Being a teenager has never been easy but these days seems harder than ever. In addition to the ordinary stresses of coming of age — a global pandemic, war in Europe, mass shootings, economic insecurity, and 24/7 exposure to social media are all contributing to what has been described as a youth mental health crisis.
“Adolescents today are more stressed than ever, exhibiting record levels of stress-related internalizing symptoms, such as anxiety and depression,” says Jeremy Jamieson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.
A new study published in Nature and co-authored by Jamieson offers a promising strategy to help adolescents counter stress and boost resilience. The one-time 30-minute intervention involves two key components:
- A Learning Mindset
This is based on the idea that ability is not set in stone but can be developed through effort, effective strategies, and support from others. As part of the process, students were presented with scientific information about the malleability of the brain. They learned that the brain is like a muscle and when you use it, it grows stronger and smarter. They also learned about the importance of flexibility and deploying new strategies and asking for help when they feel stuck. To help them internalize the message, they were asked about how they might use a learning mindset in their own lives, such as in math class or on the sports field.
To encourage your adolescent to develop a learning mindset, model a learning mindset. Welcome challenges and stick to them, try new strategies to problem solve, ask for advice when you are stuck, and use mistakes to learn and grow. Have conversations with the following questions in mind:
- “What is a challenge you have faced?”
- “How did you overcome that challenge?”
- “What advice can you give to someone facing a challenge?”
- “How can you use what you learned to overcome a current or future challenge?”
- A stress-can-be-enhancing mindset
This is predicated on the idea that our physiological responses to stress such as sweaty palms, racing heart, deep breathing, and feeling anxious are not harmful but instead can be viewed as positive changes because they mobilize energy and deliver oxygen to our tissues. Rather than something to be avoided, these physical experiences mean our body is ready to take on and overcome a challenge. The stress-can-be-enhancing mindset messaging encourages adolescents to see the activation of their psychophysiological stress response, which often follows engagement with challenging stressors, as a helpful resource that energizes their pursuit of valued goals, rather than as a problem.
To encourage your adolescent to develop a stress-can-be-enhancing mindset, remind them that stress is a normal and even defining feature of adolescence.
- Talk to them about how the stress the body feels when you face challenging experiences is also preparing you to learn from them.
- Discuss people they admire who became good at something who had to face and overcome struggles.
- Have conversations about your own stressful experiences and what you learned from them.
Students who embraced these mindsets described feeling more liked, satisfied, and good about themselves. They also reported feeling less insecure, less anxious, and less disconnected. Their grades also improved. Changing how teens think about stress, and the ability to handle it, is at the core of the intervention.
In the play, The Cursed Child, Draco says, “People say parenting is the hardest job in the world — they’re wrong — growing up is. We all just forgot how hard it was.”
Today, growing up seems harder than ever. Thankfully there are tools we can provide to help children navigate these challenges with stamina, grace, and fortitude.
I wish you all the best,
Dr. Samantha Boardman