Teen stress: What’s normal and when to get help

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If you have a teenager in your house, you likely know that youth isn’t always carefree and positive. Learning to recognize when your child is under too much stress and knowing what to do about it can help maintain peace in your home and ensure she grows into a healthy adult who looks back on her youth with fondness.

Teenagers experience pressure from many external sources, but experts say the adolescent brain also undergoes a sort of hormonal upheaval that can make handling everyday stress more challenging. A 2013 survey from the American Psychological Association found that teens report unhealthy stress levels that exceed those of adults. Thirty-one percent of teenagers reported feeling overwhelmed by stress, and 30 percent said they were depressed or sad as a result of stressors.

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When does stress tip from natural to unhealthy?

Headaches, the inability to eat, withdrawing socially and frequent illnesses: Too much stress can have lasting and damaging effects.

Dr. Jamie Howard, clinical psychologist and director of the Stress and Resilience Program at the Child Mind Institute in New York, says some stress is healthy for adolescent children. The stressors may come from school, sports, their parents or self-imposed expectations. These normal worries are temporary, not too intense and don’t disrupt daily life. But these same stressors can become unhealthy.

“Worries become a cause for concern when they become so persistent and intense that they interfere with what we call the job of being a kid,” Howard says. That job includes applying themselves in school, maintaining friendships, loving their families and engaging in activities they enjoy. “When kids feel anxious about doing these things, they might experience the urge to avoid them,” which is a clear sign it’s time to intervene.

Howard says to watch out for:

● Dramatic changes in eating and sleeping habits
● Overwhelming worries about things beyond their control such as global events, parental health and being “perfect”
● Fear of humiliating themselves doing everyday tasks such as eating in front of other people or saying the wrong things
● Recurring and intrusive thoughts they can’t seem to control, such as a fear of germs or the idea that someone is out to get them
● Refusal to be away from parents or refusing to go to school

Also, disagreements and occasional outbursts are par for the course when parenting a teenager, but unrelenting anger, incessant arguments or physical confrontations are clear signs that your child is having trouble.

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What parents can do

Stressed-out children need their parents’ support. This could be as simple as asking what the trouble is and giving them a safe place to open up without fear of judgment.

“Most children want to talk to their parents about stress, but their parents are unlikely to ask,” says Dr. Jocelyn Carter, associate professor of clinical psychology at DePaul University in Chicago.

The American Psychological Association says you can help teens open up by:

● Listening without interrupting
● Providing thoughtful responses
● Tempering your own emotions

Remember, regardless of how serious or trivial the concerns may seem to you, they are causing your child difficulty, so be kind.

Also, set a good example. Parents who are unable to manage stress aren’t modeling healthy behaviors, so make an effort to practice what you preach. Combat your own stress by getting regular sleep, enjoying social and recreational activities, and exercising regularly.

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Where to go for help

When you’ve tried talking things out, but your child’s stress continues to affect his physical health, relationships or the sanctity of your home, it may be time to talk with a professional. Likewise, if you or your child recognizes that your relationship is a big part of the unmanageable stress, a third party can be helpful.

Your child’s pediatrician is a good place to start for several reasons:

● Teenagers may already have a level of trust built up with their pediatrician, making them a good outside source for talks or stress management advice. Also, teens may resist seeing a psychologist because of a perceived social stigma, which is absent from a visit to the regular doctor.
● The doctor can refer you to a reputable mental health professional, and that referral may be required by your health insurance.
● The Affordable Care Act mandates that adolescents be provided depression and behavioral health screenings free of charge when they visit their in-network, primary-care doctor. So, depending on the content of your child’s appointment, the pediatrician’s visit could be free.

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Howard says children today are being taught more about stress management in school, often in conjunction with social skills and assertiveness training that accompanies bullying prevention programs. But a psychologist or therapist can further help your teen identify thought processes that could be trapping them in a cycle of worry and anxiety.

By talking to your child, keeping a close eye on her behaviors, modeling positive stress management techniques and not being afraid to reach out for help, you’re most likely to set your teen up for success.