- December 19, 2022
- Jennifer Salerno
The holidays are here! For many of us, this is an opportunity to take a break from our usual rhythms of school and work to spend quality time with our loved ones and consider what matters most. Music and merriment, food and festivities – it’s lovely, but it’s also a lot.
A lot of planning, a lot of money, a lot of going and doing.
Even if we’ve resolved to keep things simple, this time of year has a way of inducing stress and anxiety.
If you are a parent of a teen, stress and anxiety in the household may be heightened. Middle and high school students are approaching exams and feeling weary at the end of this semester. This article addresses best practices for how to talk with your teen about the stress and anxiety they may be feeling and provides quick tips to keep in mind this season to protect and nurture emotional health.
Best Practices for Talking with Teens
If your teen seems stressed out, you’re probably right. Adolescents struggle with intense levels of stress. Our Rapid Adolescent Prevention Screening (RAAPS) tool indicates that more than 1 in 10 youth surveyed has serious problems or worries at home or school, and 1 in every 4 teens indicate in the last month that they often felt sad or down.
If your teen is having trouble sleeping, experiencing fatigue or muscle aches, or just seems ‘off,’ they might be feeling weighed down by stress. It could be related to the anxiety of upcoming exams or the anticipated change in routine over winter break. As a parent or trusted adult caring for a teen, it is natural to want to talk with them to figure out what’s bothering them so you can try to help them try to feel better. Though, if we’re being honest, it’s not always easy to talk with teens. Some parents and professionals who work with teens find it especially tricky to start a conversation about stress, anxiety, and other challenging topics.
Here are 4 tips for ‘real talk’ with teens. In other words, here’s how to move past “How are you?” and “You seem really high-strung today” to a more meaningful conversation that fosters connection.
1. Show Respect
Yes, we want our teens to be respectful towards others, including and especially their parents. But, respect is a 2-way street and it is important for the adults in a teen’s life to show respect, too.
Try asking permission before you start the challenging conversation. You can say, “I would like to talk with you about how you’re feeling about exams next week. When is a good time?” Or, “I’ve noticed some changes in your sleeping and eating habits recently. Can we talk about that this weekend?”
Another way to show respect is by demonstrating empathy. Empathy is communicating an understanding of how another person feels, and/or sharing in that feeling. If your teen just experienced a breakup or is missing a close friend who just moved away, acknowledge the difficulty of what they’re facing. You might try something like this, “I know it’s just not the same without your friend by your side every day. I bet you feel pretty lonely these days.”
2. Talk With Your Teen and Not at Your Teen
Talking with your teen involves open-ended questions that invite ongoing conversation. Talking at your teen involves giving commands or making closed statements that limit dialogue. We want to aim for talking “with” rather than talking “at” our teens. Here are a few examples of what this looks like when we’re having conversations about stress and anxiety:
|Talking at||Talking with|
|Don’t stay up so late!||Staying up late makes it hard to focus the next day, it can impair your driving, and it can affect your mood. I care about you and want you to feel good. What can you do to get to bed at a decent hour?|
|We need to talk.||I would like to talk with you without any distractions. When would be a good time today?|
|You better study for your exams.||You have worked really hard this semester and I believe you when you say you care about your grades. When do you plan to study for your exams?|
|Why don’t you want to be with your family? It’s Christmas, after all!||I know your friends are really important to you, and it’s a special thing to get to see them during winter break when you don’t have school the next day. Your family feels the same way. We love spending time with you. Can we look at a calendar together to set aside a few days just for friends, and a few days for family activities?|
3. Call Out Your Teen’s Strengths to Build Self-Esteem
Practice naming the strengths of your teen. Think of several different categories that their strengths may fall into, like caring about their physical health, being observant, working hard at something they care deeply about, or having a jovial, fun personality. In plain words, tell your teen what you love about them! Fostering self-worth empowers them to make positive choices for themselves and it encourages meaningful connection.
4. Be Quick to Listen (…And Slow the Impulsiveness)
Remember that your job as a parent – or as a professional who works with adolescents – is to facilitate and guide conversations, not to lead and direct them. Do as much listening as you can! Try asking open-ended questions or offering statements that encourage elaboration. For example, you can say, “Tell me about your day,” instead of “How was your day?” You can also try asking, “What’s going through your mind as we get closer to our trip to see family?”
As your teen begins to open up, check yourself before you say the first thing that comes to your mind, especially if the teen is divulging sensitive information. Sharing personal feelings and intimate thoughts (even with one’s parents) requires significant vulnerability. It is a very brave thing to do. So, be sure to listen first.
Can We Talk About Politics? Religion? Culture?
Whether you are hosting the family gathering or traveling to your in-laws’ home, it’s wise to think carefully about whether you want to get into a conversation that has the potential to feel polarizing. It’s especially important to consider how you might respond before the gathering so you are prepared if you find yourself in a conversation about a topic that makes you feel uncomfortable. Understanding your limits and setting boundaries when necessary is an important skill to model for your teen, who will be observing how you handle challenging conversations with close family and friends.
Some families explicitly choose to keep politics off limits. There’s a shared understanding that guests simply won’t be discussing politics. These hard boundaries usually arise as a response to having had an unpleasant experience in the past. Other families welcome lively debate and opposing viewpoints and it is expected that ‘hot topic’ issues will arise.
If there’s no rule or expectation about what you do or don’t talk about with your family and friends, remember these two words: time and place. Ask yourself if your current setting is the right time and place to dive into a conversation about politics, religion, the environment, or any other matter. If so, go for it! If not, save your discussion for another time.
Slow Down (Really!)
You’ve heard it before and you’ll read it again now –
Take time to rest. Slow the hustle and bustle so you have margin in your life to be fully present with your loved ones. One of the surest ways to actually enjoy the holidays is to not overextend yourself or your family. This is also a great lesson to model for your teen. Resting and recharging look different for different people, but here are a few ideas for how to offset the busyness of the holidays:
- Go to bed early
- Get up early before your household wakes to have quiet time to yourself
- Take a nap
- Schedule time to tend to your regular exercise routine
- Spend time outdoors (yes, even in the winter!)
- Be diligent about drinking enough water
- Be mindful about how much alcohol you consume, if you do choose to drink
- Carry nutritious snacks as you shop
- Communicate any boundaries you need to share with your family and friends (see note above about
notpoliticking at the holiday feast)
- Plan to meet a friend for coffee to enjoy quality time together
- Consider enlisting the help of others, take-out, delivery, or catering to prepare the food and drink
When you slow down enough to truly rest, the end of the year turns into a wonderful opportunity to deepen relationships and create memories. It’s hard to really connect with others when your head is spinning or you’re totally exhausted, right? Quality rest and meaningful time spent with others also contribute to improved overall health – your emotional well-being and your physical health. Further, modeling for your teen how to take care of yourself while you care for others is a tremendous gift. Give it to them this holiday season.
What’s Next? … Here’s One Thing
Parenting a teen can be aggravating, confusing, and wonderful – all at the same time. To learn easy-to-implement, effective and engaging parenting tools, check out Dr. Salerno’s Teen Speak Course.