Encouraging Healthy Coping Strategies in Teens

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Adolescence: A State of Constant Change

One of the biggest challenges faced by adolescents is coping with stressors and difficult emotions. Teenagers face new demands and responsibilities in school, in relationships, and at home. These years are often an exciting time, but their challenges can also prove overwhelming when one does not have the right tools to manage them. The development of healthy coping skills prevents teens from using unhealthy or risky means to manage or distract from their problems. Instead, it provides teens with skills and strategies that they can apply to manage stress, anxiety, difficult emotions, and new challenges that come their way.

How Stress Can Impact the Teen Brain

Research has shown that “adolescence is a period characterized by a combination of significant brain alterations, high levels of stress, and emergence of psychopathology.” Unfortunately, chronic stress and mental health issues are common among teenagers. This does not mean that adolescents are doomed to a life of stress and mental health issues. It does mean, however, that new demands require the development of new coping strategies, and that a failure to do so can land teens in difficult emotional situations. It also means that adolescence is the time when chronic mental health issues like depression or anxiety disorders may appear – also requiring new, healthy ways to cope.

Adolescent brains are in a state of rapid change, and are vulnerable to environmental influences. Stress can change the way certain parts of the brain develop, such as the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus – all “playing pivotal roles in coordinating behavioral, emotional, and endocrine responses to stress.” Stress also affects how the brain responds to further stress down the line, which makes healthy coping all the more important to learn early and practice regularly.

Common Ways Teens Cope With Stress

Teenagers use a variety of methods to cope with stress. These can be healthy or unhealthy, and may range from direct attempts at problem-solving to social support seeking, avoidance, or distraction. The most effective types of coping strategies for managing stress appear to be those that adapt to and address the problem at hand, such as “looking at a problem in a different way, engaging in problem solving, or pursuing constructive communication.” Creating a plan to deal with a problem, reappraising the issue in a positive way, or talking to someone can all be positive methods. Distraction can also be useful when it is used to supplement other strategies. For example, once one has taken available actions to resolve an issue, it may be healthy to distract oneself with exercise or other de-stressing techniques rather than ruminating on a problem. Flexibility in responding to problems has also been tied to better outcomes versus relying on a few strict forms of coping.

Why Teens Often Choose Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Unhealthy coping strategies are far more likely to avoid the root of the problem, or even worsen the situation. Escape, avoidance, and distancing strategies are a few examples of negative kinds of coping mechanisms. When teenagers attempt to “suppress, avoid or deny their feelings,” it has been found to lead to “higher levels of problems associated with stress.” These kinds of “disengagement” coping behaviors are also linked with more deviant behaviors and lower academic outcomes. Teens may try to disengage from their problems with dangerous behaviors, like smoking, drug use, or risky sexual activity. These behaviors may make teens feel better momentarily, but often distract them from dealing with their issues productively. In many cases, teens resort to these kinds of behaviors because they either don’t know how to properly cope with their problems, or because they think they are choosing the easier path. This is why a parental emphasis on healthy coping mechanisms is so important.

Communicating With Your Teen About Healthy Coping

Maintaining open communication via regular conversations and check-ins with your teenager is perhaps the most important strategy parents have in helping them succeed. Parents who stay aware of their teen’s current lives are much more likely to be aware of changes which can signal a problem. They are also more likely to have a trusting relationship with their teen, which is a key predictor of whether a teenager will reach out for help should a problem arise.

The best way to help your teen develop healthier coping skills is to identify a problem and to make a plan together to introduce healthy solutions or responses. Parents should take note of the coping strategies they see in their child. What tendencies do they have when they get stressed, and what are the key stressors that seem to appear in their lives? For example, if parents notice their teen oversleeps or overeats when they’re faced with emotional issues, it may be useful to hold a conversation asking whether these are effective or helpful responses to their problems.

Listening to Feelings

Parents should listen to their teen’s feelings, take them into account, and use that knowledge to help their teen find solutions to their problem. Replacing negative behaviors or tendencies, whether in the form of risky activities or harmful emotional responses to problems, is a good goal. If the emotional issue is situational or mild in nature, lifestyle changes, like the gradual introduction of exercise, journaling, or a healthier diet may help. Experts recommend having your teenager remind themselves of their past successes and strengths when problems arise, perhaps by writing down their achievements, in order to boost self-esteem and combat negative self-talk. Parents can also help their teens rehearse stressful scenarios and situations to better help them prepare for and cope with anxiety. If your teen deals with chronic mental health issues, professional therapy may be helpful – and a great way to learn some positive coping strategies.  

Parents can approach a situation with two types of coping strategies in mind: those based on a problem and those based on emotion. Problem-solving strategies may include discussing the issue, setting goals, and forming a plan. Emotional coping strategies, like mindfulness, de-stressing with favorite activities, or exercise, can help teens address anxiety or worry based on issues out of their control. Emphasize that healthy coping strategies help your teen solve an issue, develop confidence, and learn to tackle new situations with more stable emotions in the future, rather than helping them distract themselves until the problem inevitably rears its head again.

By gradually introducing new problem-solving and coping strategies which make sense to your teen and speak to their needs, parents can steer their teens in the right direction. By maintaining this supportive environment and modeling healthy behavior themselves, parents have the best shot at helping their teen learn coping strategies that keep them safe, happy, and successful in their personal and academic lives going forward.

[i] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5841253/

[ii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5841253/

[iii] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02673843.2013.868363

[iv] https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2017/07/20/new-research-identifies-best-coping-strategies-for-kids/

[v] https://parents.au.reachout.com/skills-to-build/wellbeing/things-to-try-coping-skills-and-resilience/teach-your-teenager-coping-skills-for-wellbeing

[vi] https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Helping-Teenagers-With-Stress-066.aspx

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