How to Support Your Teen During Stressful Times

Teens aren’t always vocal about their mental health struggles. Here’s how to help.

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The teen years can be challenging, even at the best of times. But do you know a teen or preteen—your child, your student, a niece or nephew, a neighbor, or a younger sibling—who has been dealing with something extraordinarily stressful lately? In Zen Teen, I give teens 40 ways to decrease anxiety while increasing feelings of calm and confidence (plus a fun playlist of songs in the back of the book). Practicing the following mindfulness techniques with a teen during a stressful period will make you both feel better.

  1. Teach teens to get in touch with all their emotions by creating a safe space for them to express everything. Sometimes in our efforts to make people feel better during a stressful time, we can try to pep talk them too much or downplay their emotional experience. “Come on, cheer up. It isn’t that bad!” is well meant, but might be the wrong thing to say to a teen who is very upset. If a teen is having trouble dealing with their parents’ divorce, a parent might just acknowledge the teen’s emotions by encouraging them to express any feelings of anger, grief, or confusion. A parent might even say, “I feel sad and angry about what’s happening too. But it can’t be avoided and we’ll get through this together.” When challenging emotions are acknowledged and expressed, they are easier to deal with and pass more quickly.

  2. Explain the concept of surrender to teens with a “surrender jar.” There may be elements of this stressful situation that are within the teen’s control, and some that aren’t. If the teen is being bullied, you might explain that all they can control is their reaction to the bullying—they cannot control how someone else chooses to behave. If the teen is applying to colleges or trade schools, all they can do is put together the best application they have in them—whether the school decides to accept them involves factors that are out of their control, like the applications of the other candidates that year. Start a surrender jar in the home, where teens write down something they cannot control on a slip of paper and then place it in the jar to symbolize their willingness to let go of this aspect of the situation. This will help curb moments of worry and panic, as worrying about something out of our control can begin to seem pointless.

  3. Develop healthy routines that ground teens during times of stress. Humans love routine, as it can calm the nervous system and make us feel safe. If the teen going through a stressful period lives far away from you, make a phone date at the same time every week to talk and connect. If the teen lives with you, take a 30-minute walk with them around the neighborhood every day when you get home from work. You don’t have to say or do anything miraculous. Sometimes just giving teens a natural rhythm to hold fast to during stressful times will help keep them calm and instills in them the value of healthy routines.

  4. Create gratitude lists to show teens they can choose what to focus on. It’s natural that teens will focus on the stressful situation they are navigating. You don’t have to tell them to think about how their bestie is ghosting them, for example, or how their ex-girlfriend broke up with them right before prom. Point out what the teen has to feel grateful about to help them shift their focus. It could be something big like recently scoring the winning goal at a soccer match or improving their GPA. Or it could be something that feels smaller but is actually huge—like being grateful they have a fridge full of food, a roof over their head, or clean water. You can make a gratitude list together on paper and include things you are grateful for as well to inspire your teen.

  5. Help teens develop a spiritual practice. Sensing that there is something bigger than us, a force that is protective and loving, can be key during stressful times. If the teen is part of a spiritual or religious community, you might encourage them to attend gatherings more regularly or get more involved in that community. If your teen is a nature lover, take them for a walk or hike or simply a nice quiet sit in nature. If they’re drawn to meditation, offer to meditate with them or teach them how to meditate. In Zen Teen I give examples of many different types of meditation so teens can find one that works for them. If the teen in your life is a budding mystic, help them plan a full moon, new moon, or other ritual.

  6. Assure teens that stressful situations happen in life, but they also end. Teens may not yet have enough life experience to know that life is seasonal—there are challenging seasons and also joyful, relaxed ones. Explain that this is the natural flow of life. If the teen is experiencing anxiety or depression, or has a physical illness or injury, remind them that these conditions can be healed or better managed and understood with time. This stressful situation will change and evolve as all things do. You might give them examples from your own life where this has happened. Give teens the benefit of your hard-won life wisdom!

Adapted from Zen Teen: 40 Ways to Stay Calm When Life Gets Stressful by Tanya Carroll Richardson. Copyright © 2018. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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