Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
I started working with Shannon, a high school junior, at the beginning of lockdown. Shannon has asthma, and she’s afraid of getting Covid-19 herself. She’s also afraid of making a family member or someone else sick. And she fears the pandemic will never be over, that things will never again feel normal.
I also work with Tim, a high school senior. I started therapy with Tim about two years ago. He is a handsome, popular, athletic guy. But he’s stressed about being able to afford the upper-middle-class life his parents have given him. He can’t picture being successful, and he is painfully anxious about it. Especially during the pandemic, possible failure is on his mind nearly constantly.
Do you remember worrying about your adult life when you were a teenager? Neither do I. Kids just think differently now. Like Shannon and Tim (not their real names), they have this broad scope and range of experience and knowledge, based in large part on what is available to them on screens, and from their friends.
The pandemic has made things so much worse. Many teens I work with deal with a nearly crippling social anxiety, either from a lack of practice after a year with precious little time with friends, or because of overall social insecurity. As a result, they experience the fear of missing out regularly, and they think their friends are enjoying themselves on TikTok and Snapchat, adding to their levels of stress.
Some also feel a sense of desperation, depression and anxiety they have never experienced before, always having considered themselves positive, upbeat people. Several of my clients are now taking medication to balance their moods.
How to recognize stress in your teens
Sometimes, our kids actually tell us they are stressed, which is amazing. If they do, you are lucky. Skip down to the “what parents can do to help” section right now.
More likely, they won’t. In my experience, kids are rarely forthcoming about these things, assuming parents either won’t get it or may limit their freedom to keep an eye on them at home in a misguided attempt to help.
I encourage parents to look for any marked change in their child’s mood or behavior due to anxiety and worry. Stressed kids can present as irritable, avoidant, even withdrawn. And/or their stress might manifest in physical symptoms, including fatigue, muscle pain, headaches, stomach issues and difficulty sleeping.
They may also regulate their emotions more poorly, become short-tempered, angry and overly emotional. Your formerly compliant child may now seem suddenly rude, talking back, yelling and disrupting the household. Before doling out discipline or a consequence, sit with her, talk, and listen, about not only her levels of stress, but her emotional life overall.
If it’s stress, get to what’s causing it. I find parents are often wrong about why their kids feel stressed. Parents might think, for instance, that their kids are worried about their grades when they actually are concerned about being left out socially.
Know that what’s stressing you out about your kid is likely different than what’s burdening them. So, hear her out. Be curious. But give your child space and time to process. Set your judgment and ego aside, and really listen, acknowledge, and don’t overreact.
Sometimes just listening and acknowledging can solve the problem. But if not, talk about what you might be able to do together to help.
What parents can do to help
Guide your child to calm her mind and problem-solve. A moment of meditation or a few deep breaths can bring quick relief to your stressed child. And once she is calm, break down the stressor into digestible chunks.
Maybe he can reach out to his teacher for an extension on a project. Or she can text an apology to her friend for slighting her. Often it’s just a matter of looking at the stressful situation in a different way. Thoughtful problem-solving under stress is an invaluable lifelong skill.
And finally, model healthy coping. Don’t forget you are an enormous influence on your child. Kids are forever paying attention to the way you manage your stress.
Gender differences in stress management
On the whole, teen girls tend to report feeling stressed, and a higher degree of stress, than their male counterparts.
That said, many of my colleagues and I have found that this finding may be because girls are raised to be emotionally expressive and vulnerable. Even in initial therapy sessions, I find that girls often disclose their stressors almost immediately.
We teach boys, from early ages, to be far more stoic and show little emotion. Anger is too often the only allowable expressed emotion. As a result, boys cry far less, and internalize their emotions far more.
Because our boys are likely as stressed as our girls, we need to encourage them to be more emotionally expressive. Dads and other men can exert a profound impact here by modeling emotional vulnerability and showing their boys that it does not diminish masculinity. And moms can reward that behavior with direct acknowledgement and validation.
Some post-pandemic takeaways
It may be difficult to imagine positive takeaways from this pandemic, especially for those who have gotten sick, lost loved ones or lost jobs. But keep in mind that surviving this time and coming out of it with a sense of resilience is a major accomplishment.
Over dinner, in the car, or during an evening at home, consider starting a friendly family conversation that reflects on the past year with your children. Point out the degree to which they handled all the stressors they faced: health fears, a quarantine, hybrid school, online classes, and far too much time away from friends and activities.
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Point out to them the life lessons they have picked up along the way: doing laundry, making dinner, gardening, piano, teaching grandparents how to video chat, raising money for a food bank, or standing up for a cause they believe in.
Remind them that, just by making it through a once-in-a-century pandemic, they have proven themselves competent and resilient. Remind them you are there to support them. And when they are faced with stress in the future, they will be immeasurably better equipped to manage it.