Help your teen cope with stress

Irritability, sleep problems and changes in appetite are common reactions to mounting stress. Studies show that teens respond to stress differently than adults. They have a harder time separating minor troubles from real threats, and their emotional responses tend to be more intense and less enduring. Adolescence involves learning to recognize signs of stress, and to develop effective strategies for coping. Parents play a key role in helping teens accomplish these developmental challenges.

Be part of the solution

“As parents, we can be part of the problem or part of the solution,” says Felipe Amunategui, PhD, a child and adolescent psychologist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. “It all starts with giving things a name, and making it OK to talk about it.”

For example, statements such as, “You seem very stressed out” can convey interest, understanding and support. “Rather than making suggestions, let the teen know that you would like to help if he or she requests it,” Dr. Amunategui says. “If the adolescent is describing the problem, avoid giving your perspective until he or she is done talking. And, while the stressor may seem trivial to you, acknowledge the distress felt by the youth.”

In addition, Dr. Amunategui recommends resisting the urge to pry or to insist on a conversation when the youth would prefer not to.

Dr. Amunategui offers the following helpful tips for teens:

  • Have a routine, including time for daily exercise and leisure activities.
  • Use the bed for sleeping eight to nine hours per night. Do all other activities in other places.
  • Keep up with homework and ask for help if you fall behind.
  • Treat social media carefully; it can add unnecessary stress in many ways.

Watch for warning signs

Mounting stress can become a clinical condition that requires treatment. “Children and adolescents seldom recognize high levels of sustained worry as a sign of a problem,” Dr. Amunategui says. “Rather, they show irritability, angry outbursts and avoidance of social or other activities that elicit fear or worry. Once anxiety evolves into a clinical problem, it worsens, and untreated anxiety can have very harmful consequences.”

Children and adolescents who experience problematic anxiety may:

  • Report feeling sad, irritable and prone to emotional outbursts, mostly with parents
  • Appear moody and disinterested in most things that are unfamiliar or that require a change in the routine
  • Seek reassurance from parents repeatedly in various ways
  • Become very upset when there are unexpected changes to plans or routines
  • Report fatigue and other bodily discomforts with unknown medical or physiological cause
  • Take an unusually long time with some aspect of their routine, such as grooming or bathing
  • Become very upset when other youths disregard rules in organized games or sports
  • Have adult like concerns about family finances or the health status of family members

If you have concerns about your child having an anxiety condition, your first questions should be directed to your family doctor. With their assistance, you can determine if more specialized help will be needed to treat the condition.

amunategui-luis-felipeFelipe Amunategui, PhD
Child and Adolescent Psychologist,
UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital
Assistant Professor, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

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