“Helping Teens Cope with Stress,” Ensign, April 2020
Each morning, our youth leave home and venture out to face an increasingly amoral world full of chaos and turmoil. They are being raised in an era of insecurity, with terrorism and mass shootings peppering the news. Tight-knit families and neighborhoods seem less common today than they were in the past. Social media is redefining the idea of community, often creating distance between our teens and us as parents.
In the middle of all of this, our young people are expected to fulfill responsibilities within their family, workplace, school, and church. Each different group may have competing expectations, which can create layers of stress, especially for youth who are trying to figure out who they are and what they believe. How can we equip our teens to successfully navigate these shifting, and often contradictory, norms? Here are suggestions from prophets and professionals that might prompt ideas of your own.
One of the most important things parents can do for the mental health of their children is to regularly sit down together for family meals. It doesn’t have to be fancy or homemade (take-out pizza totally works!). Research has shown that eating together as a family reduces high-risk teen behaviors such as alcohol and tobacco use, eating disorders, and sexual activity. Family meals are also linked to better moods, more service-oriented behaviors, and higher life satisfaction—irrespective of family circumstances.1
“It’s important to note that the ‘secret sauce’ that drives these cognitive and behavioral benefits is not the food itself, but the warm and inviting atmosphere at the table,” said family therapist Anne Fishel. “If there’s a lot of conflict and yelling at the table, these benefits are essentially null and void.”2
An article that tells us that more than a quarter of teens report symptoms of stress—such as negative thoughts and disrupted sleeping habits—also points out that communication can help alleviate these problems.3 This aligns with what our Church leaders have encouraged us to do. Sister Joy D. Jones, Primary General President, has said:
“Minor troubles talked about in a loving way create a foundation of a healthy response so that when big troubles come, communication is still open. …
“Parents, we must start the conversation and not wait for children to come to us.”4
Here are some talk-time suggestions:
Spend one-on-one time with your teen.
Avoid making speeches to try and “improve” your child.
Really listen to what they say.
Try to understand their perspective.
Share positive thoughts or feelings.5
And don’t shy away from the tough topics, like depression. Have an honest discussion about what depression feels like, some of its causes, and ways to deal with it. Talking together before teens experience changing emotions firsthand can equip them to better deal with whatever happens as they grow up. (For help talking with teens and children about sensitive topics, see articles in the Ensign series “How Do I Talk to My Kids about … ?” The February article addressed mental health, and future installments will look at disabilities, family members with different beliefs, and safe media use.)
“The Family: A Proclamation to the World” states that “wholesome recreational activities” are an important part of successful family life.6 One example of these activities is family traditions and rituals. Experts indicate that they “are reassuring for children and teens, and can be especially comforting during stressful times.”7 Examples could be holiday activities, seasonal trips or vacations, or weekly family nights. As already mentioned, daily rituals like regular meals together make a big difference.
The scriptures repeatedly implore parents to teach their children about God. “And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children” (3 Nephi 22:13; Isaiah 54:13). But did you know that believing in God and praying can actually help reduce stress and block anxiety in teens? One study found that the brains of people who had faith in God reacted differently to anxiety-producing events.8 What can you do to help your teen draw closer to God? How can you model trusting in Him with your shortcomings or when challenges occur?
Social media is a blessing in some ways. It can help teens form social connections and develop technical skills. But social media also introduces risks, including cyberbullying, privacy problems, sexting, internet addiction, and sleep deprivation. There’s even a growing trend that researchers call “Facebook depression,” referring to a correlation between time spent on social media and symptoms of depression.9
Work with your teens to create boundaries for social media use. In 2018, President Russel M. Nelson’s call for a social media fast10 inspired many young participants. One person noticed results right away: “It was almost immediately! It was amazing to me how much happier I was and how well things were going at home.” Another participant said: “It was absolutely challenging yet fulfilling! … As the days passed, I came to realize how much time I spend on scrolling and reading stuff that did not help me at all.”11 If your child took part in President Nelson’s challenge, ask them about their experience. You could use this as a starting point for discussing boundaries that would work for your family.
If you look at the list of ideas for minimizing stress from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, you’ll quickly notice that several of them have to do with physical health. Exercising regularly and healthy eating—including avoiding illegal drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or too much caffeine—can make a difference. The list also recommends trying relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing techniques, and taking a break from stressful situations when you can. According to this same source, uplifting activities like listening to music, talking to a friend, drawing, writing, or spending time with a pet can all reduce stress.12 These suggestions are a good reminder that both “the spirit and the body” work together to make up the soul of a person (Doctrine and Covenants 88:15).
While the tools shared in this article are not comprehensive and are no substitute for medical advice, they can be seen as a starting point. It is our job to help youth grow up safely in today’s fast-paced, raw, and often confusing world. If your teens say they are feeling stress or anxiety, please spend time talking with them about what’s going on. Consider visiting with your bishop to see what professional resources are available in your community. And if you are suffering from anxiety or depression yourself, please reach out for help. Remember that your children are watching and learning from your choices.
Jesus Christ understands every challenge our families face. Armed with His love and a love for one another, we can prosper in even the most turbulent times.