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How to help stressed-out youth to cope

By Trisha Sheehan

Knotted ropeDo you remember what stressed you out as a kid?  I clearly remember worrying a great deal about my school grades and big track or cross country meets. Of course I wanted to do my best, but in my mind, I also had to be the best. That didn't always happen -- which caused me more stress.

Like adults, young people have stress. It can come in many shapes and sizes. Maybe it’s due to a test grade, or a friendship, or the perceived expectations of parents. There may be family stress related to finances or farming situations.

What can we as youth workers, volunteers and parents do to help young people better manage stress?  It’s important to pay attention to the warning signs of stress:
  • Feeling sad or withdrawn.
  • More irritable or moody than usual.
  • Drastic changes in behavior or sleep patterns.
  • Routinely expressing worries.
  • Clinging more to parents.
  • Sleeping too much or too little.
  • Eating too much or too little.
  • Complaining about school or activities they attend.

These behaviors may mean something’s up and we should pay attention to determine how best to intervene or respond. Listen to the youth to better understand their thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  Connect with their parents or other youth workers who know and work with the child.

We know that life events can have very different impacts on youth. For example, getting a C on a test is “no big deal” for some, but for others feels devastating. One factor is resilience -- the ability to recover from difficulties.

The American Psychological Association shares these suggestions:
  • Make connections with others.
  • Accept that change is a part of life.
  • Develop a positive attitude about yourself.
  • Take care of yourself.
  • Learn about yourself.
  • Define goals.
  • Have a hopeful outlook.

Looking back, I realize that my track coach tried to help me become resilient. He talked with me about the race or run and what I could have changed. He also taught me how to find the good in each run, to know that I had done the best I could that day, and to set a goal or two for the next run.

A curriculum by Ohio State University Extension called Your Thoughts Matter: Navigating Mental Health shows how resilience is a characteristic each of us can develop.

Helping young people recognize and develop their resilience can give them a toolbox of coping strategies for stressful situations. How do you help youth to cope with stress? How do you teach and model resiliency?

-- Trisha Sheehan, Extension educator

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