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Teens Under Stress and Pressure: How Can You Help?

Find out what experts say about the simple ways you can bring serenity back to your child's life.

By Nicole Sprinkle

For Amy Scheibe, tolerating meltdowns didn't end after her son, Bo, graduated from toddlerhood. When he was 10 years old, he started having serious fits of screaming and sobbing that he wasn't good enough for his parents. After one particularly bad incident, she and Bo ended up cuddled on the couch, where he finally admitted that he missed the way things used to be. "You don't tickle me anymore," he said. Turns out Bo was simply going through a typical—but stressful—developmental hurdle: the desire to become more independent while still yearning for a little parental hand-holding.

In the years leading up to and during puberty, hormonal surges are a lot like biological fireworks, skyrocketing even little problems into big explosions. And your kid has no idea how to handle them. In fact, research suggests the region of the brain involved in planning, organizing and making decisions—all things that help us cope with stress—is still developing during puberty. That's why we shouldn't expect kids to always have the best judgment or react to pressure well. But they can learn the best way to address and manage it.

Check out these six common tween and teen stressors—submitted from real moms via e-mail and Facebook—and smart ways to overcome them.

Friend Stress

My 13-year-old daughter's group of friends is wealthy. While we're financially comfortable, we can't afford all the expensive stuff that these kids have. My daughter broke down in tears recently when I told her I couldn't get her the Lululemon hoodie the other girls are wearing. What can I do to make her feel less pressured to have material things?

Ask her questions like, "Do you really want someone to like you because of your clothes?" and "What if next week the hoodie is out and leather jackets are in?" You might even share some of your own experiences. She should come to realize you can't use things to keep true friends. But let's face it: "Sometimes kids do need to feel like they're part of the pack," says Dorothy Stubbe, M.D., program director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center. If you can't buy that hoodie, make your daughter aware that you empathize with her. Try saying, "I know you want to be like your friends, and the hoodie is really cool, but right now it's more than I'm comfortable paying." If you think the hoodie is important—maybe she missed the last trend or is having a particularly bad month—look for it on eBay or at a discount store or site. Or if she has an allowance or a job, let her chip in.

My 12-year-old son has a developmental disability that leads to problems making friends at school. He's being picked on—and therefore is someone to keep away from. I've considered homeschooling, but it would be too difficult. How can I help him fit in more easily?

Start by talking to the student counselor or school psychologist about socialization groups. These can be small, adult-supervised environments, like a special lunch group, where your tween can meet other kids having trouble making friends. Sometimes schools will even pair your child up with an older teen "buddy"—a mentor who may have dealt with similar problems. You can bolster his self-esteem too. Is he good at art? Enroll him in an art class on the weekend. Does he like lending a hand? Talk to his teacher about a job he can do. Encourage the friendships he does have and talk to him about why kids can be cruel. "In my practice, I try to make children understand that the teasing usually has nothing to do with them," says Arden Greenspan, a New York City-based family psychotherapist and author of What Do You Expect? She's a Teenager! "These children may be feeling confused, hurt or angry from a home situation and are just looking for an easy target."

School Stress

The transition from elementary school to middle school has been difficult for my son, who now has multiple teachers. That means numerous projects, often with similar due dates. He's struggling with time management and procrastination. How can I help him handle it all and not feel anxious about what he has to do?

Let's be fair. We moms can barely keep our handbags organized! No surprise then that tweens in the midst of major cognitive development might have trouble keeping track of what's in their bookbags. As long as you've ruled out potential issues like ADHD and the workload doesn't seem unrealistic, try coming up with a game plan together. First, make sure he has a workspace free of distractions. "Usually when I look into these situations, I find that the bedroom is more like a playground," says Michael Brody, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist and author of Seductive Screens: Children's Media—Past, Present and Future. Make sure he has a quiet, uncluttered space (that means no screens or phones on) to work in. "You may also need to adjust your child's schedule, even if that means scaling down extracurriculars," says Dr. Brody. When your child is assigned a project, immediately ask him if he understands what's expected of him and if he requires any special resources (supplies, trips to do research). If he seems unclear, ask him to double-check with his teacher. For big projects, try setting up a time line. For instance, Monday, pick a topic. Tuesday, do an outline. Wednesday, read up and do research. Check out pbskids.org/itsmylife/school/time for tips on managing busy lives from tween and teen mentors, a weekly homework planner and a journal.

My daughter was one of the smartest kids in her middle school. Now that she's in high school, the competition has gotten more intense and she's not the top dog anymore. She compares herself constantly to kids who are doing better and puts herself down when she doesn't get an A. How can my overachiever give herself a break?

"For starters, listen and empathize with your child. Then find out what getting the best grade in the class means to her," says Henry J. Gault, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Does she equate being number one with getting into the right college? If so, point out that colleges are interested in well-rounded people, not just the valedictorian. Once you've figured out her motivation, get her to come up with other ways to feel good about herself. For instance, you might say: "Maybe you didn't get the highest mark, but you did very well—and you had fun researching the subject." Another useful tactic for getting overachievers to lighten up: volunteering to assist kids with disabilities. It takes the focus off them and lets them see kids who are really struggling but still finding happiness.

Family Stress

My kids are coping with the anxiety of a split-parent household: bouncing back and forth between locations, needing to skip school functions on occasion, missing vital school items from their backpacks, having stepparents. How do I make the divorce easier on them?

The more you can pre-plan to ensure they're not missing important events or key materials for class, the better. It helps to have basics like PJs and some essential school supplies at each house. Also create a checklist of the things your child needs daily regardless of whose house they're at (backpack, sports uniform, etc.). You might try sharing an online calendar (check out free programs like Famjama.com, Cozi.com or LivingTree.com) to keep everyone informed of what's going on when. And make sure both homes feel like homes. "Let your kids set up their own rooms," says Greenspan. "Let them decorate the walls and bring in whatever toys and furniture they want." Integrating stepparents and stepsiblings can be tricky, but just give kids time and space without pressuring them to become close. If they are forming bonds with new family members, don't make them feel guilty about it or show jealousy. Ask them how their weekend with Mom or Dad was, and let them get comfortable sharing.

My 12-year-old son is on a basketball team and is often a benchwarmer. He was nudged by my husband into playing, and I can tell he's worried Dad would be disappointed if he quit. Often he's quiet before practices and games and seems sad afterward. What should I do to reassure him or let him know that he doesn't have to play?

Tell your husband what you've noticed—and see if he has too. Then talk about why he thought it was important for your son to be on the team. Maybe it was because he played when he was a kid and loved it. If so, remind him that the operative word here is loved and that your child should get the chance to enjoy something as much as his dad did. Perhaps it was to get exercise (there are lots of other sports to choose from) or overcome shyness (maybe drama or debate club would be a better fit). Then chat with your son to find out how he really feels and what kind of activity he's interested in. "Think of this as an important growth opportunity for your child," says Brody. At this age kids need to learn to make decisions for themselves, and this could be a great step for him.

Secret Signs of Stress

You know what anxiety typically looks like in your kid: moodiness, irritability, sadness, sleeping problems. But here are five signs you might miss.

Pass-Along Stress

Don't transfer your anxiety to your kid. Learn to manage your own tension while teaching your child healthy coping mechanisms. Some simple dos and don'ts:

DON'T... hide your stress. "Letting children know that Mom and Dad have pressure too and that this is how they cope with it normalizes it for them," says Dr. Gault.

DO... model how to unwind. With your kids, set up a calming nighttime routine. Reading is a natural choice, but playing a board game can be a good way for the entire family to decompress together.

DON'T... stay online. Set a time to unplug and stick to it. That means no work e-mails, texting or updating your photos on Facebook after a certain hour on weeknights and on weekends. Being digitally connected all the time can contribute to your own stress and sends the message to your kids that it's okay for them to be continually connected as well.

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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