When is Teen Anxiety, Stress Too Much?
A little stress can help kids prepare for adulthood, but how much anxiety is too much, and what can you do to take the pressure off?
Students today often find themselves on a virtual treadmill. They take the hardest courses and get involved with multiple extra-curricular activities and community-service projects in hopes they will improve their shot to get into the best school.
The challenge for parents is to know when their children’s stress is healthy, when it is harmful, and how to help them manage their anxiety.
Parents can’t control all the external factors that stress their kids, but they can remove some irons from the fire.
“Parents can help their students narrow down their interests and really focus on what they enjoy,” says Beth Mikolajcyk, DeMasi Middle School counselor, in Evesham Township, NJ. “Don’t just add another class or activity without consideration for the child’s need for unstructured time.
“It’s okay to say no to an invitation to give your child some free time.”
One of first things to recognize is that not all stress is bad.
“Particularly for kids and adolescents, a certain amount of early, challenging stressful experiences can help their bodies and minds become more resilient, particularly later in life,” says Jason Lewis, psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and assistant psychologist for University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “Stress operates the body’s alarm system that produces the fight, flight or freeze mechanism, so when our body’s feeling stress, it produces chemicals that can help brain communication, motivate us into action and help with memory, performance and the immune system.”
Parents need to teach a child how to cope with stress, says Mikolajcyk. “I want children to develop their own coping mechanisms for stress so that when they become adults they have ways to manage their stress level.”
It’s easy to feel as a parent that you want to swoop in and fix the problem. Instead, validate their feelings, says Cami Winkelspecht, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. “Ask how you can best support them. Sometimes kids just want to talk about it.”
Signs of excessive stress
Certain signs indicate the pressure has gone too far and parents need to intervene. Here’s what to look for:
• More tired than usual
• More headaches, stomachaches, colds or viral infections
• More sad, anxious or annoyed
• More nervous about assignments
• A decline in grades
• Avoidance of social events
• Change in appetite, focus or concentration
“Parents know their child best and what they would typically do in a situation,” says Winkelspecht. “If they see changes in what would be typical, those can be warning signs.”
How to help
Talk, Talk, Talk — Talk to them and then talk some more, says Mikolajcyk. “Tell them about how you respond to stress and what coping methods you find successful,” she says. Explain your concern, says Winkelspecht. “Help them understand that you’ve seen some changes with how they usually act and that you’re worried about them,” she adds.
Show the Way — Remember that your children always watch and model your behavior. “If the parents do a good job to cope with stress and are proactive to help themselves, it’s more likely for the teens to do it also,” says Lewis.
Get Physical — Encourage your child to engage in physical activities. Especially for teenagers who tend to manage their stress with social media, video games or other sedentary activities, to get them physically active can make a big difference, says Lewis. Relaxation activities, including yoga or meditation, can also be helpful.
Be Social, Not Sleepy — Social interactions and hobbies, even if they include a limited amount of social media or video games, can also be helpful. But make sure they don’t interfere with their sleep; getting enough sleep is vital.
Have the Drug Talk — It’s important to talk to your child about drugs during times of stress. “Lots of people will use substances to cope or manage stressors in their lives, whether it’s caffeine, drugs or alcohol,” says Lewis.
Seek Help — When there are severe or significant symptoms of depression, such as thoughts of suicide or self harm, like cutting, parents need to take action, says Lewis. That includes professional help through your child’s doctor, a mental health professional or a crisis center.
Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.