Catherine P. Cook-Cottone
is an associate professor of counseling, school and educational psychology in the Graduate School of Education.
How common is stress among teenagers these days?
Teenagers today can experience stress from many different sources—academic, social, familial and cultural. With full-scale adoption of high-stakes tests in U.S. schools, worries about college and the future, competition in sports and an increasingly image- and media-oriented culture, teens feel pressure to succeed on all fronts. Providing an additional layer of stress, media culture is sexualized and consumer-oriented, with less emphasis on community and spiritual connections. Many believe that schools and churches have lost their central role as socializing agents. Further, there is little social support. Families are overextended with work and financial pressures. As a result, there is increasingly less direct interpersonal connection.
What problems do these stressful and achievement-driven academic environments breed?
We are seeing increases in self-harming and self-destructive behaviors. Facing overwhelming stress and feeling out of control, kids find ways to get through the day, and some of their techniques are not healthy. Some kids do well. They ask for help. These more-resilient kids find healthy coping strategies, such as moderate exercise, self-care and strong social support to get through high-stress periods. Other kids make different choices—often because they feel like they don’t have a choice. These kids may drink, engage in substance abuse, cut (self-harm) or engage in eating disordered behaviors. What we’ve learned is that we can teach these kids how to be resilient before they struggle.
Define the term “emotional regulation,” and how does that fit into what we’re talking about?
Emotional regulation refers to the ability to be aware of, identify and respond to emotions. Emotions are viewed as important pieces of information about our internal and external status. Accordingly, emotions are as valuable as our thoughts and cognitive assessments in decision-making. When someone has good emotional-regulation skills, they are mindful of their emotions and use them to make choices in conjunction with their thinking skills. Teaching kids emotional-regulation skills helps them acknowledge and value their emotional experience. This helps prevent disorders that are caused, in part, by dys-regulated emotions—substance abuse, anxiety disorders, eating disorders and other self-destructive behavioral disorders.
What can parents do to stop the toxic effects of this stress?
My research team is implementing a school-based prevention program designed to increase wellness and coping, and decrease kids’ perceptions that stress is unmanageable. This program teaches emotional regulation, yoga, stress-reduction techniques, problem solving, assertiveness and self-care. A component of this program is a series of four parent workshops that teach parents the same emotional regulation and self-care skills we are teaching the fifth-grade students in our program. Our program has been successful in decreasing risk factors associated with eating disorder, and we are hoping that by integrating the parent workshops and enhancing our emotional-regulation curricula we will be able to prevent the wider set of self-destructive behaviors, as well as anxiety disorders.
Parents often do not realize how important their role is in helping kids manage stress. The most important thing a parent can do is to model good coping skills—to model emotional regulation. A parent who comes home and has a few drinks in order to decompress from work is modeling the use of alcohol as a way of regulating emotions. A parent who anticipates stressors, plans, takes breaks, has a regular exercise program and a good social support network is modeling good coping and emotional-regulation skills.
Parents also can provide the structure and support that kids need to get their academic work completed. This includes modeling academic behavior—reading, integrating education into trips, learning about family history, and creating meaning and demonstrating a curiosity in daily living. It also includes daily quiet time to complete homework—with parents reading or writing, too. How we spend our time reflects our values. If we want to show our children what we value, we need to do it.
Lastly, parents can teach their children coping skills. These include setting manageable goals, chipping away at goals a little every day, breaking down big projects into stages and setting goals for each week, preparing for exams and helping children study, reviewing children’s notes and helping quiz them for exams. Over time, kids learn to do these good practices on their own.
And how about the students themselves?
Students who succeed see learning as a daily practice. They anticipate large projects and big exams, and work each day to prepare. They also balance this work with down time, and they exercise and take care of their bodies. Also, successful students choose a manageable schedule—a combination of sports, academics and work. Success is not success at any cost. It is success within the context of self-care and balance.