Kelly M. Tu Ph.D.

Tackling Teen Stress

Stress

How Parents Can Help Teens Cope With Stress

Which parenting approaches are most effective? It depends.

Posted Feb 02, 2020

The teenage years can be challenging. For teens, it’s the number of changes they are experiencing. For parents, it’s figuring out how to parent a teenager.

One significant challenge for teens is social problems—conflict with friends or exclusion and bullying by peers. As many parents (and teens) can probably relate, social problems can seemingly take over their teen’s life! Because peers can have a direct impact on teens’ development and well-being, helping teens to effectively navigate social challenges is important.

As we try to figure out how to best help teens manage their social problems, we need to consider parents' views, teens' own stress responses, and parents' approaches.  

Parents may differ in how they view teens’ social problems. Some parents may recognize the significance of the problem, whereas others may not—chalking it up to being a normal part of growing up or not being a big deal. But parents should recognize that from the teen’s perspective, social problems can be a big deal because their peers and friends are a major part of their lives.  

With that being said, however, teens also respond to stress differently. As with any stressful or challenging situation, some teens may feel highly distressed, whereas others may seem less perturbed. As a parent, how can you figure out what to do?

One of the keys to figuring out what works best is to tune in to the differences in how teens respond to stress. By doing that, parents can use approaches that can most effectively help teens manage their problems.

Jude Beck/Unsplash
Source: Jude Beck/Unsplash

Parents whose teens don’t seem bothered by social problems may feel that their teen is fine. But these teens may still need parents’ support. Research shows that youth who are less responsive to stressful or challenging situations may be at risk for problem behaviors (e.g., aggression, deviancy, risky behaviors; Murray-Close, 2013; Scarpa, 2015).  Youth who are less responsive to challenging situations may be missing important social cues and, in turn, less likely to behave in socially appropriate ways that could explain or contribute to problem behaviors.

Our research has shown that for less responsive teens, parents can:

  • Be involved in shaping and influencing teens’ friendships.
  • Encourage friendships with prosocial peers
  • Discourage deviant friendships
  • Provide specific advice and suggestions about how to respond in challenging social situations.
  • Suggest problem-solving strategies (e.g., talk it through with the peer, try to engage with them in a positive way)
  • Help them think about the situation in less threatening or negative ways (e.g., seeing a situation from the other’s perspective, consider other factors that may explain the peer's behavior)
  • Encourage youth to seek help/advice from parents, friends, teachers

Parents’ involvement in teens’ friendships may help less responsive teens develop more positive friendships by putting them in a context of positive peer influence. Parental advice may be equipping these teens with the appropriate skills to effectively manage their social problems.

Our research demonstrates that when parents use these approaches with less responsive teens, there are consistent benefits. These teens experienced more positive peer relationships, such as greater acceptance among peers and higher quality friendships, and they had less negative peer experiences, such as reduced peer rejection and victimization (Tu et al., 2014, 2017; Tu & Ravindran, 2020).

Inzmam Khan/Pexels
Source: Inzmam Khan/Pexels

For parents whose teens seem highly distressed by social problems, different approaches may be needed. For these teens, it may be important for them to get to a calmer, less stressed state in order to more effectively deal with the stressor.

Our research has shown that for more stressed teens, parents can:

  • Give teens more autonomy or control over how they want to handle the situation.
  • Put teens in a position to identify what works for them
  • Hold back on specific advice and suggestions that encourage teens to try to solve the problem (at least initially).
  • For teens who are more stressed, parents may need to allow time and space for them to calm down and process their experiences, as well as their emotions, stemming from these experiences.

We found that parents who suggested that highly stressed teens handle the situation in their own way fared much better than when parents provided suggestions that encouraged them to resolve the problem (Tu & Ravindran, 2020). Similarly, other researchers found that for more stressed youth, parents’ suggestions to disengage or avoid stressors experienced fewer problem behaviors (Stanger et al., 2018). They suggested that more stressed youth may benefit from a “break” from the situation.

It’s not that parents should completely hold back from trying to help stressed teens. But, youth who are more stressed may need more time and space to process their social problems before receiving other suggestions from parents, so continued conversations and check-ins may be helpful.

The key takeaway is that parents who are tuned in to how their teens are reacting to social problems will be in a better position to identify strategies that will help their teen effectively navigate social challenges.

References

Murray-Close, D. (2013). Psychophysiology of adolescent peer relations I: Theory and research findings. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 23, 236–259. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-7795.2012.00828.x   

Scarpa, A. (2015). Physiological arousal and its dysregulation in child maladjustment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 345–351. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0963721415588920

Stanger, S., Abaied, J., Wagner, C., & Sanders, W. (2018). Contributions of observed parent socialization of coping and skin conductance level reactivity to childhood adjustment. Family Process, 57(1), 181–194. https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12272

Tu, K. M., Erath, S. A., & El-Sheikh, M. (2017). Parental management of peers and autonomic nervous system reactivity in predicting adolescent peer relationships. Developmental Psychology, 53, 540-551. doi: 10.1037/dev0000248

Tu, K. M., Erath, S. A., Pettit, G. S., & El-Sheikh, M. (2014). Physiological reactivity moderates the association between parental directing and young adolescent friendship adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 50, 2644-2653. doi: 10.1037/a0038263

Tu, K. M., & Ravindran, N. (2020). Getting under the skin: Maternal social coaching and adolescent peer adjustment. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 66, 101091. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2019.101091