Q&A with Dr. Janet Williams:
Stress is a part of all of our lives and can often be a motivating factor for us to push ourselves and achieve success. Teens, however, say they are feeling increasing levels of stress and most have not yet developed the proper coping mechanisms to keep stress levels in check.
Without guidance from a parent or caregiver, teens will often find their own ways of coping, sometimes involving unhealthy behaviors such as drug use, alcohol consumption, or smoking. ¹ Dr. Janet Williams, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, helps to answer parent questions about monitoring and handling their teens’ stress levels.
Q: What signs should I look for if I suspect my teen is feeling overwhelmed?
A: Teens express feelings of being overwhelmed in a wide variety of ways. Of course, some teens just come out and say how they feel – usually only to someone they trust. These teens are also more likely to use talking about stress as a coping mechanism, and talking can be very effective!
Body language is often a great clue to feelings. Being overwhelmed is often expressed through a change in usual activities, friends, or personality. Dropping grades might be a clue. Some people take their stress out on themselves while others act out and take it out on others.
Stress might be expressed as anger, anxiety, annoyance, frustration, fatigue, or insomnia, depression, dishonesty, or impatience. It can be expressed in many ways, including boredom, silence, resistance, disrespect, fear, binge-eating, shopping, violence, or risk-taking. Being overloaded with stress can also cause physical symptoms, such as headache, indigestion, or chest pain, and can cause chronic disorders to flare up.
Q: Do teen boys and girls react to stress differently?
A: Boys and girls typically find different types of situations stressful, and often respond differently, but not always. Ways to cope with stressors can be identical for boys and girls, but many cultural, environmental, and personal influences come into play. There are hormonal influences, too. The typical response of girls to stress involves a lot of emotions and reaching out to involve others in some way. Boys more often internalize their response, avoid others or react physically, such as starting some sort of confrontation.
Q: What can I do to help teens cope with stress?
A: It is very important for parents and teens to maintain their trust and build communication with each other. Parents must listen to their teens, and let them know they believe in them and their abilities to make healthy decisions. It is important for parents to notice signs of stress, voice their concerns, and be a source of help, when necessary.
Parents should support teens in developing their own solutions as well as positive coping strategies, and the ability to anticipate and avoid future stressors. Parents can help teens build self-confidence, organizational skills, and a sense of balance in life. Guide them in nurturing their own physical and emotional health. Encourage involvement in positive as well as relaxing activities, such as athletics, meditation, art and music, or volunteer work.
Q: How honest should I be with my kids about stress in my own life (health, family troubles, finances, etc.)?
A: Honesty is always the best policy, since parents expect honesty from others, including their teens. It is also important not to cause an unnecessary burden for the teen emotionally or psychologically, or damage important relationships like your own by sharing certain matters or details that are private and not essential to discuss.
Since life is always full of stressors, it is important that parents have developed and role-modeled their own healthy ways of problem-solving and coping with stress. Teens can ‘experience’ their parents as real people with real issues, and see resilience and effective problem-solving and relaxation skills in action. Teens become motivated to develop in this way, too.
Q: Where else can teens turn for help if stress is weighing them down?
A: Seeking help to cope better with stress is not a sign of weakness for you or your teen. It shows that you want to improve your life skills and help your child develop the necessary skills for handling anything life throws at him or her. Find someone you and your teen trust and relate to – a school counselor, faith-based leader, health professional such as a personal physician or adolescent medicine specialist, a mental health professional, counseling center or employee assistance program – and do not be afraid to ask for help. There are many causes and types of stress, and there are many ways to relieve stress, so keep trying until you discover the combination of physical, emotional, spiritual, and other means that work for you and your family.
Janet F. Williams, MD, is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA) tenured Professor of Pediatrics who has been a faculty member in the School of Medicine since 1986. Her areas of expertise include growth and development, adolescent medicine, and substance abuse in children and adolescents.
¹ Wills TA et al. Coping Dimensions, life stress and adolescent substance abuse: A latent growth analysis. J Abnorm Psych 2001;10:309-23.
http://psycnet.apa.org/index. cfm?fa=search.display Record&uid=2001-17231-011
CTCADA offers both adolescent intervention and treatment programs. Education, individual counseling, family therapy, group counseling and referral to other resources are all part of a comprehensive effort to prevent or intervene in youth alcohol and drug abuse. Call us at 254-690-4455!