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Ask the Expert: Helping Your Teen Manage Stress

Stress is normal in life and learning how to manage it is important for good health in the teen years and beyond. But a constant state of stress can put youth and young adults at greater risk for lifelong physical and mental health illnesses. Child and adolescent clinical psychologist Sonya Dinizulu, PhD, talks about the triggers and symptoms, healthy coping skills and when to seek professional help.

Are adolescents more susceptible to stress?

Stress is particularly prevalent among youth between the ages of 11 and 18. They face many challenges during this time of their lives. They are trying to figure out who they are. And they are looking to become more independent as they make the transition into young adulthood. 

What are the most common stressors affecting teens?

As teens test their roles and identities, parent/adolescent as well as sibling-to-sibling relationships can become strained and stressful. Navigating a shifting social life — friendships, peer interactions and romantic relationships — can also be a stressor. And, of course, there are increasing academic demands. Dealing with a significant life event in the family, (e.g. serious illness, death, divorce) or chronic community stressors (e.g., community violence, poverty) can further complicate an adolescent’s situation.  If not addressed, a combination of any of these stressors may lead to persistent mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression and/or defiant behaviors.

What strategies do you recommend for parents and other caring adults of a teen under stress?

Encourage healthy habits — a nutritious diet and good sleep hygiene – and use stress management strategies, such as meditation, walking and exercising to moderate reaction to stress. Be good role models by adopting these strategies in your lives. Analyze the strengths and use resources in your family, social and faith-based networks to support the adolescent.

What are the symptoms of stress-related anxiety in young people?

Parents may notice their adolescent is not functioning as well as he or she usually would at home, and academic performance may decline. Physical signs seen in teens may include constantly getting sick, losing or gaining weight, stomach pains, and over or under sleeping and/or eating.  Examples of emotional and behavioral symptoms include: withdrawing from activities; irritability or anger; anxiety; sadness; and becoming defiant, for example, verbally and/or physically aggressive.

What should parents do when they become concerned?
Start by talking to the teen about the symptoms they are observing. Ask if he/she can identify the stress trigger.

Some families are able to help the teen by taking an active role — problem solving and using their strengths to collaborate on managing and coping with stress. If there is no improvement, families should seek professional counseling. Other families prefer to get assistance from a professional early on. Counseling can help the adolescent address the stressor, assist the family with coping strategies and prevent further problems from arising.

To make an appointment with Sonya Dinizulu, PhD:

Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park, 1-844-826-5264

University of Chicago Medicine in Hyde Park, 1-888-824-0200