Your teen comes home and throws their stuff on the floor, sits at the kitchen counter, and buries their head in their hands.
I’m SO stressed!
You may hold back a chuckle or think about how they can possibly be stressed – their life is so easy compared to yours, right? But there are two popular ways of going about this scenario, one is supportive, while the other can be seen as accidental gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a popular buzzword right now. At Teen Speak, we think it’s very important for parents to understand the meaning behind this word, especially because teens are using it left and right with their peers. While the term itself has been misused and overused – it is still important to understand that you may be accidentally gaslighting your teen when they come to you with their emotions, perspective, or levels of stress and you brush them off as though they can’t possibly be that big of a deal.
The definition of gaslighting is purposely causing someone to doubt their reality, which is the exact thing we do as parents when we tell our teens that they are NOT stressed or they shouldn’t feel the way they do.
Some common things you may say to your teen that seem harmless, but can actually cause a lot of emotional turmoil for them:
❌ Your life is NOT that hard, just try to not worry about it so much
❌ You don’t need to be concerned about that, just let it go
❌ You are taking that way too seriously
When we invalidate their emotions, it can cause greater levels of anxiety and even start a snowball effect of your teen struggling with being in touch with their emotions. When someone is telling them that they shouldn’t feel what they do, they begin to question how they should feel. It begins a potentially dangerous cycle of your teen not being able to trust their own perception of feelings and/or emotions.
Now – TRUE gaslighting in family households is likely uncommon, but dismissing your teen’s stress or anxiety levels can be very common.
It may be surprising to you that studies show that teens often experience higher levels of stress than adults. A study of more than 1,000 teens revealed an average stress score of 5.8 on a 10-point scale—with 3.9 being a healthy level of stress. Research by my team at Possibilities for Change continues to validate stress as a major issue among teens, as 23 percent of nearly 5,000 tweens surveyed indicated they often feel anxious or worry a lot.
In the face of these challenges, parents need concrete strategies to open the doors of communication with their teens to establish strong, trusting relationships. It’s important your teen feels like he or she can open up to you about feelings of anxiety and depression, instead of resorting to risky behaviors like marijuana and alcohol use, self-harm or suicide.
So how CAN you respond when your teen comes home and buries their head in their hands?
✅ Engage in conversation by asking for permission. Sounds counterintuitive, but a normal part of teen development is their struggle for control. Giving the OK to talk makes teens more open to hearing the information you want to share. You could start with something like this, “I see that you are stressed, can we talk about it?”
✅ Use empathy. A simple reflection that shows empathy goes a long way. “You have a lot going on right now and it’s hard to manage everything coming at you.” The choice of words is critical. Anything too extreme or too overstated may be perceived as sarcastic instead of empathetic.
✅ Ask open-ended questions. These are not easily answered with a yes or no that can immediately close the conversation. Ask questions that lead teens into telling you what they need to feel better. You could ask, “What do you need to help manage your stress right now?” or “What could you do to decrease your stress?”
With a little bit of practice, you will be well on your way to opening the door to conversations that help your teen overcome feelings of stress. And with the school year approaching, the anxiety of starting a new grade, or even a new school in a new city (if you have moved) can multiply. By following the 3 steps above, you can create life-changing conversations with your teen, show them you are someone they can trust, and be on your way to having a successful school year!
Not only will you open conversations, but you’ll get a greater understanding of what your teen is facing and you’ll feel more equipped to help them. This is the most powerful tool to have as a parent or caregiver, and it is the MOST rewarding!
The above strategies and so much more can be found in my online Teen Speak Course. With the school year approaching, I highly recommend diving in NOW so you can feel confident heading into the new school year with your teen! Learn more about it here!