During my career working with adolescents as director of the University of Michigan’s school-based health center program, a surprisingly common theme among tweens was their intense levels of stress. Unfortunately, many adults tend to blow off the seriousness or validity of tween stress, often considering their problems insignificant. It’s important to remember all the changes happening in tweens’ bodies, with their emotions and in their brains. These changes, coupled with the demands of school, social life and family obligations, can make any tween feel out of control.
It may be surprising that studies expose that tweens often experience higher levels of stress than adults. A study of more than 1,000 tweens revealed an average stress score of 5.8 on a 10-point scale– with 3.9 being a healthy level of stress. The research by my team at Possibilities for Change continues to validate stress as a major issue among tweens, as 13 percent of nearly 4,000 tweens surveyed indicated they had serious problems or worries at home or school. Additionally, one in every five tweens indicated they often feel sad and had nothing to look forward to during the past month.
In the face of these challenges, parents need concrete strategies to open the doors of communication with their tweens to establish strong, trusting relationships as they enter into their teen years. It’s important your tween feels like he or she can open up to you about feelings of anxiety and depression instead of resorting to risky behaviors like prescription drug abuse, underage drinking, self-harm or suicide.
I’d like to share three tried-and-true techniques that clinicians use to engage their tween patients, which work just as well (if not better) for parents who want to have real conversations with their tweens about feelings of stress.
- Ask permission. Sounds counterintuitive, but a normal part of tween development is their struggle for control. Giving the OK to talk makes tweens more open to hearing the information you want to share. You could start with something like this, “When is a good time to talk about all the things you’re juggling right now like soccer, homework and your group project coming up?”
- Use empathy. A simple reflection that shows empathy goes a long way. “You had a hard day at school today. It must be stressful dealing with everything you have going on.” The choice of words is critical. Anything too extreme or too overstated may be perceived as sarcastic instead of empathetic.
- Ask open-ended questions. These are not easily answered with a “Yes” or “No” that immediately closes the conversation. Ask questions that lead tweens into telling you what they need to feel better. You could ask, “What do you need to help manage your stress right now?” or “What changes could you make to decrease your stress?”
With a little bit of practice, you will be well on your way to opening the door to conversations that help your tween overcome feelings of stress and have a successful school year. These strategies and others are outlined in more detail in my book Teen Speak, just released this past fall.
Dr. Jennifer Salerno is the author of Teen Speak and founder of Possibilities for Change. A University of Michigan alum, Dr. Salerno likes to take walks around the beautiful campus, and she enjoys festivities happening in downtown Ann Arbor.