Help Teens Navigate Stressful Waters

Feature Staying Grounded

Remember those elementary school days, when you knew how to support your child through most any challenge, whether it was dealing with the aftermath of a playground struggle or not being invited to a classmate’s birthday party? Once the adolescent years arrive, that carefree time is over. Despite the advantages tweens and teens have today — or maybe because of them — this age group must navigate a world that is far more complex and unforgiving than what the previous generation may have wrestled with.

From academic and extracurricular pressures involved in planning and preparing for college applications, to economic and social stresses on the home front, and expectations created and enforced by reality TV and social media, being a teen today is just plain hard. Experts say the key to helping your adolescent navigate these turbulent years is to recognize and know how to address potential sources of stress. Three areas are likely to cause the most stress for your adolescent. With your support and the following tips, your teen can learn to better manage these potential areas of pressure.

Academics: Be realistic and individualistic

First and foremost, know your child. Cherish and foster his uniqueness rather than encourage him to conform to some preconceived standard.

“A very important question that parents often fail to ask is, is their child happy?” says Cynthia M. Bulik, an adolescent psychologist and director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Parents focus on achievables and benchmarks — grades, test scores, teams they are on, competitions they are in. I see so many high school kids for whom happy isn’t on their radar. They’ll say, ‘I don’t have time to be happy.’ As an adolescent psychologist, I can’t say this is a healthy way to live.”

One way to help reduce academic stress is to encourage kids to focus on “fit” — what suits their particular strengths and interests — rather than prestige, Bulik says. “In order for our children to excel (and be happy), it’s so much more important to get into a college where they will ‘find their tribe’ rather than make Mommy or Daddy proud,” she says.

Indeed, many experts point to a trend in college admissions that favors “depth” over “breadth,” meaning that students with one or two passions pursued over time both academically and extracurricularly might have an advantage over those who have straight A’s in every subject and participate in a variety of unrelated activities.

Overall, while it’s fine to expect your teen to aim for the best grades possible, parents should refrain from overreacting, says Ryan Johnson, a guidance counselor and director of the Student Assistance Program at Raleigh’s Sanderson High School.

“You’re going to protect your kid, but for every missed homework assignment or minor conflict, you don’t want to be ‘mama bear,'” Johnson says. “I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me, but I think it’s important for kids to fail a little while they’re still in high school, where they have a safety net. It helps build up their confidence.”

Social scene: Know what’s going on

Of all the factors that influence a teen’s life, friends have the biggest impact. That’s why parents and experts agree that parents of teens should know their children’s friends. While forbidding your tween or teen from hanging out with a friend whose behavior you find objectionable might backfire, it’s perfectly reasonable to encourage get-togethers at your house, where you can keep a watchful eye on the situation.

Good friends who have a sound moral compass and your child’s best interest at heart can be your allies. Pauline Byron of Raleigh experienced this firsthand when her then-15-year-old’s close friends revealed to her that her child had illegally gotten a tattoo. Byron and her husband recognized the tattoo incident as a signal and sought professional help for their child. In addition to being grateful for the friends’ intervention, Byron was even more convinced than ever that teenagers, despite their tough facades, still need their parents.

“Our children do excel when we give them boundaries, which should be reasonable but strict, even if these mean that they can’t do things that they claim other kids are allowed to do,” she says.

Friends — and “frenemies” — can affect kids even when they’re home alone. With Facebook, Twitter, texting and Skype readily available to most teens, they can interact with anyone 24/7. Because such activity can distract kids from their homework and other obligations, it’s entirely reasonable to set limits on social media and texting, just as you do with TV watching, online time and video gaming.

There also is the psychologically destructive potential of these outlets. “In the past, bullying, teasing and cliques were things that occurred primarily at school,” Bulik says. “In the privacy of your home when you were doing your homework and being with your family, you could be somewhat sheltered from this. Now all you have to do is hit ‘enter’ to insult, tease or spread a nasty rumor about someone.”

So in addition to limiting social media, parents can teach kids to view such cyber gossip with a grain of salt. Parents also can make sure teens spend time with them and other caring adults who can provide ballast against superficial, unrealistic images and messages, says Rebecca Maser, a teen social worker and mother of two in King, N.C. “I tell parents that kids actually need more supervision at this age, not less,” she says.

Of course, parents and teens should report cyberbullying — and any form of bullying — immediately to the school, the bully’s parents or both. In Wake County, the Student Assistance Program, or SAP, enables students to report bullying on a confidential form in the student services office, where they can receive counseling and other services. Every Wake County high school has a SAP, which provides free support services, including counseling, to students with a variety of concerns, including academic, personal, family and social.

Identity development: Learn to let go

Even though Maser’s oldest child, Kate, is only in fifth grade, she knows the challenges of adolescence are right around the corner.

“You need to start way before adolescence keeping an open line of communication,” she says.

Relationships that are close at the outset are likely to stay that way during the tumultuous teen years, even if it doesn’t seem that way when your teen rolls her eyes or smirks at your rules. Parents should try to balance the need to protect their children with the recognition that they have to forge their own way.

“Adolescence has always been a period of social development and freedom navigation,” says Sebastian Kaplan, a child and adolescent psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem. “Parents need to start having less and less control as time goes on. It becomes more and more a question of listening and noticing” who their kids are and the best ways to interact with them, he says.

Maser agrees, noting, “Although you want what’s best for them, my job as a parent is to help them make decisions for themselves. My job as a parent is to get myself out of a job.”  n

Suzanne M. Wood has been a freelance writer since 1998. She and her husband live in Raleigh with their three children.