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Teens and Tweens
Helping Teens Handle Stress
By Thomas W. McCormack, M.D.
August 2004

Teens face many different sources of stress navigating adolescence, but two of them are found more at school than elsewhere. Peer pressure and academic stress are encountered by almost every teen at some point, but through involvement and communication, parents can help.


SOCIAL STRESS
Social stressors, especially peer pressure and beginning romantic relationships, are universal during the developmental stage of adolescence. This stage of development has two primary tasks: (1) identity – finding the answer to the question “Who Am I?” and (2) autonomy – discovering that self as separate and independent from parents. In a nutshell, teens are no longer children, and although often physically mature, they are neither adults on an emotional level or legally. Although this stage can be tumultuous at times, most teens are able to gradually separate from their parents and develop their own unique interests, opinions, and talents without major problems.

During adolescence, peers play a large part in a young person’s life and typically replace family as the center of a teen’s social and leisure activities. However, the common adult perception of peers as a “dangerous influence” is inaccurate. Although peer pressure is a part of every teen’s life, it is not necessarily bad. In fact, peer pressure is essential for the proper social development of learning to follow acceptable social norms.

There is both positive peer pressure and negative peer pressure. Positive peer pressure enables teens to become increasingly responsible and autonomous individuals within a community. It keeps youth participating in religious activities, going to 4-H meetings, playing on sports teams, and volunteering for worthwhile causes. Negative peer pressure, on the other hand, reduces teens to mindless parts of a mob that is intolerant of those who question its motives or suggest possible consequences of its actions. Although positive peer pressure has its benefits, negative pressure can be one of the most difficult parts of growing up for some teens.

Parents can help prevent or at least mitigate the effects of negative peer pressure in the following ways.

  1. Spend Quality Time with Your Teen: Try to tap into your teenager’s interests, even if they differ from yours. Parents should experience their teen’s activities, not just hear about them. Attend their games, school plays and activities, for example. Although these are clear signs that their parents love and care about them, teens also need (despite their protests) parents to show physical signs of affection and to hear them say, “I love you.”
  2. Practice Good Communication: Lecturing teens accomplishes very little, so parents must practice positive listening and talking skills. By showing you are listening, you will also keep them talking to you. Teens need to feel that their parents are approachable and open-minded. Although parenting is a serious role, teens value a sense of humor, so use humor when appropriate. Have frank discussions with your teen about rules regarding alcohol, tobacco, and drugs and the consequences for breaking them. Talk to them about the rationale for the rules, educating your teen about possible legal, emotional, and physical consequences of substance use, especially if addiction runs in the family.
  3. Get to know their friends: Because pressure to conform to the group’s norms is powerful, parents should meet their teen’s friends (and their parents if possible) in order to discern their values and probable influence on their own child. The most critical factor for at-risk behavior in your child is the behavior of his or her friends. If your teen’s friends are using drugs or displaying self-destructive behaviors, then your teen is likely doing the same. Know whom your teen associates with, and encourage healthy peer relationships.
  4. Respect their ideas and opinions: Ask for their opinions and encourage your teen to discuss the reasoning behind the opinions she holds. Dinnertime and trips in the car are good for sharing ideas without interruption.
  5. Cultivate their self-awareness: A common reason why many teens succumb to negative peer pressure is that they aren’t sure how they feel about an issue or situation. Promoting self-awareness with your teen will help him build confidence in having his own opinion. For example, using the opportunity to ask your teen how he feels about something will begin the process of helping him explore his feelings on thoughts and values. Encourage your teen to never let “following the crowd” take precedence over “following your conscience.”
  6. Set boundaries: Positive discipline and setting limits gives children a sense of security. Teens want to know what is expected and have a way of living up to expectations. Rules need to be clearly spelled out and clearly understood. Teens also have a strong sense of what is fair, so consequences should be appropriate and consistently enforced.
  7. Trust but hold them accountable: Telling your teen that you trust her is very powerful – unless there is an apparent reason why you shouldn’t. Teens often rebel as a result of not having enough opportunities to make decisions and experiencing the consequences of those decisions. When teens feel trusted, they feel more independent and less need to rebel. As hard as it can be to watch your child make a mistake, it’s extremely important that parents allow them to learn from their mistakes and learn to take responsibility for their actions. Let them know that proving themselves responsible will afford them more freedoms. By the same token, when they fail or do not live up to their own or others’ standards, be their safety net. Let them know that it is okay to need and ask for help.
  8. Give encouragement and praise when appropriate: Offer your teen encouragement when you see her struggling with something; positive encouragement will foster self-esteem and a positive work ethic. When your teen works hard and has accomplished a goal, be sure to offer her praise as well.
  9. Nurture competencies: One of the factors that contributes to good self-esteem is the teen’s achievements and how he perceives them, so parents must nurture their teen’s hobbies and interests. If your teen doesn’t show any interest in hobbies or activities, help him find his niche and nurture his unique talents. The more interests your teen has, the less likely he will be bored and get into trouble.
  10. Practice what you preach: Teens are adept at detecting hypocrisy, so parents must take an honest look at their own habits and beliefs and, if necessary, be willing to change in order to be better models of the behavior they are promoting. Children learn relationship skills from their parents. By modeling good relationship skills within the family (respect, positivity, warmth, kindness, honesty), parents may help their children form solid, high-quality friendships that will see them through the storms of adolescence.

ACADEMIC STRESS
Academic stress is on the rise, partly because the “Information Age” now provides students with a vast amount of information at their fingertips and because students are expected to synthesize such information at a more accelerated rate than when their parents attended school.

Parents can help ease their teen’s academic stress in several ways.

  1. Discuss your own expectations with your teen: While some teens will need concrete, specific expectations to help motivate them, most teens need only the reassurance from their parents that if he works to the best of his ability that his parents will be proud. We all have relative academic strengths and weaknesses in certain areas, and parents need to recognize these and encourage and nurture their teen’s strengths.
  2. Be interested and available to help with schoolwork: This demonstrates both that education is a priority and that aid is available for difficult subject matter with which they may grapple.
  3. Help develop a daily academic routine at home: Notice your teen’s study habits and furnish a quiet, well-lit room in the home. Work should occur for discreet periods of time up to 45 minutes, punctuated with 15 minute breaks, after which time your teen will be free to do as she wishes within the parameters of the family rules. This will help to mitigate procrastination, cramming, and uncompleted homework assignments that often lead to a teen’s academic undoing.
  4. Watch for sudden declines in academic performance: Be aware that this could be indicative of an emotional problem or previously undetected neuro-psychiatric condition, such as ADHD or a learning disorder. Talk to your teen and their teachers to ascertain what they think might be the cause of the decline and if there is any stress in the teen’s life of which you may not be aware. Depression, anxiety, and adjustment problems are not uncommon in teens and may warrant professional evaluation. Both the inattentive subtype of ADHD and specific learning disorders may go unnoticed for years, especially if the child is intelligent and can therefore compensate for these relative weaknesses. In these teens, academic difficulties often arise when the volume and complexity of schoolwork increases in the absence of stressors, and such problems also warrant professional evaluation, because if untreated, these conditions may cause your teen to not reach his academic potential or even lead to dropout.

    Social and academic stressors are two of the many hurdles teens have to confront. The suggestions in this article may seem like “common sense,” but we all need to review, evaluate, and change our parenting methods from time to time. Different things work for different families, but one thing works for all – INVOLVEMENT. Involvement with teens is a true balancing act – sometimes we need to be in the background, sometimes up front. But teens always know when parental involvement is there and will be better adults because of it.

Dr. McCormack is a board certified Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Emory University School of Medicine. He is in private practice in Athens, Georgia.

 

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