Teens and Stress


Remember those elementary-school days, when you knew how to support your child through virtually any challenge he or she faced, whether it was dealing with the aftermath of a playground struggle, the pain of not being invited to a classmate's birthday party or the humiliation of being picked last for a kickball team? If your child is entering adolescence or already in its throes, that relatively carefree time is over. Despite the advantages they have today — or maybe because of them — our tweens and teens must navigate a world that is far more complex and unforgiving than the one we struggled through. From the academic and extracurricular pressures involved in getting into a good college to the expectations created by reality TV and social media, to economic and social stresses on the home front, being a tween or teen is just plain hard.

The key to helping your adolescent navigate these turbulent years, experts say, is to recognize potential sources of stress and know how to address them. What follows is a discussion of three of the most common areas for stress to arise and tips on how to help your adolescent.

First and foremost, know your child and cherish and foster his or her uniqueness rather than — consciously or unconsciously — encouraging him or her to conform to some preconceived standard.

"A very important question that parents often fail to ask is, is their child happy?" says Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D., an adolescent psychologist and director of the UNC Eating Disorders Program at UNC-Chapel Hill. "Parents focus on achievable and benchmarks—grades, test scores, teams they are on, competitions they are in. I see so many high-school kids for whom happy isn't on their radar. They'll say, 'I don't have time to be happy.' As an adolescent psychologist, I can't say this is a healthy way to live."

One way to help lessen academic stress is to encourage kids to focus on "fit"— what suits their particular strengths and interests — rather than prestige, says Bulik. "In order for our children to excel [and be happy], it's so much more important to get into a college where they will 'find their tribe' rather than make Mommy or Daddy proud," she says.

Indeed, many experts point to a trend in college admissions that favors "depth" over "breadth," meaning that students with one or two passions pursued over time both academically and extracurricularly might have an advantage over those who have straight A's in every subject and participate in a variety of unrelated activities.

Overall, though it's fine to expect your teen to aim for the best grades possible, parents should refrain from overreacting, says Ryan Johnson, a guidance counselor and director of the Student Assistance Program at Sanderson High School in Raleigh.

"You're going to protect your kid, but for every missed homework assignment or minor conflict, you don't want to be 'mama bear,' " Johnson says. "I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me, but I think it's important for kids to fail a little while they're still in high school, where they have a safety net. It helps build up their confidence."

Social Life
Of all the factors than influence a teen's life, friends have the biggest impact. That's why parents of teens should know their children's friends, parents and experts say. And while forbidding your child from hanging out with a kid whose behavior you find objectionable might backfire, it's perfectly reasonable to encourage their get-togethers to occur at your house, where you can keep a watchful eye.

Good friends — those with a sound moral compass who have your child's best interest at heart — can also be your allies. Pauline Byron of Raleigh experienced this firsthand when close friends of her then-15-year-old contacted her to reveal that her child had gotten a tattoo illegally. Byron and her husband recognized the tattoo incident as a cry for help and sought professional help for their child. In addition to being grateful for the friends' intervention, Byron was even more convinced than ever that teenagers, despite their tough facades, still need us.

"Our children do excel when we give them boundaries, which should be reasonable but strict, even if these mean that they can't do things that they claim other kids are allowed to do," she says.

Friends — and "frenemies" — can affect our kids even when they're home alone. With Facebook, Twitter, texting and Skype readily available to most teens, they can interact with anyone 24/7. Because such activity wastes time and can distract kids from their homework and other obligations, it's entirely reasonable to set limits on social media and texting just as you do with TV watching, online time and video-gaming.

And then there's the psychologically destructive potential of these outlets. "In the past, bullying, teasing and cliques were things that occurred primarily at school," says Bulik. "In the privacy of your home when you were doing your homework and being with your family, you could be somewhat sheltered from this. Now all you have to do is hit 'enter' to insult, tease or spread a nasty rumor about someone."

So parents can, in addition to limiting social media, teach kids to view such cyber gossip with a grain of salt. They can also make sure that their teens are spending time with them and other caring adults who can provide ballast against superficial, unrealistic images and messages, says Rebecca Maser, a teen social worker and mother of two in King. "I tell parents that kids actually need more supervision at this age, not less, as they may have been expecting," she says.

Of course, cyber-bullying — any form of bullying — should be reported immediately to the school or the bully's parents or both. In Wake County, Johnson says the SAP program enables students to report bullying on a confidential form in the student services office, where they can receive counseling and other services.

Identity Development and the Parent-Child Relationship
Parenting a teen is starting early in the Maser household. The oldest child, Kate, is only in fifth grade, but her mother, Rebecca, knows that the challenges of adolescence are right around the corner. "You need to start way before adolescence keeping an open line of communication," she says. Relationships that are close at the outset are likely to stay that way during the tumultuous teen years, even if it doesn't seem that way from your teen's eye-rolling and grunts.

Parents must balance the need to protect their children with the recognition that kids have to forge their own way. "Adolescence has always been a period of social development and freedom navigation," says Sebastian Kaplan, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem. "Parents need to start having less and less control as time goes on. It becomes more and more a question of listening and noticing" who their kids are and the best ways to interact with them, he says.

Maser agrees. "Although you want what's best for them, my job as a parent is to help them make decisions for themselves. My job as a parent is to get myself out of a job."

When to Get Help
Teens tend to sleep a lot, be grouchy, get moody, pick at their food or eat like pigs — in general, they're unpredictable. But because such behavior can also be a sign that your child is experiencing a real psychological problem rather than garden-variety teen stress, how do you know when to get help?

Contact your pediatrician, family practitioner, school guidance counselor or community mental health professional if you notice a trend toward:

* A new sleep pattern (sleeping too much or too little, staying up later than usual, etc.)

* Eating more or less than usual

* Attire that isn't suitable for the weather (for instance, wearing long sleeves on a scorching day, which might be a sign that the teen is "cutting" — self-harming — their arms)

* Changes in social behavior (withdrawing from friends, or a marked increase in socializing)

* A rapid deterioration in grades or evidence of truancy/skipping

* Symptoms/evidence of intoxication or drug use

* Blue or hyper moods

* Unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches

If your child says he or she feels worthless or that life isn't worth living, or directly mentions suicide, get help immediately by contacting a doctor or a suicide-prevention hotline, such as 1-800-273-TALK.

Suzanne M. Wood has been a freelance writer since 1998. She and her husband live in Raleigh with their three children.

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