How to Know if Your Teen Is Stressed and What to Do About It


It’s easy to generalize about teens and their behavior: They’re moody, hormonal, short-tempered, and more interested in what their friends think than almost anyone else (including you). But knowing this (and complaining about it) doesn’t help you deal with the stressor of a teen under your roof. So what does?

The answer comes in two parts. First, you need to know what your teen is struggling with and when those struggles are hitting hardest (i.e., the difference between a Monday morning slump and a deeper, more agitated struggle). Second, rather than attempt to control their behavior, or tell them how they should do, think, or be, you need to offer tools to help them cope with their stressors.

We all know this is much easier said than done, and chances are you won’t be able to solve their problems and make them happy (sometimes you might swear they don’t want to be happy). But that’s not really the point, right? When you’re helping someone build resilience, you’re a witness, guide, and resource while that person undergoes the struggle. What you want is for your teen to come through the academic pressure or the break up of a friendship with a stronger sense of self and belief in his or her abilities.

(Read more about how teens are adopting adults’ stress habits.)

There are two angles to consider: overall wellness and time-specific support.

Does your teen know how to refill the well?
When you refill the well of your physical, emotional, and mental energy, you’re doing more than relaxing. It’s a kind of nourishment that includes rest, movement, joyful activity, and community. A teenager might be great at watching television or video games, which could be relaxing, but his overall wellness isn’t being cared for.

The American Psychological Association has a list of strategies to help your teen refill the well. Sleep, in this case, is critical. And teens need it in spades. Is she moving her body, whether that means walking or swimming or a Zumba class? What activities make her really happy, and does she get a chance to do them? Is she able to share parts of her life with others? Perhaps these are questions you ask with your teen, or maybe an online resource like this tool from the American Academy of Pediatrics, speaks more to your child. Maybe there are logistical roadblocks to refilling the well, such as transportation or competing family needs, that you and your teen need to work on.

When does your teen need extra support?
I was blown away by a recent article in The Atlantic about a trove of data from Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 text line that provides emotional support and information for teens. Their data show when teens across the country are most likely to reach out for help on a number of different problems, from bullying and eating disorders to school problems and substance abuse.

It’s amazing to see strong correlations between time of day and when difficulties surge. Evenings tend to be heavily weighted with struggles, including stress and school problems. Bullying concerns peak on Fridays, while friend issues are strongest on Sundays and Mondays. These broad patterns can help you know where to look as you strive to understand and support your teen, whether your child aligns with the patterns or deviates from them.

What issues seem to trouble your teen? Exams? Friends? Family? When during the week does he seem to struggle the most? Take a look at the Crisis Text Line data to see what’s happening on a national level. For example, the national data shows that anxiety spikes in the morning, and teens tend to feel most stressed between 7 and 9 p.m. How does your teen behave at that time?

When you have a general sense of these patterns, look at how your teen’s life is structured at times of struggle. Again, this may be a joint project with your child. Is everyone at home in their own room? Is it chaotic in the house? Is your teen at an afterschool job then? Are mornings rushed? Is there a first-period class that makes your kid anxious?

Some things you or your teen may be able to change, like the timing of a shift at work or the logistics of a weekday morning. Problems like a hard class may need other kinds of support, like extra homework time, a breathing or meditation exercise to help manage nerves, while social struggles might call for a mentor or opportunities to meet new friends. And more serious problems such as self-harm or eating disorders will likely require some form of professional help. (Learn one of our favorite breathing exercises.)

No question, this isn’t easy work. It’s enough to make you long for the days of dirty diapers and sleep deprivation. But the payoff is a teen learning how to nurture herself, and build her resilience, during one of the most volatile times of her life.