BY TARA MURPHY
In the building pressure cooker of adolescence, teens face a lot of expectations from peers, parents, teachers, coaches and so on. Teens can often feel overwhelmed and fearful that they will disappoint others, which can lead them to be overly critical of themselves.
Since teens are still developing a sense of self, they can be especially vulnerable to internalizing stress and conflict in negative ways.
How a teen relates a stressful experience to their self image very often determines whether they will respond with positive or negative coping behaviors.
Teens are in the course of developing their internal dialogue, or “self-talk,” as a means to process and categorize different stressors. Negative self-talk can develop from lots of different sources and is a destructive force in teens’ lives. An example might be a teen who usually gets above-average grades but gets a less than desired grade on a test. An example of negative self talk would be: “I got a bad grade. I’m a bad student. I’m worthless.”
An example of positive self talk would be: “I’m a good student and I got a grade that I am disappointed with.”
Depending on their self talk, teens then choose a way to cope with the stressors at hand.
Consistent negative self-talk can lead to negative coping behaviors over time, such as self harm, substance use or disordered eating and often leaves teens feeling out of control and isolated.
Positive self talk is more likely to lead to positive coping behaviors and helps teens feel empowered and build self-esteem.
An example of a positive self talk and coping process might be, “I got a grade I don’t like, but I’m still a good student and a good person. It’s OK, people make mistakes. What can I do next time to prevent that from happening, and how can I help myself feel better right now? I’m going to take a walk, talk to a friend or listen to music to relieve some stress.”
This process applies to all sorts of stress inducers. Learning to deal with stress and filter what teens take on as part of their identity is an important part of their growth.
Here are some ways to help your teen process stress and develop more positive self talk:
• Be a good listener. Teens are looking for someone to listen and validate their feelings and basic goodness. A tidy answer to a problem can be frustrating for a teen because it usually doesn’t match the range of emotions they are feeling about an issue or address the self image bit. When you are willing, as a parent, to sit with them in their sometimes angsty ambiguity, without immediately offering a solution, it shows them that you care and that their feelings are valid.
• State observations using reflective listening language, such as, “I hear that you feel frustrated,” or “It sounds like you’re feeling betrayed.” This can be a helpful way to validate your teen’s feelings.
• Ask them what they think about a stressful event or situation as well as how it makes them feel about themselves. When you hear or notice your teen internalizing stress in a negative way, remind them of their strengths and their goodness and encourage them to do something nice for themselves.
It helps for parents to model this behavior, too! Sharing what positive self talk and coping techniques have worked for you when you’re stressed or down helps normalize the process and is an opportunity for you to connect with your teen.
• Get help if your teenager shows signs of being consistently overly critical of themselves, is using harmful coping mechanisms or is depressed or anxious.
Bainbridge Youth Services is one resource; 206-842-9675.
Tara Murphy is a counselor with Bainbridge Youth Services, a 50-year-old organization that provides community youth (ages 12-19) with no-cost, confidential and high quality professional counseling. Bainbridge Youth Services can be reached at 206-842-9675.