What do you have to be stressed about? – Part Two

In part one of this series, I provided this list of actions that will help you identify with a teen’s perception of stress and then help them move toward better stress coping skills.

    1. When a teen says they are stressed out: Believe them and act like you believe them
    2. Explore what they see as the sources of stress by asking insightful questions
    3. Refrain from making minimizing comments or giving over-simplified advice
    4. Be content to act as a ventilation source – practice empathy without fixing
    5. When they say “you wouldn’t understand” agree with them and ask them to help you understand
    6. Encourage their connection to groups where they can discuss common stressors with peers and discover better coping mechanisms

Let’s dig into the first two on that list and explore why those actions are important and what they would look like in practice.

Action – When a teen says they are stressed out: Believe them and act like you believe them.

You may be able to rationalize that a teen’s perception is off or even dead wrong… you’ll probably have 25 instant reasons to refute their perception… you’ll likely even be shocked that they could hold that view of life when it’s so obviously flawed… but that perception is real to them.

To believe them and act like you believe them, you’ll need to show genuine empathy. It may take everything you have to control the impulsive roll of your eyes back into your head, or to appear genuinely sorry for what they are experiencing, but this is essential to remaining in a position to help them. Validating that what they feel or see is real to them is not the same as agreeing with it. You might say something like, “Wow, it sucks that you feel that much pressure on you right now. I feel bad for you that you feel things have gotten this heavy/difficult/terrible. I can’t imagine what that looks like for you. It must be really hard to handle.”

You’ve said nothing about how you see it, or that you see the stress in the same way they do. But what you’ve done is validated their experience and that validation will allow you (in most cases) to move from a simple statement of complaint to exploration.

Action – Explore what they see as the sources of stress by asking insightful questions

The first rule of this action is to initially avoid “why” questions. They can be interpreted as accusing or judgmental. Questions that begin with “what” or “how” are best for exploration.

“What would you say is the biggest stressor for you right now?” “What’s the next biggest stressor?” “If this stress was a 100 pound weight, how much of that 100 pounds would be __________________ (response to the question about their biggest stressor) and how much would be _________________ (response to the question about the next biggest stressor)” If they leave any balance (let’s say they use 50 pounds and 30 pounds) ask them what kind of stress is in that last 20 pounds. “What does that pressure/pain/anxiety (use their words) feel like?” “Where do you most feel that stress in your body?” “How does that stress (or name the stressor) make you feel?” “What has changed that made this worse/heavier/more stressful than it was before?” “What has happened to you or in you that has made this so hard to handle?” “What have people been doing (including me) that has made this worse/more difficult?”

Your temptation will be to go from their answer to the first question and begin either advising “Well you could do this…” or asking them to identify a fix. Be patient. Teens are not familiar with being asked open-ended questions like this, so you will get some pretty surface-level responses initially. Taking the time to explore what this stress looks like and feels like to them and using multiple questions to explore that from a couple different angles is doing two things.

  1. It’s providing them with some emotional and quantifying language to use in describing their experience. Many teens won’t talk about stress or emotional reactions to stress because they don’t know how to describe what they are experiencing. On a recent social-emotional wellness survey we use in public schools, the top concern for emotional wellness across all 6th-8th grade students at a local middle school was dissatisfaction with their ability to talk about their emotions. Over 30% of the students listed “I don’t talk about (emotions) because it’s hard for me to put feelings into words” as the reason for their dissatisfaction. Questions show concern and curiosity, but they also can contain language that helps them put what they feel into words.
  2. It’s providing them with the space and opportunity to discover connections to deeper troubling thoughts, ideas, and perceptions that are acting within them, but unlikely to come out in the first couple of minutes of your conversation. I talk about this a lot in relationship to having coaching conversations. The shallowness of communication across all age groups is undoubtedly related to our growing dependence and use of digital communication, but social awkwardness and self-interest are also limiting the space and time that we allow for others to be heard. Empty moments in conversation can send you in a desperate search for something to say and usually that something puts the attention back on you. Learn to be okay with the awkward silence. Give the teen the space needed to explore what they are experiencing.

Okay. I’m hoping these quick tips are helpful. If they are, keep a look out for the next post I’ll make in this series of blogs. You can also go to the ElevateYouthSolutions.com website and subscribe to our email list. As usual, I’m super interested in your thoughts and ideas on what I’ve shared, so please jump in with a comment.

Other Blogs in This Series

About the Author: Jack Witt

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Jack brings a Master’s level education in strategic leadership along with a successful training/consulting track record to the Elevate team. His skills include coaching services with a special emphasis on conflict resolution and improving social/emotional intelligence; creating personal development plans for individuals. His training as a certified academic coach and work within for-profit and non-profit corporations has given him a unique and valuable perspective which he contributed to the development and deployment of the EYS program.


One Comment

  1. Tim Kemptner May 12, 2022 at 8:44 am - Reply

    I love the statement that validating a teen’s feelings isn’t necessarily agreeing with his/her perspective. I have watched doors open wide when a teen senses that I have true empathy towards them in their own perception of the circumstances of their life.

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