Clinically reviewed by Dr. Chris Mosunic, PhD, RD, CDCES, MBA

Universal signs of stress in teenagers and 7 tips on how to approach a stressed teen successfully

by Kells McPhillips

To say that teenage years are challenging would be a vast understatement. Your child is navigating a changing body, shifting friend groups, school work, and their relationship with social media all at once. It’s normal for your child to be stressed at this time, but if you’re stumped about how to show up for them right now, that’s perfectly normal, too.

According to Kendra Delahooke, founder and clinical director at the Child Therapy Center of Los Angeles, this period of life presents physical challenges (yep, we’re talking about puberty) that often lead to a roller coaster of feelings. “Instead of diagnosing teens and labeling them as defiant or moody, the focus should be on recognizing that these physical changes are quite stressful for a teenager, and that an extra dose of support and compassion can go a long way with stabilizing their mood and reducing their stress load,” she says.

To help you support your teen at this time, we asked Delahooke for a few universal signs of stress to look out for (and seven tips you can use for productive, thoughtful conversations over the next few years).

Universal signs of stress in teenagers

Before you can take an active role in supporting a stressed-out teen, you need to learn the common ways stress manifests in young people. Every teenager will respond to stress differently, but Delahooke says there are a few common giveaways to keep in mind. “Some universal signs of stress include worrying, tearfulness, hyperfocusing on a problem, and overeating or undereating,” says Delahooke. “Some other signs that can be easier to miss include social withdrawal, anger challenges, defiant behaviors, rudeness, or a change in school performance.”

“It’s also important to know when it’s something more than stress”, says Dr. Christopher Mosunic, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer at Calm. According to Dr. Mosunic, “Stress is characterized by feeling overwhelmed, but this symptom often overlaps with other mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, which have a more extensive set of symptoms. If you’re in doubt, don’t hesitate to seek out a therapist who can help you better understand the difference.”

7 tips for teenage stress management

1. Remember that your teen’s behavior is a stress response

When your child is stressed and irritable, it can be easy to take their behavior to heart. “The most important first step is viewing their mood and behavior as a response to stress, not as intentional rudeness or defiance,” says Delahooke. “This can be difficult, especially when you feel thrown off by your child’s rude or shut-down behavior. But remembering that your teen is facing an invisible internal rollercoaster of changing hormones is a helpful starting point!”

2. Avoid looking for a “quick fix” to your teen’s issues

While we live in a solution-oriented society, it’s important to remember that stress in teenagers (just like stress in adults) doesn’t have a “quick fix.” Rather than rushing to suggestions, Delahooke says to take in what your teen is saying in an open and honest fashion. “While not all talking is bad, it can backfire if we are trying to problem solve the behavior without recognizing the root cause of why the behavior is there in the first place.”

3. Consider what physical factors could be contributing to their stress

“Often, [teenage] stress is linked to their physical state, not their mental state. Because of this, supporting your teen’s physiology first and using talking strategies later is an extremely effective approach,” says Delahooke. She recommends asking yourself:

  • Is my teen getting adequate, high-quality sleep?
  • Are they consistent with nutrition and hydration?
  • Do they have enough downtime in their schedule to balance out the busyness?

Once you’ve evaluated the factors that may be contributing to their stress, you’ll have a better vantage point for how you can help. For example, perhaps you can limit family obligations to give them space and time to relax, or ask them to prepare a healthful meal with you.

4. Prioritize joyful connection with your child

Joy is a great antidote for stress, even if it is only temporary. “If possible, take a break by spending a few minutes on what you [and your child] both enjoy doing together. This activity will be personal to your family but can include walking, singing, cooking, a board game, etc. Joyful connection is a natural elixir and helps the brain realize there is no ‘threat’ in the environment, causing the body to relax,” says Delahooke.

5. Pause the conversation if it’s not feeling productive

Part of having a compassionate conversation with your teen is knowing when the discussion is no longer productive. “Remember that teenagers will talk to you about their stress if they are able to. If the conversation is going nowhere, that’s your sign that their stress could be largely physical and that it’s important to pause the conversation for a later time,” says Delahooke.

6. Find a therapist if that makes sense for your family

While many families don’t have access to therapy services, those who do should consider finding their stressed teen a therapist. Delahooke says that the right candidate will click with your child’s personality and specialize in the field of childhood development. If therapy doesn’t make financial sense for your family right now, consider connecting your teen with their school counselor. Crisis Text Line is another free resource your child can turn to in moments of stress and/or anxiety.

7. Practice self-compassion

Remember: Don’t forget to take care of yourself while you’re being a supportive parent. “Have some compassion for yourself,” says Delahooke. “Some of your teen’s stress is unavoidable and doesn’t automatically need fixing. Parenting a teen is challenging because their bodies are going through so much change at once, and challenging moments are part of their developmental journey.”

Calm Health is a mental health wellness product. Calm Health is not intended to diagnose or treat depression, anxiety, or any other disease or condition. Calm Health is not a substitute for care by a physician or other health care provider. Any questions that you may have regarding the diagnosis, care, or treatment of a medical condition should be directed to your physician or health care provider.

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