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Curbing Teen Stress, Anxiety, and Fear

Boy are these strange times. 

These past weeks have been nothing short of crazy. As I'm writing this we are a few weeks into the mandated social distancing orders from the government. Some of you are dealing with a loved one diagnosed with COVID-19, a child may have missed a major life event due to the quarantine, and some have been laid off or are struggling financially. 

Life looks different, doesn’t it?

We can’t change what is happening with the world, but we CAN change our mindset around it. 

We are all trying to manage fear, stress, anxiety, boredom, disappointment, loneliness, scarcity, and friendships. Many of us are also feeling grief. Grief for what we may have lost.  Jobs, activities, birthday parties, money, commencements, and more.    

Did you know 7 out of 10 American teens say anxiety and depression are major issues kids their age face? That's according to Pew Research Center and it's the number one problem teens reported--bigger than bullying, addiction and gangs and this was pre-COVID. 

In the short term, stress can push a child to practice for her part in the school play or inspire a teen to study when he’d rather be out with friends. But chronic stress is different. Research says that even how you perceive stress can make a difference on how your body is affected by it.

Left unchecked, long-term stress can contribute to a long list of physical and mental health problems. Prolonged stress can cause high blood pressure, weaken the immune system and contribute to diseases such as obesity and heart disease. It can also lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression—disorders that are becoming more common in youth.

Stress in young people doesn’t always look like stress in adults. But like adults, children and teens can find healthy ways to cope. Together, young people and their parents can learn to spot the signs of excess stress and, with the right tools, manage it. 

Sources of stress in young children

For young children, tension at home is a common source of stress. Children may be troubled by family discord or divorce, for example. Big life changes, such as a new stepparent, changing schools, or moving can also be hard on a child. That’s true even when the changes are happy ones, such as the arrival of a new sibling. 

School is another frequent source of concern for kids. Young children might be stressed about making friends, dealing with bullies or getting along with their teachers. They might also be anxious about tests and grades.

Sources of stress in adolescents and teens

As children get older, their sources of stress expand. Teens are more likely than young children to be stressed by events or situations outside the home. 

But as it is for younger kids, school remains a top stressor.  A 2018 APA survey also found that young people ages 15 to 21 — Generation Z — report significant stress around social issues in the news (PDF, 3.7MB), including gun violence and school shootings, rising suicide rates, climate change, treatment of immigrants and sexual harassment. 

Social relationships are especially important in adolescence. Peers can help buffer stress, but can also be a source of it.  Many teens worry about fitting in, their first romantic relationships and peer pressure around substance use and sex.   

Recognize the signs of stress

Signs of stress in youth can show up in a number of ways: 

  • Irritability and anger: Children don’t always have the words to describe how they are feeling and sometimes tension bubbles over into a bad mood. Stressed-out kids and teens might be more short-tempered or argumentative than normal.
  • Changes in behavior: A young child who used to be a great listener is suddenly acting out. A once-active teen now doesn’t want to leave the house. Sudden changes can be a sign that stress levels are high.
  • Trouble sleeping: A child or teen might complain of feeling tired all the time, sleep more than usual or have trouble falling asleep at night.
  • Neglecting responsibilities: If an adolescent suddenly drops the ball on homework, forgets obligations or starts procrastinating more than usual, stress might be a factor.
  • Eating changes: Eating too much or too little can both be reactions to stress.
  • Getting sick more often: Stress often shows up as physical symptoms. Children who feel stress often report headaches or stomachaches, and might make frequent trips to the school nurse’s office.
     

Stress management for kids and teens

Facing stressors is a fact of life, for children and adults. We can't and don't always want to shield our children from stressors. It's important to let them learn to cope when "life happens". First with smaller things to help them build confidence for the bigger things. However these strategies can help keep some stress in check: 

  • Recognize what your body does.  Does your heart race, do you sweat a little bit, get flushed, feel a pit in your stomach or throat, bite your nails, or feel nauseous? Pay attention to your physiological responses and those of your children. 
  • Sleep well. Sleep is essential for physical and emotional well-being. Experts recommend nine to 12 hours of sleep a night for 6- to 12-year olds. Teens need eight to 10 hours a night. Sleep needs to be a priority to keep stress in check. To protect shut-eye, limit screen use at least 30 minutes before bed and avoid keeping digital devices in the bedroom.
  • Exercise. Physical activity is an essential stress reliever for people of all ages. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 60 minutes a day of activity for children ages 6 to 17.
  • Talk it out. Talking about stressful situations with a trusted adult can help kids and teens put things in perspective and find solutions.
  • Make time for fun — and quiet. Just like adults, kids and teens need time to do what brings them joy, whether that’s unstructured time to play with building bricks or uninterrupted hours to practice music or art. Also, while some children thrive bouncing from one activity to the next, others need more down time. Find a healthy balance between favorite activities and free time.
  • Get outside. Spending time in nature is an effective way to relieve stress and improve overall well-being. Researchers have found that people who live in areas with more green space have less depression, anxiety and stress.
  • Write about it. Research has found that expressing oneself in writing can help reduce mental distress and improve well-being. Some research has found, for example, that writing about positive feelings—such as the things you’re grateful for or proud of — can ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Be creative. Whatever your thing is. Painting, gardening, cooking, scrapbooking, or fixing things. Being creative reduces stress. 
  • Learn mindfulness. In a study of a five-week mindfulness training program for 13- to 18-year-olds, researchers found that teens who learned mindfulness experienced significantly less mental distress than teens who did not.
  • Practice identifying and talking to your emotions. Once you identify your emotions you’ll more easily recognize them in yourself and others. Then try naming your emotion and allow yourself to observe and feel it. For example oh fearful Freddy is here. What lesson do you have for me today?
  • Try progressive relaxation.  Progressive muscle relaxation is a relaxation technique that reduces stress and anxiety in your body by having you slowly tense and then relax each muscle. Progressive muscle relaxation can provide an immediate feeling of relaxation, but it’s best to practice frequently. With experience, you will become more aware of when you are experiencing tension and you will have the skills to help you relax. Here is a video on how to do it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nZEdqcGVzo  
  • Make a mood box. Get a box and fill it with things that make you feel better when you are in a bad or sad mood. Things like a funny movie, hot cocoa, a journal, quote you love, favorite photos,  book, good friend's phone number, and items that remind you of a goal you have achieved or are striving for. All great things to put in there! 
  • Use the 5 second rule with an anchor thought. Many times in life we won't feel like doing something we know we need to do. The 5 second rule is a technique to making yourself do these things anyways. Even when you don't feel like it. For more on the 5 second rule watch my mentor Mel Robbins here
    Anchor thoughts keep you focused so you don’t escalate into a panic attack. So saying to yourself for example, "Someone in this audience needs to hear what I have to say today" can be a thought you come back to every time you feel anxiety or fear to get on stage. It helps ground you. 
  • Reframe what brain is doing.  You can reframe what your brain is telling you. For example, did you know the bodies physiological response is the same for fear as it is for excitement? You can tell yourself you are excited instead of scared to get up on stage for example. 
      

How parents can help

Parents and other caregivers have an important part to play, by adopting their own healthy habits and helping children and teens find stress-managing strategies. Some ways parents can take action: 

  • Model healthy coping. Caregivers can talk with children about how they’ve thought about and dealt with their own stressful situations.
  • Let kids be problem-solvers. It’s natural to want to fix your child’s problems. But when parents swoop in to solve every little glitch, their children don’t have a chance to learn healthy coping skills. Let your children try to solve their low-stakes problems on their own, and they’ll gain confidence that they can deal with stressors and setbacks.
  • Promote media literacy. Today’s kids spend a lot of time online, where they can run into questionable content, cyberbullying or the peer pressures of social media. Parents can help by teaching their children to be savvy digital consumers, and by limiting screen time.
  • Combat negative thinking. “I’m terrible at math.” “I hate my hair.” “I’ll never make the team." "Why try out?” Children and teens can easily fall into the trap of negative thinking. When children use negative self-talk, though, don’t just disagree. Ask them to really think about whether what they say is true, or remind them of times they worked hard and improved. Learning to frame things positively will help them develop resilience to stress.
  • Promote healthy habits. Suggest physical and creative outlets to your children to deal with stress. Get them a journal or hobby they can do for downtime. Avoid using food to make them feel better or vegging out for long periods of time on screens. 
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