As a parent, you may be wondering how to help your child manage their stress better and improve their mental health. After all, we live in some of the most stressful times in human history. Even putting aside the global pandemic, rising anxiety rates in children have been reported for decades. But we want to make something very clear: Stress itself is not a villain.
Teen Stress: Identifying Healthy vs. Unhealthy Levels
To a certain extent, stress is healthy, good for us, and a natural part of life. “Stress exists in the world and is necessary,” says Chief Clinical Officer for Embark Behavioral Health, Rob Gent, M.A., LPC. “Gravity itself provides stress to hold us on the ground. Stress is necessary, from driving blood flow, to development, building muscles, thriving, and having resiliency.”
Our bodies are made to deal with, and respond to, this stress. So, when we talk about “managing stress,” we mean learning how to deal with overwhelming stress. “When stress becomes overwhelming, then it becomes unproductive. That stress, when it overwhelms our ability to cope or to integrate, often turns into anxiety.”
It is crucial for both our children and us to recognize the difference between the natural stress that is inherent in life and the toxic levels that can accompany being human in our modern society.
Stress is Contagious
While many parents feel stressed themselves, they do not know how their own stress affects their children. But stress is contagious. Here are some ways it can pass between family members:
- We learn stress management from our parents. It is essential to see healthy coping behaviors modeled so as children grow up, they understand how to deal with overwhelming stress.
- Our brains are hardwired to mimic. We all have mirror neurons, which unconsciously trigger us to imitate the facial expressions, body language, speech, and more of those around us. “As a kid, you might see your primary caregiver stressed with cortisol [a stress hormone], perhaps with a grimaced face and furrowed brows. The child mimics this grimaced face and furrowed brow, and their body produces cortisol in response. So, in this sense, overwhelming stress is highly contagious,” says Gent.
Put on Your Oxygen Mask First
But don’t let your brows start furrowing as you read this! Instead, remember this air travel safety tip: Put on your own oxygen mask first.
How do you manage your own stress, so it doesn’t turn into overwhelming stress? “At Embark, we look at everything holistically, from nutrition to all forms of functional health. They’re all related to mitigating overwhelming stress, appropriately managing stress, and even looking forward to some stressful situations and opportunities for growth,” says Gent.
Where should you begin? Here’s what Gent recommends:
- Start with yourself as the caregiver. Examine these questions: Am I providing an environment with consistent boundaries and limits, along with emotional regulation? Am I modeling how to repair relationships when they get broken? “If I can establish relational consistency and security, that is highly correlated with gaining physiological regulation. This will actually allow us to open our window of tolerance for stress,” says Gent.
- Model healthy behaviors and utilize your support system. As a caregiver, modeling healthy coping skills is key. Do you have relationships where you can talk, vent, and work through problems? Do you allow trust, intimacy, and vulnerability in your relationships? “Vulnerability is an essential means of reducing overwhelming stress,” says Gent. “So, modeling that in your role and influence as the caregiver is also essential.”
How to Assess Your Child’s Stress
It can be hard to see the difference between typical stress and overwhelming stress. “Sometimes it can be challenging because, as parents, we have our own blinders on regarding our own stress. It can make it hard to identify in others what we fail to see in ourselves,” says Gent.
Here is a checklist of some of the critical behaviors to watch out for that may indicate your child needs additional help from a professional:
- Relationships: How much time are they spending getting meaning and purpose out of electronic devices and social media instead of face-to-face interactions or physical activities?
- Frustration: Are their tempers shortened? Are they quick to be agitated or hostile? Are they avoidant of interaction with you?
- Shopping/physical goods: “If only I got the new iPhone/sneakers/etc., I would be happier,” is a common refrain. Getting new things gives us a shot of dopamine (a chemical in the brain associated with happiness) that feels good in the moment but does not resolve our underlying problems.
- Diet: How many sugars and carbohydrates are they consuming? Is their diet healthy?
- Lack of Unity: Is there a lack of congruence (or unity) between your child’s affect (their mood) and their words? For example, does your child say they are fine but in a somber tone? Are they smiling, but you know, deep down, they aren’t feeling that way?
- Lack of Openness: Is there more isolation than usual? Are they resisting vulnerability with you? Of course, all adolescents seek to individuate (build their personalities and life), so some separation is normal. But stress can intensify these hormones – some vulnerability should be maintained.
- Passions: How do they talk about activities, sports, school? Are they expressing a sense of overwhelm?
Remember: Some stress is normal. But in today’s society, rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, and more are at an all-time high because of overwhelming stress. Put on your own oxygen mask, and look around at how stress levels can be managed in your family.