Being a teenager is stressful. It always has been. Rapid physical changes, awakening sexuality, the urge for autonomy, questions of identity. And parents want them to be nice to their siblings, help with the dishes, and get their homework done? Sometimes anger, avoidance, and denial seem like the only coping skills teens have.
But adolescence can bring good news for teen coping skills, too. As they mature, teens can respond to stress with greater flexibility. And as their brains develop, so does their capacity to reason, plan, and think in big-picture ways.
A list of coping skills for teens can help them get ready for the return to school this fall, when teen stress typically skyrockets. A toolkit of coping skills for adolescent stress can also help young people weather difficulties in the long term, as they move into young adulthood and beyond.
- During adolescence, teens can begin to build better coping skills that will last a lifetime.
- When teens don’t have positive coping skills, they may distract, avoid, or self-medicate their distress.
- There are five main types of coping skills: problem-focused strategies, emotion-focused strategies, meaning making, social support, and religious coping.
- Teens need more than coping skills if they have a mental health condition that requires treatment, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD.
Signs That Teens Need Better Coping Skills
Why are coping skills for teens so important? Because teens have a lot of challenges to cope with. School is one of the leading sources of stress for teens, according to the annual American Psychological Association survey on stress.
Time management, family finances, and social interactions are also among the top five stressors for teens, the survey showed.
In addition, the list includes conflict with parents—especially around issues of autonomy, communication, and pressure to achieve academically.
How do teens react to stress, particularly when they don’t have strong coping strategies? Signs of stress in teens can include:
- Feeling anxious or nervous
- Frequently feeling tired
- Stomachaches and chest pain
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Having negative thoughts
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Problems remembering, focusing, and concentrating
- Substance abuse
- Unexplained physical symptoms
These signs of stress indicate that a teen may need better coping skills for adolescent stress.
What Are Unhealthy Coping Strategies for Adolescents?
When a situation feels painful or overwhelming, and teens don’t have the skills they need, they may default to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Consequently, they may make risky or self-destructive choices to distract themselves from their distress or to ease the intensity of their emotions. The most common unhealthy coping skills for teens include:
- Avoidance—attempting to avoid a stressful situation
- Misdirected anger—using rage or aggression to mask sadness or release other difficult emotions
- Social media overuse—to distract from painful feelings
- Substance abuse—as self-medication for anxiety, trauma, or depression
- Self-harm—as a way to release feelings of pain, tension, and anxiety
- Disordered eating—as a form of self-control when teens feel out of control
When teens are using these unhealthy coping skills for adolescent stress, parents can find it helpful to remember why they are acting out in these ways. These behaviors are not designed to annoy parents. Rather, teens are resorting to poor coping skills because they are in pain.
Giving them a list of coping skills for teens may not avert the unhealthy behavior every time. But it provides other choices that they can turn to when they’re struggling. The more they practice healthy coping skills, the more they see how effective and positive these tools can be.
5 Types of Coping Skills
While there are a variety of models of coping, researchers generally recognize five types of coping skills. The most effective strategies generally help a person approach rather than avoid the source of their stress. However, there are exceptions. And even healthy strategies taken to an extreme can be harmful.
Taking direct action to solve a problem is often the fastest way to reduce stress. This works best when teens are dealing with a specific and solvable problem or situation, rather than unfocused anxiety and stress. Problem-focused coping strategies include:
- Seeking out as much information as possible about the situation, including the people who can support you in finding a solution
- Breaking the problem down into manageable chunks, and addressing them one step at a time.
Stress is not just a function of what’s happening to us or around us. It is also the result of what’s happening inside us. How teens react to their thoughts and feelings plays a major role in whether or not they experience a situation as stressful. Here are two emotion-focused coping skills for teens to help them manage their emotional response:
- Breathing and relaxation practices, which automatically regulate the nervous system and create a sense of calm
- Creative expression, such as art, music, or dance, which helps teens process emotions in positive and productive ways.
Turning to others who can help solve a problem is one of the most helpful coping skills for teens. It’s a boost for the emotions and can also help alleviate a specific stressor. Research shows that girls tend to use the social support strategy more naturally than boys, who are more inclined to use avoidant strategies. Social support strategies include:
- Connecting with a close friend who makes you feel loved for who you really are
- Reaching out to a parent or other trusted adult, such as a coach or school guidance counselor.
Meaning-making strategies help change the way teens view a situation. Trying to see the positive or meaningful aspects of a difficult situation can change the way we feel about it.
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For many people, faith traditions can support healthy coping by providing social and emotional support and a sense of meaning. This form of coping does not have to involve an organized religion.
- Spending time in nature inspires a sense of awe and gratitude, and reminds teens that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.
- Volunteering connects teens to their larger community. It’s also proven to lower stress and promote overall health and well-being.
Mental Health Treatment When Teen Coping Skills Aren’t Enough
While coping skills for teens are essential, they aren’t sufficient when a teen is struggling with a mental health condition. In those cases, coping strategies for adolescent stress need to be part of a larger treatment plan. Depending on the needs of the teen and family, that might include weekly therapy, outpatient care, or a residential program.
At Newport Academy, teens’ daily schedules include multiple opportunities to learn and practice coping skills for navigating stressful situations and difficult emotions. Meanwhile, in group, individual, and family therapy, they heal the underlying issues catalyzing their mental health concerns. During their time with us, teens begin to love and accept themselves, while building stronger relationships with family and with peers.
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