Teenagers’ lives can be pretty stressful, with school being one of the leading sources of stress. Young people are finding their feet, their identity, managing their time, conforming, performing, developing relationships, growing… This list goes on. When teens feel unable to ‘cope’, sometimes, mental health issues can develop.
Coping skills for teens are important for developing resilience: the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties. Poor coping skills such as anger or avoidance can offer temporary relief from stress and worry, but don’t tend to be healthy or sustainable.
Stressful situations require good coping skills. This article offers you an in-depth run-down of coping skills for teens that will help them to understand and adopt practical and healthy ways to tackle difficult situations.
Problematic Coping Skills in Teens
Teenagers can become overloaded with stress or worry and may not have developed the skills needed to cope. Too much pressure can lead onto other problems such as anxiety, isolation, self-doubt and withdrawal. Some children in their teenage years adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms and can make risky or self-destructive choices in an effort to cope. Here are some examples to be aware of:
- Alcohol use
- Substance abuse and illegal drug use
- Anger or rage
- Social media absorption
- Disordered eating
Social pressures on teenagers can be particularly challenging. Too much pressure can contribute to a decrease in self-confidence, friendship issues, distancing from family members and sometimes an increase in anxiety.
What Are Healthy Coping Skills?
Building healthy coping skills for teens can be valuable for when your teenager experiences a stressful time. Healthy coping strategies need to be built from personal strengths (such as patience or kindness). It really doesn’t matter whether your teenager copes like others. It’s much more important to find ways that help them to cope and build resilience.
Take a look at areas of healthy coping skills development below
1) Social and Interpersonal Coping Skills
- Nurturing and prioritising relationships and friendships.
- Caring for a pet.
- Setting boundaries and saying ‘no’.
- Taking breaks from social media and connecting with the outside world.
2) Emotional Coping Skills
- Learning to self-praise.
- Building a routine.
- Improving reflective skills.
- Prioritising self-care.
- Asking others to help or assist you.
- Taking responsibility.
- Developing self-compassion.
3) Physical Coping Skills
- Having a “good enough” diet.
- Getting plenty of sleep.
- Exercising and moving.
- Using grounding and breathing techniques like the one below by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life.
4) Creative Coping Skills
Emotions such as fear, anxiety or worry can be effectively reduced through nurturing creative coping strategies. One of the best ways to build vital resilience skills is through experiencing positive emotions.
This can be achieved through flow activities. What is a flow activity? This is when your teenager is totally immersed in what they are doing, undistracted and with no awareness of time passing. This can include physical activity or learning in a creative way.
Here are some examples:
- Art – painting, drawing, digital art
- Playing a musical instrument
5) Body-Related Coping Skills
Teenagers experience many different emotional states. So, a great way to help strengthen coping skills for teens when dealing with stressful situations, is to tune into how they feel in their bodies.
They can do this through:
6) Mindfulness-Based Coping Skills for Teens
Mindfulness is a state of being in the present moment, being aware of your mind, body or surroundings. Mindfulness is a skill which requires practise but it can be a really helpful tool when navigating difficult situations.
Studies show that practising mindfulness techniques can help to manage common mental health problems like depression, anxiety and feelings of stress.
Here are some ways to practice mindfulness.
- Spending time in nature
- Guided meditation
- Keeping a journal
- Breathing exercises
- Listening to music
- Watching your favourite show
- Have a sing/dance
7) Cognitive Coping Skills for Teens
When teenagers perceive a situation as difficult, stressful or painful, their brain can switch into a cognitive response called the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. They might notice this in their bodies with a racing heartbeat, feeling hot or cold or sometimes an upset stomach. It’s basically there to protect them from harm.
In a teen’s mind, feelings of anxiety can snowball if they do not have the necessary coping skills. The emotional response they have can be magnified and they can engage in negative self-talk and catastrophizing:
“I knew it was all going to go wrong.”
“I’m never going to pass.”
Our teenagers can’t rely solely on positive affirmations and validation from others. We need to teach and guide them to practice effective ways to manage emotional responses. We can do this by encouraging:
Positive self-talk and language.
Harnessing and building on positive thoughts.
Challenging negative thoughts and seeking out what’s true and factual.
Recognising when perfectionism can be a help and when it can be a hindrance.
Balance and clear boundaries e.g. between study time and relaxation time.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
With so much pressure to succeed, excel, conform and fit in, often teens experience overload. Social media applies huge pressure through the teen years to “be” a certain way. The way a young person interprets this pressure can be extremely varied.
So, it’s important to help your teen strike a balance between the real and the desirable, the critical and the acceptable. They will begin to set self-boundaries that will keep them safe and able to thrive in their world.
You can help too. Define boundaries with your teens early on so that it gives them a balance of having a supportive framework whilst being able to explore the best ways to cope.
As a parent you can….
- Give them areas of control.
- Allow them to be self-determining.
- Provide boundaries that will grow with them.
- Let them learn and develop through experience.
- Let life be a teacher as well as you.
Social Contact on Their Terms
Allow your teenager some autonomy on how they want to operate in their social interactions. They may have a network of friends which encompasses many different personalities where difficult emotions can arise, but they need to find out how to deal with these. You can be there to guide and offer advice if asked. However, try to avoid micro-managing these relationships for them.
Your Role as a Parent
Your role as a parent to a teenager is multi-faceted! It’s one of nurturer, teacher, guide, support and back-up. Young adults need the space and time to make choices, decisions and mistakes (from which they can learn). You can be their emotional support and help them with problem solving if they need it.
One of the best ways you can teach your teen to cope is to model positive coping strategies yourself. For instance:
- Talk your teenager through how and why you made the choice you did when dealing with a difficult situation.
- Tell them how you are feeling and what you’re doing. For example, “I’m feeling this”, “I’m going to do this” and explain why.
- Show your feelings. Naturally as a parent we want to protect our children from anything uncomfortable, but emotions are a normal part of life. It’s important to show them that it’s OK to cry, or feel angry or aggrieved at something.
- Be kind to yourself. In order to counter negative self-talk in teenagers show them what self-compassion looks and sounds like.
Healthy Lifestyle as a Coping Skill
Everyday stress is a part of life and our kids need to learn how to deal with it. Teen stress can ramp up quickly with pressure on getting good grades, dealing with social situations, following rules. Having coping strategies in their tool box is really important.
There are many benefits of a healthy lifestyle which can improve and increase resilience. A healthy lifestyle includes a good sleep routine, a balanced diet and exercise. It can:
1) Improve physical health.
2) Improve mental health.
3) Boost natural energy and mood.
4) Increase self-worth.
What to Do If Your Teen Needs Extra Help to Cope
While equipping teens with positive coping mechanisms is essential, they may not be enough if they are struggling with a mental health condition. For example, if your teenager has persistent low mood or depression, is expressing suicidal thoughts or showing signs of long-term distress.
Arrange for them to see their doctor for an appointment and possible referral. This might take the form of formulating a treatment plan to include therapy sessions from a Counsellor, Counselling Psychologist or Clinical Psychologist. In the UK many NHS waiting lists for psychological support are very long. Other options to explore are school support (e.g. school counsellor) and private therapy if you are financially able.
If your teen has moderate to severe mental health difficulties, psychological therapy sessions may be part of the support they need.
If your child has a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression they will benefit from a fairly structured approach, and research shows that CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is one of the most effective approaches. It has a strong emphasis on supporting children to develop long-term coping skills.
Building up a toolkit of coping skills and resilience will prove valuable throughout your child’s lifetime.
The good news is that these are transferrable skills that will see your teenager through school, college and beyond. There are plenty of new skills and healthy strategies your teen can adopt to help them cope when life gets tricky. They don’t have to have a mental health problem to use them. Prevention is better than cure!
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.
Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy – Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.
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