How to Support Your Stressed Teen
In my career I have worked with children and youth across the age spectrum. One topic that gets brought up a lot "How do I deal with being so stressed?"
Sometimes the stress they are experiencing comes from the amount of school work they have to do every week, from expectations around the grades they "should" be getting, from bullying, from planning for the future, or even from general anxiety. If you notice that stress is causing harmful tension, emotional outbursts or avoidance in your child, it is important to try to address it.
One thing I have done to support youth with the stress in their lives is to launch my monthly Youth STRESS Group, but then I get questions from parents and caregivers: "What can I do to support my child through this?" If this is something you are wondering, you are not alone!
The good news is that there are things you can do to help. The not-so-good news is that unless your child is willing to engage with you and let you help, what you can do is limited. This is one of the reasons I promote on-going open and positive communication in families - so that when issues like this come up, the channels of communication are already open.
If you are a parent who sees your child struggling with carrying stress, here are a few things you can do to help.
Talk To Your Child - Let Them Direct You
The very first thing you need to do is ask your child directly what you can do to help. And phrase it that way: "WHAT can I do to help," not "CAN I help." If you make it a yes or no question, it's possible you will be brushed off or dismissed - especially if your child is embarrassed or upset already because of how stressed they are.
You can preface the question with a concerned and honest acknowledgement of what you have seen: "I've noticed that you've seemed pretty stressed recently... What's been going on, and what can I do to help?" No matter how you choose to phrase it, make sure to be warm, supportive and genuine.
Do What You Can, Realistically
If your child tells you something that could help, see if you can realistically do that.
If their answer is "Don't make me go to school anymore," obviously that's not something that will necessarily be possible. If this is the case, gently push to see what is really going on at the root of the situation. Why do they not want to go to school? What is happening at school that is causing them distress? How would it help if they didn't have to go to school, and how can you provide that help in a different way?
If it is something that IS realistic, see if you can help them put it in action. It might be they are having trouble keeping up with their homework and need help making a schedule, that they are dealing with mental health struggles and would like to talk to their doctor, or even that they are just carrying a lot of tension in their body and don't know what to do with it.
Offer Suggestions (If They Are Open to Them)
If your child won't tell you exactly what is going on but seems open to talking about how they are feeling, see if ideas come to mind for you that you think might help. Especially if you've noticed something specific going on that you suspect might be related to the stress they are carrying.
If it might be homework stress, suggest they set aside a certain time every night to get it done (so they don't have to avoid and create stress around it for hours before getting around to it) and offer to help if they need it. If it might be related to a friend, ask if they could socialize with someone else for a bit instead of that person.
If you have no idea what the issue is and don't want to try to guess, you could offer a more general support. Maybe you could practice some mindfulness exercises (this is one that I like) with each other every night or once a week, so your child can learn to draw on that technique when they are starting to feel stressed. Maybe you could put aside a few hours every weekend for the whole family to do something relaxing or enjoyable, where you can all focus on things other than the stress in your lives.
What If They Don't Want to Talk?
If your child doesn't want to talk about it, try not to push it in that moment. I know this might seem like a hard thing to do, as I imagine you really want to help and might not understand why they aren't open to your support. Keep up the positive and supportive vibe though, and offer again a few days later. If they know that you are genuine and concerned, there is more of a chance that they will eventually come around and open up than there is if you never vocalize that concern.
If they still don't seem interested maybe there is someone else they are close with (A family member? A coach? A mature friend?) that you could talk to, to see if they could approach your child.
Keep letting them know you are there for them, and that you are willing to help when they are ready.
Ultimately children are often more resourceful and resiliant than we give them credit for, and if your child chooses not to open up to you that doesn't mean they won't learn on their own to manage the stress. Might they manage more easily with your support? Probably. But since we can't force acceptance of support, sometimes reminding yourself of how they have coped with issues in the past will help give you some peace of mind while waiting to see if they will choose to open up to you.
** If you feel like there might be risk for your child (due to abuse, self-harm, suicidal ideation, or something else) please be more direct with them and if necessary connect them with a professional or even bring them to the hospital for emergency support. Situations where risk might be present should be addressed as soon as possible so that support can be found.