Talking to teens about stress

A mother and her teen daughter have a conversation while sitting on the couch


In this article:

  • Teenagers report feeling more stressed than ever about school.

  • Parents can help with communication techniques that support openness and honesty.

  • Visit a Swedish physician if you notice warning signs that additional action is needed.

Movies and television often portray adolescence as a golden time with no responsibilities beyond what you’re wearing to class the next day and whether you’ll get asked to prom. Anyone who’s made it through high school knows that this rose-colored glasses perception is not reality.

The average teenager is stressed out.

The majority of teens — about 83 percent — are stressed by situations at school, from bullying to academics, according to data collected by the American Psychological Association. Around 70 percent of them are worried about life after high school and choosing a college or career path. Nearly two-thirds are concerned about their family’s finances. But what can you do about it?

The first step in helping teens manage stress is open and honest communication about the things that are keeping them up at night.

The first step in helping teens manage stress is open and honest communication about the things that are keeping them up at night. It really is possible to get your teenager to quit rolling their eyes, put down the video controller and actually talk to you. Here are eight ways to get the conversation started.

1. Don’t make speeches.

It’s not a conversation if you do all the talking. Once you have your teen’s attention, don’t view your time together as a chance to list every point you ever wanted to make on the subject you’re discussing.

2. Really listen.

If you listen without interruption while your teen talks about serious issues, there’s a good chance the conversation will continue. Let your teen talk. Don’t jump in and offer advice. Don’t try and fix things. Just listen.

3. Keep it casual.

Having an official “talk” with full eye contact and face-to-face interaction can be intimidating for anyone. Your teenager is no exception. Take advantage of situations where you’re doing an activity and chatting at the same time — like washing the dishes or driving to school. It helps keep things casual and comfortable, which is the ideal atmosphere for exchanging confidences.

4. Don’t overreact.

Once you’ve gotten your teen to open up, you may learn things that are difficult or intense to hear. Control your reaction if you want to keep hearing them. Going straight to DEFCON 1 is a near-certain way to ensure your teen never feels comfortable enough to talk to you about the things that really matter.

5. Don’t overdo it.

Don’t make the mistake of turning every interaction into a teaching moment. If it’s a major event every time you talk to your teen, you may start getting the opportunity to do it less and less. Not every conversation has to have a greater purpose — it’s okay to keep it light and easy. Sometimes it can be comforting for them just to know you’re there when they need you.

6. Empathize.

Have you ever been upset about something and felt better when a friend said, “Me too”? When your teen is upset, it may help them to hear that they’re not alone. If you can relate, say so. Tell them a short story about a time when something similar happened to you. This may even be a bonding moment.

7. Focus on the feelings.

When you do respond, a great way to keep the conversation heading in a positive direction is to ask to question, “How did that make you feel?” It seems like a cliché but focusing on the feelings in any situation will encourage introspection vs. stressing about the situation and its details.

8. Partner up.

Sometimes simply creating pauses throughout the day can help manage stress. Whether it’s scheduled breathing breaks, meditation, CrossFit or yoga, partnering with your teen in a mindfulness activity not only helps them relax, but also sends a signal to them that you’re their partner on their journey.

Is it time to get help?

How do you know when it’s time to move past talking and into action? Your teen’s behavior and attitude will offer some clues to the turmoil they’re feeling.

Distress signals include:

  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed or unable to cope
  • Frequent crying or emotional outbursts
  • Mentioning thoughts of suicide
  • Self-harm, like cutting or eating disorders
  • Withdrawing from friends, family and favorite activities

Find a doctor

If you have questions about your teen and stress, contact Pediatrics or Behavioral Health and Wellbeing at Swedish. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Additional resources 

Social media — how to protect your kids and yourself!

Parents: talk to your kids about e-cigarettes

How to handle cyberbullying: A parents’ guide

Does your child seem depressed? Exercise can help

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Swedish Behavioral Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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