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Boiling Point: Helping Your Teen Avoid a Meltdown

Published on: March 07, 2014

stressed teenager girlBeing a teenager can feel like living inside a pressure cooker. The combined challenges of excelling in school, participating in extracurricular activities, putting in community service hours, working a part-time job (for some), negotiating relationships and managing hormonal changes could all be ingredients for disaster.

As the parent of a teenager, it’s important to know how — and when — to help manage their pressure and not add to it. Like most situations, the recipe for success starts with appropriate and timely communication.

Look for natural opportunities to check in

  • Ask questions when your teen is most receptive. A casual, relaxed moment when neither of you has a commitment to rush to is ideal. Right after school or when the family is gathered for supper is not optimal and could add to the stress.
  • If you have more than one child, the right time could be different for each. One may be more open to conversation on a long car ride, while another would feel more comfortable in front of the television.
  • Considering how busy your teen is, you may have to “create” just the right time. Be available when you know there’s a break in her or his schedule.

Ask the right questions

  • Open-ended questions are designed for elaboration and lead naturally to additional questions. Your teen cannot answer with a simple “yes” or “no” that could end the conversation. Begin with “Why,” “How” or “What kinds of …?” 
  • Avoid using closed questions, such as those that begin with “Where,” “When” and “Do you …?”
  • As you get the conversation flowing, use phrases like “Tell me more,” and “Why is that important to you?” to elicit further comments from your teen.

Ask “around the question”

Avoid directing a sensitive question at your teen’s behavior by giving “cover” to talk about others or the situation as a whole. Examples include:

  • “How do you know if your friend is really stressed?” This gives your teen a chance to demonstrate compassion, and offers you some clues about how to proceed.
  • “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is completely relaxed and 10 is a panic attack, how stressed do you think your math class is?”

Proceed with a personal question

mom with happy teenage girls

If the conversation is flowing well, start the next question with your own experience. “My junior year, I would have said my stress was at about 6 or 7. Where are you on that scale?”

Control your reaction. If the response is higher than you expected, pause, then continue with an open-ended question such as, “What kinds of things work for you to bring your stress level down?”

Make your part of the story short — unless you are asked for more. Some kids enjoy hearing their parents reflect on their experience of a similar situation, and doing so will make you appear more “real” and genuine. Be sure to watch for indications that enough is enough and turn the story back to your teen.

Paraphrase what you heard your teen say

This will help ensure you understand to your teen’s satisfaction. You will either be corrected or receive clarification if you are wrong, which allows you to ask more open-ended questions. When you have reached the point of clarity, say, “Thank you, it really helps that you help me understand.”

Don’t jump to solutions or offer your opinion unless asked

Avoid talking too much or giving advice. Focus on trying to understand and draw out your teen’s point of view.

  • Ask, “If one of your friends was really stressed and told you about it, what would you do?”
  • Follow with, “Are there other things you can try? What are they?”

If asked, “What would you do?” offer a list of solutions and ask which of them your teen could see working in his or her situation.

Write down and rehearse

As you might do when preparing for an important meeting — which this is — practice your approach. What will you ask? How will you make your teen feel safe about confiding in you? How will you respond when you get certain reactions? Having contingency plans B, C and D is the secret ingredient that will help stop your teen from reaching the boiling point.


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