Teenaged boy and girl sitting together The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a disturbance to our everyday lives the likes of which we have never seen. All of the uncertainty around financial instability, fighting a disease we’ve never seen before, being unable to see friends and loved ones — that’s a lot for anyone to handle, especially children and teens. With vaccines now available to protect our bodies against COVID-19, it’s critical that we address its lasting effect on our minds, particularly when it comes to our kids. For teens struggling with frustration, stress and anxiety, the experts at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Parent and Teen Communication offer some tips to help.

Understanding stress

Stress is a daily part of our world – and likely always will be. We can empower teens to thrive in an unpredictable world by teaching them about stress biology and healthy stress management techniques.

All of us have a natural stress response. It’s what helps us run from danger, makes our hearts beat fast and our breathing intensify. During stressful times, we are in emergency mode, not wise decision-making or thoughtful mode. Stress can be caused by many factors – from a death in the family to arguments with friends. Consider these strategies when helping teens cope with difficult situations.

Creating a mindset of resilience:

  • Save energy: Help teens control how deeply stress gets under their skin and determine when to focus, fight or avoid it.
  • Avoid catastrophic thinking: Teach teens how to measure each situation for its real potential for danger instead of leaping to worst-possible scenarios.
  • Parents as role-models: Your teens are watching how you respond to situations. It helps them develop their own “muscle memory” to make wise decisions. Teach them how to remain calm even during challenging moments. Taking care of yourself – and actively demonstrating how you do it – is a strategic act of effective parenting.

Take back control

Adolescence is a period of life when spending time with friends is essential to healthy development. During the pandemic, teens were asked to stay physically distant and change the way they attended school, interacted with peers, and pursued sports and extracurricular activities.

This uncertainty and stress continues to impact both the physical and mental health of teens. To help promote positive growth in teens, CHOP experts recommend teaching teens the five R’s of self-regulation developed by Stuart Shanker, DPhil, founder and CEO of The MEHRIT Centre:

  • Reframe their behavior: Encourage teens to understand why they are acting out in negative or unsafe ways.
  • Recognize the cause of their stress: There are five kinds of stress – physical, emotional, cognitive, social (often made worse by social media) and pro-social (stress felt when considering others’ distress). By recognizing the cause – and how it plays out for each individual– teens can better deal with stress and how it affects them.
  • Reduce stress: Show teens ways to turn down their stress dial.
  • Reflect: Help teens better recognize their bodies and minds, how they react to stress and what helps calm them.
  • Respond: Determine if growth-promoting periods of self-regulation are a routine part of your teens’ life, and if not, find opportunities to add activities that will restore their energy.

Create a stress management plan

As teens grow, it’s important to help them build a stress management plan that works for them. Parents can help teens develop these plans – which can be adapted as needed for each individual situation or problem.

A strong stress management plan includes four categories: problem solving, maintaining a healthy body, managing emotions, and developing a sense of meaning though giving back. Each category includes varied strategies your teen can use to manage stress.

Problem solve by identifying the stress source, tackling what you need to, and delaying or avoiding what you can. To prevent teens from feeling overwhelmed, encourage them to divide their stressors into smaller pieces. From there, it’s easier to determine which need to be handled right away, which can be delayed, and which might be avoided. Teens can then manage what’s stressing them one stressor at a time. Pro tip: Channel energy into things that can be fixed, instead of worrying about things you can’t change.

Maintain healthy bodies with exercise, good nutrition, relaxation and proper sleep. Stress hormones prepare the body to run or fight, triggering a survival-only mode when things are at their worst. To help your teen think more clearly, encourage regular exercise, routine relaxation, proper nutrition and adequate sleep to keep their bodies healthy, their minds clear and their stress under control. Teens should try getting 8-10 hours of quality sleep each night. Manage and release emotions. It’s important to learn to express emotions so they don’t build up inside. A little stress can be invigorating; too much can be paralyzing. Encourage your teens to take mini “mind vacations” to allow their mind to focus on something other than the problem at hand. This could be as simple as reading a book.

Give back. Helping others, the community and the larger society can help teens in a myriad of ways. It feels good to make a difference to someone else. It develops a sense of meaning and purpose, which is deeply protective. It also makes it easier to ask for help when needed. By giving to others, teens learn it’s OK to ask and receive help without feeling shame.

Get started today

Now that you better understand stress and how it affects teens, help them retake control of their lives and emotions. Begin by creating a stress management plan. Take the time now to build your teen’s resilience for years to come.

Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is an attending physician and Co-Director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, part of the Craig-Dalsimer Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Eden Pontz is Executive Producer and Digital Content Director at the Center. Elyse Salek, MSEd, is Senior Manager of Center Operations.

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