Last week, Dr. Lucy Vezzuto, Coordinator of the K-12 Student Mental Health and Social and Emotional Learning program at the Orange County Department of Education, addressed over 200 parents at the Rocklin Community Center about the stress youth experience and what they need from parents. The event was co-sponsored by the Rocklin Unified School District and the Coalition for Rocklin Youth.
Vezzuto explains that the optimal state for learning is calm alertness. And if you ask any parent, teacher, or teen today, they will tell you their number one worry for youth is the stress of modern life and the resulting anxiety that is more like hyper vigilance and is not a learning state of mind. A recent survey of the American Psychological Association found that teens are experiencing the same stress levels as that of adults:
“Teens reported that their stress levels during the school year far exceeded what they believe to be healthy (5.8 vs. 3.9 on a 10-point scale) and topped adults’ average reported stress levels (5.8 for teens vs. 5.1 for adults). Even during the summer — from Aug. 3 to Aug. 31, 2013, when interviewing took place — teens reported their stress during the prior month at levels higher than what they believe is healthy (4.6 vs. 3.9 on a 10-point scale).”
Based upon her research and practice as a mental health professional, some of the insights and guidance Vezzuto shared with parents include:
- Youth experience real stress. Do not minimize what stresses your teen. They are having a real life experience just as adults are living with their own life stresses. The typical sources of stress for teens are school, pressure of getting into a good college, and deciding what to do after high school. In their online lives, teens are exposed to chronic stress (always on and always present with social media and extremely demanding academic and extra-curricular schedules) that can impact working memory, social skills, habit changes, decision making. So stress is something that needs to be understood and managed by parents and their teens.
- It is important to acknowledge that stress is a normal part of life. Some positive examples of stressors, (i.e., eustress – short term, motivational stimulation, and are within copings skills) are things that challenge your teen, such as studying for an exam, receiving an award, making the team, applying for employment, and starting a new job or a new school year, etc. Examples of stressors that are negative, or distress, include divorce, child abuse, death of a loved one, parent’s mental health, overscheduled and hectic routines, social isolation and bullying (e., social media).
- Vezzuto explains that without stress management skills, stress can impact your teen’s ability to control their emotions, learn and think correctly about issues and make decisions. The teen brain has not finished developing the pre-frontal cortex portion (located at the forehead, responsible for good decision-making and impulse control). So chronic, toxic stress can impair teen brain development of circuit connections generate high levels of cortisol (stress hormone) which can then suppress the immune system making them vulnerable to disease; damage the hippocampus (learning and memory section of the brain) and result in cognitive deficits into adulthood.
- Parents need to be mindful of maladaptive coping strategies for chronic, toxic stress. They include use of drugs and alcohol, gambling, screaming and yelling, etc. If you suspect or discover that your child or teen has been using drugs or alcohol, seek drug counseling and assessment services at Recovery Happens or find more resources at Coalition for Rocklin Youth/Raising Placer.
Things parents can do
Pay attention. Now here is the good news. Our response to all of life stressors can mitigate the negative impacts of stressors, and protective relationships with parents, guardians and teachers are essential. So the more parents understand how to help their teens respond to stress as a part of life, the more resilient our teens will be as students. The first thing is to recognize when your teen might be suffering from stress. Below are some signs that may include:
- Headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, asthma attacks, frequent colds and flu
- Memory problems, moodiness, anxious or racing thoughts, constant worrying, feeling powerless, boredom/apathy
- Reactions may include: lethargy, nervous, isolation, lazy, aggressive, show anger, demand attention, easily irritated
Many of these symptoms can also be associated with hormone changes and natural life challenges of adolescence. So it is important to listen to your teen, without offering your opinion. Your teen needs you to help them think about their stressors more critically, and your opinion will likely be perceived as judgment and you risk shutting down communication. They need to be heard. If you believe that your child is having difficulty coping with stress, or is engaging in risky behavior and you are concerned for their well being, then seek professional counseling to improve the quality of the communication at home, and get additional help for your teen if needed. Read more about open communication with a stressed-out teen here.
Create a stress-free zone home environment. Youth need a home environment wherein parents manage their own stress in healthy ways. Children and teens will regulate their anxiety levels to match those of the parent. So it is important to model health stress management behaviors. Below are some examples of stress management exercises:
- Relaxation techniques that involve a non-judgmental, neutral mental attitude
- Physical exercise (yoga, stretching, sports, walking, running)
- Mindfulness – paying attention to the here and now with kindness, gratitude and curiosity so we can choose our behavior. Mindfulness helps to observe our own thought, so we can find calmness when life feels overwhelming.
To learn more about creating a family culture that regulates the impact of cyber-stress on youth and create a more peaceful home, contact Joanna at Core Connectivity. We also help parents whose children are suffering from anxiety, addictions, sexual exploitation and social isolation to work more effectively with mental and behavioral health professionals.
About: We are a non-profit education center founded in Roseville, CA to strengthen the parent-child bond in a hyper-connected world. Our mission is to restore families with the mustard seed of faith that declares liberty already belongs to the soul because one God, the Creator of all humanity, grants every human being intelligence and free will to choose what to believe, and that is power that can never be taken, but is easily surrendered to the bully, the drug or the device. To that end, ten percent of all proceeds are donated to prison ministries. Your donations are greatly appreciated. (Donations are payable to Banana Moments Foundation).
Joanna Jullien is an author, educator and consultant on strengthening the parent-child relationship in a cyber-powered world. She is a former technology executive trained in behavioral science at U.C. Berkeley, a mother of two grown sons, and an author of books for practical guidance on parenting, growing up and family life in the network culture. As a family and technology culture advisor, Joanna has appeared on 103.9FM The Fish, 710AM Keeping Faith in America, 1380AM The Answer, and Examiner.com.
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