once identified, they can express their thoughts and feelings about it, leaving less bottled up inside.
We can teach young people to express their emotions by learning to fill in the blank in this sentence: “I _________ it out!” Strategies to fill in the blank include anything that expresses thoughts and feelings (e.g., talked, prayed, wrote, painted, sung, even screamed). The key is that teens learn to release feelings a little bit at a time. This “controlled” expression helps maintain the capacity to feel. They own their thoughts and experiences, rather than allowing their feelings to overwhelm.
Much of adolescent angst is generated by conflict with parents. In many cases, the conflict is driven by “wrestling” over limits, and receiving consequences when rules are broken. Young people must not feel as though they have permanently lost our trust, or we may drive them away. Rather, we should teach our children that they can always earn our trust back when they demonstrate responsibility.
Preparation for Life
Our children will face problems that need solving throughout their lives. It’s not about handling everything all at once. It’s about figuring out what they can best deal with at any given moment. Our children will strengthen their ability to problem-solve when they learn to identify the problem (name it!) first, and then make a plan to manage it, one step at a time. Each problem they tackle gives them confidence and restores their sense of control. And this prepares them to manage bigger problems they will face in the future.