EDITOR’S NOTE: For more helpful tips on helping teens handle stress, visit The Center for Parent and Teen Communication’s special Managing Stress section.
Let’s scoreboard what my teenagers have been through in the last couple of years.
Pandemic. Virtual schooling. Dating. About 500 emails from the school telling them they’ve been exposed to COVID. Quarantine. PSATs. Three separate school-wide walkouts to protest slurs. And college recruiters asking them about their future.
Oh, and they get no more snow days. That last one just seems mean.
As an adult, that is enough to stress me out daily. But how about my teenagers? How does a teen today deal with a world that is chaotic, loud and confusing?
How to spot teen stress
When I’m stressed, I get angry and want to confront the source of the stress. When my stress contributes to my anxiety, I write snarky articles blaming the everyone in the world for being giant jerks. I also swear a lot. However, that’s not the way stress and anxiety present in a teen.
Dads are often advised to watch for their teenagers pulling away or getting frustrated. Advice like that makes me think the people who wrote it have never dealt with a teenager. To spot stress in your teen, it requires a bit more work.
“You have to engage,” Dr. Jeffery Bernstein, author of The Stress Survival Guide for Teens and 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, said in an interview with me. “Create a safe space where they feel comfortable talking to you.”
For me, that brings up visions of cat cafés and chai tea — both things I’d rather not do. I’m more of a dog person.
But I get what he is saying and have practiced it with my own two teenagers. I’ve ditched the “big fatherly talk” where I sit in a regal Victorian chair and have on a dad sweater. Instead, every day I take some time to engage with my teens on their level.
A safe space for talking, listening, observing
My son loves gaming, so I take the time to play with him. Yes, he mops the floor with me, but the point is that I’m there in his environment. This is where we can talk without any extra pressure. With my 15-year-old daughter, it’s scary movies. That time is devoted to her talking about her life.
Conversations come easy when they have the backdrop of something they like, and it gives me a chance to see if they are more withdrawn than usual. My teenagers are more open, forthcoming and honest in these moments.
Often, a teen under stress will verbalize their thoughts in these environments. They don’t know how to deal with the stressors in their lives or that they could even use help. When I am engaged in my kids’ spaces, it opens up those lines of communication. This is what Dr. Bernstein means by creating a safe space.
It’s not just one Ward Cleaver type of moment, but a series of small interactions during the month that last anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours. It’s there that I can help them verbalize rather than to internalize. I like that phrase enough that I’m going to turn it into a bumper sticker now.
Let’s talk coping strategies
Once I know they are stressed, that’s where I struggle as a father. Instinctively, I want to fight their battles.
“Don’t come into it with a fix-it mindset. Lead with empathy,” Bernstein said. “And then use modeling to show them how to cope.”
We need to empower our kids and teach them problem-solving and coping skills. That begins with you. Don’t fight their battles, let them figure out the solution with your guidance. Point them in the right direction of a solution and let them arrive there through their efforts. This will give them ownership of the skill. That ownership will stick with them longer than a lecture.
Sometimes that means that I share their anger and stress. That boy broke your heart? He’s a jerk. That test was hard? Oomph, tell me about it. That then allows me to provide them guidance and perspective based on my experiences. For example, if choosing a college is difficult, then I begin planning small steps with them.
We also have to model better with our own behaviors. When I’m stressed, I swear a lot more. That’s not the best example. A better example would be exercise, eating better, and sticking to a sleep schedule — three things parents the world over are terrible at. But it goes further than that basic cliché advice.
Model your stress management to your teen
We need to share with our children when we are stressed and make it relatable. This is where a lot of fathers fail, including me.
We have it in our heads that as dad, we should be indestructible. We want them to see us the same way they did when they were 3: perfect. They don’t need perfect right now. Our teenagers need reality.
That’s not to mean that we dump a series of adult stresses on them. Instead, Dr. Bernstein states that we should take a coaching approach.
I’ll let my daughter and my son know when I have a deadline coming up that makes me stressed. I’ll usually throw in a joke, but I’ll also let them see my actions. I’m proactive in my solutions. I’ll set a time to get the task done, reward myself when it is done, and then make a plan for the next step.
My kids also see me practice mindfulness. I take 20 minutes a day and run through a program on our VR headset. It helps clear my thoughts and focus on the here and now. As I practice these coping strategies, I’ve talked to my kids about why I’m doing them. That’s how I coach them, and they have begun to adopt some of these strategies.
Keep calm and carry on
Finally, we need help controlling our anger. No one can push our buttons like our teenagers.
“Remove your ego out of the conversation. See it as if you’re watching it from above. Don’t escalate the situation or take it personally,” Bernstein said in our interview.
Easier said than done. But when I speak calmly, I notice my children respond better. And if that’s not working, we all put ourselves into timeout. Timeouts as an adult are awesome.
And if none of the strategies above are working, then it might be time to seek out professional help. Having a third party to talk to may give your teenagers a chance to open up in a way that they can’t with you.
Yes, the world can be a stressful place for adults, and as fathers we need to be aware that our kids share in that stress. Teaching them coping skills is something that they will use for the rest of their life.
And if all else fails, then teach them to swear with the best of them. Don’t put that on me though, I’m stressed enough as it is.