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Worries about school, fitting in or getting into college—along with unpredictable hormones!—are a normal part of the teen years. But sometimes kids have a hard time managing these challenges, and you may have noticed your own teen seems more stressed than ever. “One survey showed that 71 percent of parents said the pandemic had affected their kids’ mental health, with 69 percent of parents saying the pandemic was the worst thing to happen to their children,” says Kelly Gilrain, PhD, chief psychologist, Cooper University Health Care and associate professor of clinical medicine, Cooper Medical School at Rowan University. “That number may be high because parents are noticing kids’ mental health issues more often now, or it may be an actual increase in numbers. But it’s probably both reasons.”

In addition to the usual challenges of being a teen, plenty of other factors have been thrown into the mix recently. “Some kids have found it difficult to return to being social, and there’s always more elevated stress at the beginning of a school year,” says Kelly Moore, PsyD, director at the Center for Psychological Services at Rutgers Graduate School of Applied Professional Psychology. “There’s also been an uptick in news that causes people to feel like everything is out of our control. But we’re all going to have stress and you can’t shield your child from every stressor. As parents, we have to prepare our kids for managing fear, stress and anxiety.”

Here’s how to help your child learn to handle stress:

MAKE SLEEP A PRIORITY

Teens need a lot more sleep than you think, typically 8 to 10 hours per night. In fact, research shows an improvement in grades, mood and fewer risky behaviors such as drug and alcohol use in kids who sleep well. That means parents may have to intervene if it seems like your kid isn’t able to self-regulate and get to bed on time, says Gilrain. For example, keep phones out of bedrooms (yours, too!) and place them in a central charging station, and stop using them an hour before sleep.

STICK TO A ROUTINE

As much as possible, make your household’s schedule predictable. “Stress is born out of feeling a loss of control,” says Moore. Create structure with little rituals: Walk the dog together, have teens help with grocery shopping trips and make a point of eating dinner as a family on Sunday evenings. Also, do the necessary prep to make sure there’s not a morning rush out the door on school days, such as setting out cereal bowls the night before and making sure backpacks are ready and by the door.

GET EVERYONE MOVING

If everyone’s gotten into the habit of being couch potatoes, it’s time to move. Plan a weekend hike, go for a walk after dinner even if it’s just around the block or sit outside for 10 minutes together. “There’s a lot of research supporting how finding green space and spending time in nature supports good mental health,” says Gilrain.

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SHOW HOW YOU HANDLE STRESS

As most of us parents know, kids absorb what we do more easily than what we say! And of course, when parents are stressed and worried, kids pick up on that. “We have to model healthy coping skills,” says Gilrain. For example, share what you do when you’re upset, such as, “When I find myself feeling stressed, I cut off Facebook or I go for a run.” Free mindfulness apps such as Calm and Breathe can also be helpful.

HAVE A CASUAL CONVERSATION 

Because teens often shut down if you suggest having “a talk,” make it spontaneous when you’re doing something else, such as driving to practice, says Moore. Ask what they think about current events, how they calm themselves when they’re feeling worried or if they have someone besides you to talk to about what’s bothering them. It’s also fine to ask about who they follow on social media, or start a family text chain where you share videos or other social media posts with each other.

SCHEDULE “FUN TIME” WITH YOUR KIDS

The last few years have affected all of us, and it’s certainly not easy to fit in unstructured down time. “But we need to find time for fun and joy together,” says Gilrain. It can be as simple as conversation cards that prompt discussions, such as TableTopics, a weekly family movie or game night, or a bonfire in the backyard fire pit to toast marshmallows. Fun is never a waste of time!

KNOW WHEN TO GET HELP

You know your child best, so watch for signs you should seek help, says Moore. Red flags may include grades that begin slipping, changes in eating habits (eating more or less), trouble sleeping, refusing to do things they once enjoyed, unwillingness to talk, isolating, increased irritability or more frequent emotional outbursts. Also, some kids complain of headaches or stomachaches because they don’t have the words to explain their emotional distress.

BE PROACTIVE ABOUT FINDING SUPPORT

There’s currently a huge demand for mental health professionals, and there are often long wait times for kids to be seen. Start by talking to your child’s school and your pediatrician. Some workplaces also offer employee assistance programs to provide support for you and your family, says Gilrain. Community mental health centers and local universities may also offer counseling, while some churches offer a bridge to support until your child can be seen by a therapist. Telehealth services also have increased access, making it easier to get your kids the care they need.

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