What to do if your teen is stressed about the future

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It’s not unusual for teens to experience future stress, especially if they are nearing the end of school. They might be stressed about the near future (next week, next term), as well as the more distant future (end of the year, 2021, and beyond). They may be uncertain about what will happen with their final exams, or not know what they want to do after school ends. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has made things even more uncertain. As a parent, it can be hard not to be able to provide answers to your teen’s questions if they are stressing about the future.

'[The] biggest challenge is trying to come up with answers to questions that I have no answers for.' (Dad, VIC)

Signs of stress in teens

Before you can move onto ways to help your teen with stress, it helps to be able to recognise the signs of stress. Some signs of stress include:

  • headaches, poor sleep, changes in eating habits

  • always being tired, or lacking energy or motivation

  • feeling angry or irritable a lot

  • often being worried or nervous

  • feeling down or depressed

  • forgetfulness

  • increased alcohol or drug use.

Ways to cope with stress about the future

Have a Plan A and Plan B

It can help to sit down with your teen and prepare two plans: Plan A (what they would want to do when school ends if things were ‘normal’) and Plan B (their best choice of what to do if things aren’t ‘normal’). An example would be:

  • Plan A: travel overseas, or move out of home and into a college.

  • Plan B: complete some online training/study, gain new skills and work on creative projects with the intention of switching to Plan A when it is possible.

Explain to your teen that the aim of having a Plan B isn’t to give up on Plan A, but rather to put their primary plan on pause for a while if necessary. If your teen is unsure of a Plan A, they could consider talking to a teacher or careers counsellor about it.

Show your teen how to be okay with uncertainty

Life can be pretty unpredictable, as current world events are demonstrating. While none of us can say exactly what will happen in the near or distant future, we can learn to tolerate not knowing, and practise responding in the best way we can to what’s happening in the present. You can develop tolerance of uncertainty by doing small things together differently, such as experimenting with cooking a meal without triple-checking the recipe, or picking a random Netflix show to watch without knowing anything about it.

Remind your teen to go easy on themselves

You can encourage your teen to be kind to themselves and realistic in their thinking. Listening to them, and not discounting their concerns, is important, as is reminding them that this is a very unusual situation to be in. Perhaps you could talk together about things they can do right now to take care of themselves and to help them feel better.

Encourage them to engage in activities that are fun and relaxing

What people find fun and relaxing differs for everybody, but it will help your teen to put aside negative thoughts and worries if they can regularly find ways to relax and enjoy themselves. Encourage them to try temporary distractions such as taking a yoga or dance class, making or looking at art, listening to music, surfing, watching a TV show you both love, or playing a board game.

Practise slowing down

There is a great deal of uncertainty in the media around coronavirus at the moment. If your teen is spending a lot of time on screens, this information can be overwhelming and intense. Encourage them to slow down by practising some breathing exercises, or doing stretching, yoga or a mindfulness meditation. These activities will reduce physical tension and the bodily symptoms of stress and help to clear their mind.

Create forward momentum

You and your teen may both feel like you have very little control over life at the moment. Teenagers, especially, might be feeling like they can’t move forward or create positive changes at a time in their life that is usually filled with opportunities. Work with your teen to identify a few things they feel are in their control. Examples might include keeping their room or desk tidy, or maintaining friendships and relationships, taking the dog for a walk, or completing a level on a game. This helps to show movement and positive change in some areas of their life when they don’t have control over other areas.

'We as adults are finding this confronting. I’m not sure what/how our kids are digesting the situation.' (Dad, VIC).

Talk about the things they value

It’s really easy right now for your teen to think that things are bad, but it’s usually possible to find things, big and small, that they value or appreciate. Starting a gratitude journal (it can just be a note on their phone) will help them to refocus on the good things in their life. You could try asking them each evening what they are grateful for, if they feel like sharing.

Encourage them to stay connected

Suggest to your teen that their friends are probably experiencing similar worries and it can really help to talk about them together. They could even compare their Plan A/Plan B with their friends’ plans, to share ideas. If they don’t feel comfortable talking with friends about their concerns, they can get some support online via the ReachOut Forums.

Help them to get more support

Remind your teen that they don’t have to work everything out by themselves! Encourage them to talk to someone ‘in the know’, such as a teacher, their year coordinator or wellbeing teacher, the school careers counsellor, or someone who works at the uni/TAFE admissions office, and to ask for their advice and suggestions. If they are feeling really overwhelmed, it could help to speak with a mental health professional who can help support them through this tricky time.

They could also talk to a mental health professional online via sites such as eheadspace, beyondblue and Lifeline.

It may be difficult for your teen to stay calm and focused right now, and it can be tricky for them to accept that you can’t predict the future. It can help to remind them to focus on the things they can control and to trust that, whatever happens, they will be able to cope.