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Tapped Out Teens: 4 Stress Relief Strategies That Work

Stress management tools for teens and their parents.

The new American Psychological Association Stress in America study, out today, focuses on the stress levels of teens. The survey shows that teens report experiences with stress that follow similar patterns as adults; in fact, during the school year, teen stress is at its highest with teens reporting stress levels higher than reported by adults.

What’s more troubling is that the survey reveals that teens underestimate the potential impact stress has on their physical and mental well-being. I started to get panic attacks around the age of 15, largely due to the overwhelming amount of schoolwork, advance placement classes, sports, and volunteer activities I was juggling. I have been figuring out how to deal with chronic stress ever since. With stiff competition to get into college, friendships to balance, and home/family issues, many teens take on a lot of pressure without thinking about the short-term and long-term consequences.

With that, here are four stress management strategies that will help both teens and their parents build stress resilience.

Train Your Brain Part 1 (Stop Catastrophizing). This style of thinking happens when your brain spins a worst-case story from an event and your body reacts by thinking it’s really happening. This produces high levels of anxiety and you stop taking purposeful action. It interferes with your resilience because you aren’t thinking flexibly and accurately, nor are you performing at your best.

You are more likely to catastrophize when you’re stressed out or tired, doing something for the first time (e.g., taking a test in a new class), doing something over you did poorly the first time (e.g., rewriting a paper), or the situation is vague (e.g., you get a text from your parents saying, “Call me now.”) Fortunately, there is an easy five-step process to stop the runaway train in your head:

a. Describe the stress-producing event factually (who, what, when, where).

b. Write down all of the worst-case scenario thoughts in your head.

c. Create a best-case scenario (which you’ll have to completely make up so you can create a surge of positive emotion to lower your anxiety).

d. Analyze the most likely scenario.

e. Develop a plan to address the most likely scenario. [1]

Train Your Brain – Part 2 (Meditation & Focused Breathing). I have tried and tried to develop a meditation practice over the years, in part, because it has so many health benefits. I end up being more frustrated than anything because I can’t seem to “clear my mind.” I was shocked to learn that “neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better at not just meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness.” [2] In fact, only three hours of meditation led to improved attention and self-control! [3]

Not ready to try meditation? Try to practice slowing your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. Regular practice of this technique has been shown to build both your stress resilience and your willpower reserve. [4]

Follow the Nuns & Capitalize on Positive Emotions. Human beings are hard-wired to seek out, notice, and remember the negative events and experiences that happen during the day. This is called the “negativity bias.” Positive emotions, gratitude in particular, help to counteract the negativity bias. Regularly writing down the good stuff that happens during the day has been shown to increase your well-being and decrease depression. [5]

Early studies of humor and health showed that humor strengthened the immune system, reduced pain, and reduced stress levels. Humor helps to reduce feelings of anger, depression, and anxiety, [6] and additional research in this area shows that positive emotions predicted increases in both resilience and life satisfaction. [7]

Oh, and a note about the nuns. Researchers examined essays written by a group of nuns when they were young. Decades later they found that the nuns who expressed more positive emotions in their earlier writings lived significantly longer — in some cases 10 years longer! [8]

Be An Assertive Communicator. Parents might not know how to talk to their kids about stress, and teens need a tool to explain how they are feeling. Being an assertive communicator means that you have a clear, confident, and controlled style of interacting. Here is a model you can follow — just remember to CARE: [9]

C: Communicate the facts. Discuss what you experience and observe about the situation, and use concrete terms to avoid exaggeration and subjective impressions.

A: Address your concerns in an objective way. Express how you feel calmly and avoid placing blame on the other person.

R: Reach out and ask the other person for their perspective. What behavior are you willing to change to make the agreement? What behaviors do you want to see stopped or implemented?

E: Evaluate outcomes. Suggest acceptable alternatives, negotiate, and summarize potential courses of action. In addition, set specific goals and follow up on the outcomes you set.

Most importantly, do your homework before you even have a conversation. Parents, are you jumping to conclusions about what your teen is doing or not doing? Do you have a core value or deeply held belief that is getting in your way? For example, if you believe, “Teens should have a strong work ethic,” that might be an important belief to identify before you talk to your teen about stress and pressure. Do you even have a clear understanding of what the issue is? Sorting out your own thinking before you have a conversation is a critical component of being an assertive communicator. [10]

The Stress in America survey shows that 31% of teens report feeling overwhelmed and 30% feel depressed or sad as a result of stress. The time to talk about stress and how to manage it is now.


[1] Reivich, K. and Shatte, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books. Note: I have developed a worksheet that you can use for this skill. If you would like a copy, please email me at

[2] McGonigal, K. (2012). The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: The Penguin Group.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 40

[5] Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology in progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.

[6] McGee, P. (2010). Humor: The Lighter Path to Resilience and Health. Bloomington, IN: Author-House.

[7] Cohen, M.A. et al. (2009). Happiness Unpacked: Positive Emotions Increase Life Satisfaction by Building Resilience, 9, 361-368.

[8] Danner, D.D., Snowden, D., & Friesen, W.V. (2001). Positve emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 804-813.

[9] I developed the CARE acronym with my colleague, Lorrie Peniston. It is based on a model of assertive communication created by Sharon Anthony Bower and Gordon H. Bower and is more fully explained in their book, Asserting Yourself: A Practical Guide for Positive Change (New York, NY: De Capo Press 2004). See also Cameron, K. (2008). Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

[10] The ideas in this paragraph were taken from a training activity adapted from material by Dr. Karen Reivich.

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