Parents have a critical role in supporting kids’ use of healthy, productive coping strategies. Parents of young children may have their greatest influence on preventing worrisome adolescent behaviors by teaching youngsters a wide repertoire of positive coping strategies. Children equipped with healthy ways to manage stress will choose those strategies rather than dangerous quick fixes. In late adolescence, parents can most effectively reinforce positive coping strategies by consistently modeling them.
Parents always need to be open to talking with children about stress so there’s never any shame in admitting that they feel stressed. Parents also can have a pivotal role in helping adolescents sort out what’s a real crisis and what’s not. During the high school years, when teenagers are preparing to leave home, so many potential stressors arise that it’s easy to blow something out of proportion, to have trouble telling the difference between a bump in the road and a catastrophe. A tiger running at us is an authentic crisis. An oncoming car suddenly veering into our lane instantly energizes us to steer out of its path. But is a C+ on a chemistry quiz a major crisis? If a young person blows a mild stressor (such as studying for tomorrow’s test) way out of proportion, he will undermine his chance for success. Instead of being alert, he will be scattered, unfocused, and too nervous to study at all. He’ll be running from the test-tiger and incapable of concentrating on anything but escape. In situations like these, parents’ subtle and not so subtle messages determine how children define crisis and how their stress hormones mobilize.
To high school juniors and seniors, the college admissions process often seems a major crisis worth every ounce of reserve. But it is not. Our job is to make sure they realistically assess just how important it is in the context of their lives. The difference between a college acceptance at their first versus fifth choice is rarely a make or break situation, and is never life-threatening.
Certainly parents’ words can be reassuring, but remember how closely children—even adolescents—watch their parents. Young people recognize when body language and anxiety belie a parent’s reassuring words. For this reason, it really matters that parents first put the admissions process in perspective themselves. If they see the end result as reflective of whether they have succeeded as parents, their adolescent will grasp their heightened anxiety, and this will put an inordinate amount of pressure on the outcome. The more parents reinforce that the trophy at the end is more important than how the game is played, the more likely it is their teenager will feel like a failure when the goal is inaccessible. The stress caused by this fear of failure is precisely what may limit success.
But if we help teenagers keep perspective and manage stress, they will be prepared to mount their best effort to meet challenges and remain flexible enough to make the most of whatever good fortune comes their way.