Rough Day: Recognizing stress in youths
By Vincent Lyles
President/CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee
The other day, a Boys & Girls Clubs staff member shared a story with me about a young woman she knew. The teen normally had an easy smile and an upbeat attitude but had become more withdrawn and easily agitated. Instead of dismissing her behavior as part of being a teenager, the employee took the time to find out what was happening in the girl’s life.
Fortunately, the two had a good relationship built on years of trust. The teen felt safe enough to share that she was feeling very overwhelmed. She was balancing school, extra-curricular activities and applying to colleges. On top of that, the girls’ mother had become seriously ill and her condition led to the teen and her siblings having to live with different relatives. My colleague listened to the teen and asked her what help she needed. The Club staffer also advised the young woman to find healthy, positive ways to manage the stress she was feeling. The young woman felt relieved to share her worries. She even thought of ways to better manage her time so she could visit her mother more frequently.
As adults, it’s easy to recognize when we’re feeling stressed out. Stress is when one feels overwhelmed by the demands placed on him or her and the ability to meet them. With children and teens, stress may not always be easy to spot. Depending on the age, a child may have mood swings, wet the bed, or complain of stomach aches. Younger children might pick up new habits like thumb sucking; older children might begin to lie, bully or rebel against authority figures. For us adults, it’s important to listen to and watch for signs that our children are struggling. Our next step should be to find ways to engage them in conversation, especially during times when they are most likely to be open to sharing their thoughts.
Once the conversation gets rolling, actively listen to what the child is saying. That means letting him or her share his or her point-of-view without interruptions or adding any opinions. In addition, we should repeat what we heard to make sure we understand the child clearly. When responding, do it thoughtfully without minimizing how he or she feels. Rather, ask the child what he or she may want or need from you in the conversation. Maybe it’s advice or to be a sounding board.
One of the best ways to help children and teens manage stress is for us adults to positively model ways to handle it. Young eyes are always watching to see how we respond to different situations. When you’re overwhelmed what do you do? Do you smoke, drink and/or overeat, or do you exercise, eat right, pray and keep a positive attitude? When we model positive responses to difficult situations, those young eyes are more likely to do the same when they face a problem.
Stress will always be with us. Just as we teach our children other valuable life skills, it’s important to teach them how to handle challenges. When children and teens feel empowered and good about themselves, they feel confident in their ability to react to a difficult situation. Such a skill will help them become adults who have the attitudes, skills, values and behaviors that enable them to succeed in life.