Kids in middle school and high school often face academic challenges, plus a lot of social stress. This can be especially true for kids who learn and think differently.
Here are some tips to lower the stress level and help keep your teen from feeling overwhelmed.
1. Do some detective work.
Many teens with learning struggles don’t even realize they’re feeling stress. Start a conversation, but keep your questions low-key. Taking a walk or going for a drive together is a good way to get conversation flowing. Mention you’ve noticed something has been bothering your child. Help to put a name on what it might be. “Is all this talk about the SATs making you feel uneasy?” Simply taking the time to talk about feelings can be a huge relief for your teen.
2. Break down the homework.
A big term paper or a science project can be overwhelming, particularly for teens who struggle with organization and attention. Work with your teen to break the project down into chunks. (“This week, focus on doing an outline. Then, next week you can look for sources.”) This will make the task more manageable. Keep a calendar or checklist with steps your child can check off. After each step is completed, celebrate the win. This will help your child feel less overwhelmed about what’s next.
3. Prep for new experiences and changes.
Say your teen is about to take on a new task, like volunteering at the community center. Ahead of time, encourage your child to ask for a list of tasks the volunteers do. Practice basic social skills, like saying hello, shaking hands, and keeping eye contact. Stop by the center and see what the place is like, where your child will be working, and how busy it is. Find the bathroom together. Maybe meet a few other volunteers in advance of the first day.
Knowing what to expect will help your teen feel less
about the new experience.
4. Celebrate even the smallest wins.
Most teens feel some stress when facing a social event or some other challenging situation. But they eventually dive in because their past successes give them confidence. Teens who learn and think differently need that same motivation — but the wins can feel harder to come by.
Watch for opportunities to
praise a teen’s accomplishments
. It could be for something as simple as scheduling a haircut or staying late to speak with a teacher about a paper. Acknowledging these day-to-day successes may help your child feel less overwhelmed and less panicked when facing bigger challenges.
5. Create a “can do” mantra.
Suggest phrases your child can repeat when facing down stressful situations. “I’m not afraid to try” or “One step at a time” are two good examples. These thoughts will push out negative talk (“I’m too stupid to do this!”). And repeating the words over and over can be soothing.
6. Keep some rituals and order at home.
Coming home to an organized home with regular rituals will give your child security after a busy day at high school. Help create a space where your child can
keep school supplies and homework in order
. Make a calendar with homework due dates, afterschool activities, and upcoming appointments. Go over them together every few nights. Create some structure for weekends as well. Too much time without a schedule can make teens feel anxious.
Stress can build up like steam in a pressure cooker. You can help your teen find ways to release that tension. Maybe your teen likes to jam out on the guitar in the garage or paint in a quiet room upstairs. Exercise is also vital, whether it’s going for a run, attending a yoga class, practicing with the soccer team, or working out at the Y.
8. Find some afterschool activities.
For the teen who struggles in school, being good at something like volleyball or piano can boost self-esteem. Volunteering and helping others can also take their minds off their own challenges.
also give structure to the afternoons and provide a stress-busting release.
Too many activities, however, can create stress. Help your teen figure out which activities bring the most joy.
9. Be clear about what you expect.
Some parents ask their kids to “just do your best.” This can sound overwhelming — teens may think you’re asking them to give 100 percent effort in everything, all the time. Communicate what you actually expect, and be as specific as possible. For example, imagine you want your teen to start being more responsible. Will your teen know exactly what “more responsible” looks like, or is it too abstract? You will need to explain, in concrete terms, what you’re looking for. You can start by praising your teen for the kinds of things you want to see more of. (“I really appreciate that you came home and started studying without my asking.”) It’s hard to cross the finish line if you don’t know where it is!
10. Consider getting outside help.
Find a class where your teen can learn yoga, meditation, or deep breathing. Mental health experts who specialize in treating teens who learn and think differently can also help with stress management.