Dear Your Teen:
My son is hot tempered and looks mad a lot of the time. He is stressed at school at times. How can I help to manage his stress and temper and give him ways to cope?
Many teenagers have difficulty coping with the stress of school, including meeting academic expectations and managing a heavy workload. Your son may also be experiencing distress linked to social situations. I commend you for your attention to his distress and your desire to help him cope.
If you notice your teenager “looks mad a lot of the time” or is easily upset or angered, wait until he has calmed down to have a conversation. Often, parents try to talk to teenagers when they are emotional or overwhelmed or simply in a bad mood. These are not the best times because your teenager is probably not in a space where he is able to hear you. It’s best to wait until it’s calm.
Talking through your teen’s stress
When the tone is calm, here are some suggestions for starting a conversation:
- Express your desire to serve as a source of support for your teen.
- Normalize his feelings of anger related to stress and let him know that everyone experiences stress and different people respond differently.
- Discuss specific behaviors you’ve noticed or situations in which your teen seems to be under a lot of pressure.
- Empathize with your teen about the fact that you have also experienced stressful situations. If you’ve benefitted from having a positive outlet and someone to talk to, mention that too.
- Talk specifically about your own reactions to stress and the ways you’ve tried to improve your response.
- Invite your teen to share his thoughts about what is causing him the most stress and how he tries to manage his stress.
- Ask open-ended questions about things you could do to be supportive of him.
Often, children and teenagers cope with stress in ways that are similar to how they’ve seen their parents cope with stress. Think about how you can take stressful opportunities to model positive coping strategies to your teen without lecturing about how he should cope. One strategy is to try to engage in some positive self-talk—in front of your teen—the next time you encounter a stressful situation. The situation could be as simple as being stuck in traffic or feeling overwhelmed with an event at home. In these moments, say to yourself in front of your teen, “I am feeling really stressed out now, but there is nothing I can do to change this situation. I just have to try to stay calm until this moment passes.” Or, if you are in a situation in which you do have control, engage in active problem solving in front of your teen. The purpose of these approaches is to encourage open dialogue and create a relationship in which your teen feels safe expressing and exploring his feelings with you.
Specific coping strategies you might recommend to your teen after having a conversation:
- Seek support from positive friends.
- Plan a relaxing activity as a reward for getting through a stressful project or period.
- Listen to music while engaging in a task he usually wants to avoid.
- Learn to self soothe by noticing his breathing patterns when angry and calm, and attempting to breathe from his diaphragm to calm down.
- Take a break and walk away from a stressful experience for a short period of time and return when feeling calmer.
Finally, helping your son with organizational skills to help him feel more in control of the many things that may be on his plate can also be helpful. Most importantly, let your teenager know that you are always a source of support and even if you don’t have all the answers, you will be there to listen.
Dr. Kristin Carothers is a clinical psychologist with the New York City-based Child Mind Institute.