Parents can help teens identify when they feel overwhelmed and teach them mind-body exercises to help alleviate stress.

Fourteen-year-old Jacob seems to have it all. He lives in a wealthy suburb, attends an independent school, plays sports and is a star member of his school’s band. But his body is going through rapid changes, making his voice crack, his face erupt with embarrassing acne and his legs perpetually too long for his pants. His schoolwork is starting to get so far ahead of him that he feels like he’ll never catch up, and he worries about staying on top of his extracurricular activities. Some of his friends have even been urging him to try drugs. All of this pressure is exhausting and sometimes he just wants to give up.

“Studies show that America’s children are more stressed today than ever.”

Just across town, Kay’s life couldn’t be more different. She and her mom live in a poor urban neighborhood where, if she wants to be safe, she never walks alone — even to and from school. Oftentimes, the only real meals she gets are at school, and aside from those meals, there is little that is predictable in her life. She is naturally bright, but the crushing poverty, along with the drugs and violence she sees around her make the future seem hopeless.

Jacob and Kay have very different stories, but one thing these teens share is a feeling of being overly stressed.

Stress and Teenagers

Of course, the teenage years are, almost by definition, stressful. Hormonal and other physical changes in the body, along with fluctuating relationships with peers and parents create tension for all kids as they shift toward adulthood.

Studies show that America’s children are more stressed today than ever. Suicides among adolescents have quadrupled since the 1950s. One major study revealed that only 36 percent of seventh graders agreed with the statement, “I am happy with my life.” In the past decade, the use of pharmaceuticals to treat emotional disorders has increased by 68 percent for girls and 30 percent for boys.

When young people are stressed, their academic performance suffers, and the rate of depression, anxiety, withdrawal and aggression, along with unhealthy coping strategies like drug and/or alcohol use, increases.

Using the Relaxation Response

One surprisingly effective toolbox for managing stress involves learning the relaxation techniques of Mind Body Medicine. This approach includes three essential components:

Practicing techniques to elicit the relaxation response. Kids learn to use a mental focusing tool and to maintain a quiet, aware, non-judging attitude, which involves gently directing the mind back to a point of focus when other thoughts arise. The key to effectiveness here is the establishment of a regular, ongoing practice. The benefits of such a practice can be dramatic.

Try this exercise to evoke the relaxation response:

    1. Sit or lie quietly in a comfortable position.
    2. Pick a positive word or phrase, for example: “relax,” “one,” “I am at peace,” “I am calm.”
    3. Close your eyes.
    4. Relax your muscles.
    5. Breathe slowly and naturally, and as you do, repeat your focus word or phrase as you exhale.
    6. Assume a non-judging attitude. Don’t worry about how well you’re doing. When other thoughts come to mind, simply say to yourself, “Oh well,” and gently return to the repetition.
    7. Continue for 5 to 10 minutes. You might want to have a clock nearby to see how much time has passed.

Teaching stress awareness. Simply being aware of the many ways that stress affects us — cognitively, emotionally, physically, behaviorally and spiritually — is an important first step in effectively managing stress.

Learning and utilizing adaptive strategies to better respond to stressful situations. This involves redirecting thoughts in response to stressors, positive perspectives and building social connections.

Research shows that children and teens who were trained in mind-body techniques developed more efficient work habits, and felt less stress and anxiety. They also increased their grade point average, self-esteem and feelings of control.

The beauty of this approach is that kids learn about the resources they have inside themselves to build resiliency. This is incredibly empowering, and it creates a positive behavioral feedback loop that will continue to serve them throughout their lives.

To make a donation to support the work of Rana Chudnofsky and the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, please contact us.

This article first appeared on the MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds website.

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Rana Chudnofsky, Ed.M, (left) has served as the director of the Education Initiative at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital since 2006. Her areas of specialization include relaxation techniques and cognitive strategies for clinical treatment centers, schools and universities.

Jill Buchanan was formerly director of marketing and communications at the Benson-Henry Institute.