Teens and Tweens
Helping Teens Handle Stress
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 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
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.
- 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.”
- Practice Good Communication: Lecturing teens accomplishes
very little, so parents must practice positive listening and
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
explore his feelings on thoughts and values. Encourage your teen
to never let “following the crowd” take precedence
over “following your conscience.”
- 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
of what is fair, so consequences should be appropriate and consistently
- 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
the consequences of those decisions. When teens feel trusted,
they feel more independent and less need to rebel. As hard as
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.
- Give encouragement and praise when appropriate:
Offer your teen encouragement when you see her struggling with
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.
- 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.
- 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 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
Parents can help ease their teen’s academic stress in several
- 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
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.
- Be interested and available
to help with schoolwork: This demonstrates both that education
is a priority and that aid is
difficult subject matter with which they may grapple.
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,
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
- Watch for sudden declines in academic performance:
Be aware that this could be indicative of an emotional problem
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
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
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.