Advice Column, Health, Lifestyle, Tween & Teen

Healthy Coping Skills For Teens

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  • Category Advice Column, Health, Lifestyle, Tween & Teen

Let’s face it, we all need to learn healthy coping skills, but adolescence is a particularly stressful time, when making healthy choices is so important. With hormones raging, peer pressure at its peak, sometimes overwhelming high school stress caused by erratic relationships and high expectations, conflict with parents and a driving desire to explore their world and express themselves, teens are at risk of going off the deep end. They learn coping skills from us parents, but often we have developed our own bad habits, like reaching for a glass of wine, a cigarette or unhealthy foods when we’re stressed or totally losing our cool in the traffic. Here are some better coping mechanisms for them to practice until they become healthy life habits:

Work on building self esteem. This is the foundation on which they will build their blossoming selves. They need to spend time alone to know themselves – their strengths and vulnerabilities, their talents and unique qualities. Making a list of 10 positive qualities about themselves and reviewing it every day can help start each day on a positive note. Using positive affirmations and filling their heads with inspirational words helps. There are fabulous stories of people who have succeeded against all odds. Taking the power out of negative words like “fat” (fabulous, amazing, tenacious) can help to stop them from feeling emotionally hurt.

Joining a sport or creative activity they enjoy and are good at can really help them to feel better about themselves. It’s also important for them to associate with positive, supportive people who uplift and believe in them. Girls are especially vulnerable to falling into the trap of losing themselves in an attempt to fit in with a group perceived to be popular. Having a happy outlook goes a long way towards winning over their peers and it helps to be grateful for what they have rather than focusing on what they don’t have.

Take responsibility. Teens need to learn to take responsibility for their own life – for the good and bad decisions they make. They shouldn’t beat themselves up over mistakes – just learn from them, apologise where necessary and don’t keep repeating the same mistakes. They must understand that some of the most successful people on this planet had to fail many times before they succeeded e.g. JK Rowling, who was turned down hundreds of times before her Harry Potter books were accepted by a publisher. Parents should reiterate that “failing” is how we learn so actually, there is no such thing as failure – only results – which they may like or not like. Fear is usually generated by the unknown but they shouldn’t let this hold them back – unless they try, they will never know what they might accomplish.

Take control of their life. Teens need to learn that although they can’t always control what happens to them, they always have a choice as to how they respond. Being right and always winning is not nearly as important as doing the right thing. Even if they’re handling difficult circumstances, blaming other people doesn’t help – that just gets them stuck in the drama of the moment. Instead, looking at how to resolve the situation will be a lot more helpful in moving them in the right direction.

If they want things to change, they have to change their actions. Doing the same thing over and over will give them the same results. They should not accept limiting beliefs about themselves, e.g. “I’m hopeless at maths”. Everyone has different strengths and it may just be that they learn differently and need someone to explain concepts in a way they can grasp. They should think BIG! The power of the mind is unlimited and what the mind can conceive and truly believe, it can achieve.

Set goals. Teens must learn how to set goals and take small steps towards achieving them. There’s a saying: if you aim at nothing, you will achieve it every time! Goals are like ship rudders – they set the direction in which our lives move. A great goal setting method is for them to:

  1. Brainstorm all areas of their life – include school, personal, hobbies/interests, sports, etc. Write them all down. Some examples could be health/fitness, self-confidence, friendships, family, prioritising skills, organisation skills, etc.
  2. Make a chart with 3 columns – Yes, No, Maybe. Put everything they wrote down under the columns. Yes = areas they really need to work on right now. No = Areas they think are okay right now. Maybe = Areas they could work on but there is no urgency right now.
  3. Get it down to 3 goals in the Yes column. If they have more than three items, they should think about which three are the most important for them to work on right now. Move the others over to the Maybe column. These 3 Yes goals are their primary Those in the Maybe column are their secondary goals.
  4. Look at each goal and think about what they would like to achieve in 3 months. Imagine how it would look and feel to achieve this – make it real.
  5. Write down a goal statement for each goal. It must be inspiring and visionary, challenging and achievable, measurable (there should be a time limit), clear and focused. E.g. In 12 weeks I want to feel fitter and more energetic by running 5km three times a week.
  6. Now change the wording to make each goal inspiring. They need to look at it and feel really excited and motivated by it. E.g. “Wow, look at me now!” They can get ideas by looking up company slogans – e.g. Nike “Just Do it!” It will help to create a vision board and pin up photos of people who inspire them, sayings that motivate them, etc.
  7. Now set actions for each goal, with due dates. It helps to do this on a weekly basis. They need to keep setting different actions as they move steadily towards their goal.
  8. Reward themselves when they’ve achieved their goal. Make it a healthy reward! Once they’ve achieved their primary goals, move onto their secondary goals and go through the same procedure.

Handle stress in a healthy way. Teens need to learn that life is rarely a smooth ride – it’s full of ups and downs for most people. Stress is part of life so it is of paramount importance that they learn how to handle it in healthy ways. It’s far too easy to begin bad habits like vaping (using e-cigs), smoking hubbly bubblies, drinking alcohol or being sexually provocative and looking for love in all the wrong places to create a feeling of control and well being.

Despite marketing claims that e-cigs are a lot healthier than smoking cigarettes, the long-term effects are unknown; there are no regulations so manufacturers could put anything inside including dangerous chemicals; although they are smoke-free, they still contain nicotine so can become addictive. Hubbly bubblies are even more dangerous – the smoke that emerges from a water pipe contains several toxins known to cause lung cancer, heart disease and other diseases.

Alcohol abuse is on the increase in South Africa, so much so that Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi is trying to raise the legal age of drinking alcohol from 18 to 21. Binge drinking (drinking 5+ drinks in rapid succession for men, 4+ for women) is a huge problem with teens. The consequences are serious. Teens can pass out, black out (lose memory of events that occurred while they were intoxicated), feel sick, miss school, or behave in ways that would otherwise be uncharacteristic of them, including have unprotected sex – putting them at risk of falling pregnant or contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Drinking alcohol can lead to sleep disturbance, poor school performance, failure to form and maintain friendships, tendency to depression and/or aggressive behaviour.

There is a strong correlation between drinking alcohol and sexual assaults/rape. Binge drinkers also face the grim consequences of alcohol poisoning, a severe and potentially fatal reaction to an alcohol overdose. Because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, drinking too much, too fast, slows some bodily functions (such as heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing) to a dangerous level, causing the drinker to lose consciousness. Physical health effects may include appetite changes, weight loss, eczema and headaches and long-term abuse could lead to cirrhosis of the liver and alcohol-related hepatitis.

Research shows that teens who start drinking before the age of 15 years are 5 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after the legal age. Alcohol is regarded as a “gateway drug”, i.e. if you drink alcohol, you are more likely to experiment with cannabis and other illegal drugs.

Most scary of all is that drinking may have lasting mental health effects. Some researchers believe that heavy drinking at this age, when the brain is still developing, may cause lasting impairments in brain functions such as memory, coordination, and motor skills—at least among susceptible individuals.

Rather than these unhealthy coping skills, teens need to work on developing healthy coping skills. It’s important for them to talk to friends, siblings, parents or trusted adults about issues that are worrying them rather than bottling it up inside. Procrastination only leads to more stress, so they need to be proactive and take action when necessary. It’s so important that they work on their body and mind by ensuring they do what it takes for both to work optimally – get enough sleep, eat healthy food and take regular exercise. Teens need 8½ to 9½ hours sleep a night on average but few of them are getting that much. Sometimes it’s because of school work but often they are distracted by electronic devices like cell phones, i-pads, laptops and TVs.

These should ideally be turned off an hour before bedtime as some studies show that the electro-magnetic rays emitted by these devices may affect sleep patterns. They need to make time to do the things they enjoy, like dancing, singing, having fun with friends, listening to music, playing a musical instrument, relaxing (meditation helps) and doing creative tasks.

Teens often get obsessed with how they look and compare themselves to totally unrealistic, usually photoshopped standards created by the media. This can lead to an unhealthy obsession with food. Watch out for eating disorders developing – anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders are rampant in teen culture. The affects can be life threatening. Encourage your teen to eat a healthy, balanced diet (everything in moderation) and make sure they don’t get into the habit of turning to unhealthy foods to “fill the gap” when they are feeling down.

Exercise is a great stress reliever and coping mechanism as it releases ‘feel-good’ endorphins which create a sense of well-being. Even if teens are not sporty, they should get in the habit of doing cardio and strength training exercises (using body weight as resistance before they’re 16) at least three times a week. They should do exercise they enjoy, like participating in team or individual sports, walking, running, dancing, swimming or going to gym.

Learn to handle conflict. Conflict is part of life so the sooner teens learn how to handle it constructively, the better. The key is to be assertive rather than aggressive, and think about what they would like the consequences to be before they verbally attack the other person. It helps to focus on a win-win outcome (co-operative) as opposed to a win-lose (oppositional) outcome. In a win-win situation, the attitude is “us against the problem” as opposed to “me against you”, the atmosphere created is collaboration and openness as opposed to competition and mistrust, tactics used are exploring mutual interests and being fair, listening to each other’s viewpoint as opposed to personal attacks, withholding information and lying. The outcome of a win-win conflict is that the relationship stays the same, or gets better (as trust creates intimacy) as opposed to being damaged or destroyed.

Remembering the DESC model of assertive behaviour helps when having to face a confrontation. D = Describe the objectionable behaviour – Using I messages helps (non-judgmental) as does getting the other person’s point of view. E = Express your feelings – Use a firm, calm voice, stand or sit up straight and make eye contact. S = Specify the change you want – Say no to unreasonable demands, compromise if necessary, be persistent. C = Describe the consequences – Advise the other person of the positive consequences of changing, if necessary suggest the negative consequences of not changing.

Organise/plan their life. Keeping themselves organised and planning their daily schedule is a fabulous habit for teens to develop which helps them to feel more in control. They should get into the habit of using a large wall calendar to write down when homework and projects are due, insert all sport and other commitments and fill in dates of tests or exams (planning study time beforehand). It helps to keep all sports equipment in one place (e.g. a large basket kept in garage) and pack school sports kits on one shelf along with exercise shoes. Packing everything they need for school the night before helps eliminate the usual chaos and stress on school mornings! Doing homework at the same time every afternoon helps, although it isn’t always possible. They should also make sure that their cell phones, i-pads and other distractions are put away.

Put in effort. The most successful people on this planet are disciplined, work hard and are persistent – teens should be encouraged to develop these good habits. They should spend more time and effort on their weak school subjects – should not be embarrassed to ask for help when necessary to get their marks up, acknowledging that we all have our own unique strengths and weaknesses. It helps to set realistic goals and aim to improve poor marks gradually, e.g. go from a C to a B (they don’t have to immediately get an A). They need to take pride in themselves and put effort into everything they do. Even if others don’t expect much from them, they should raise their expectations of themselves. Why be mediocre when they can be exceptional?

To conclude, it’s easy to opt out, give up and take the easy way out (the low road) but in the long run it is much more fulfilling to take the high road. Teens should not let life’s disappointments bring them down. They must learn to be resilient (bounce back) and keep taking one step at a time towards their dreams.

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