• Dr. Thom

Rewriting Your Teen's Stress Scripts


Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

Our son Patrick recently broke his right thumb playing in a middle school soccer match. Since the break is right on the growth plate, he will be in a hard cast for at least a couple of weeks. The other day he mentioned to Bridget how worried he is that he wouldn’t be able to hold a pencil correctly and as such wouldn’t be able to complete the writing portion of the mandated state testing scheduled for this week.


While it is true that we do work daily to help students and families de-stress about the college search, it is also true that our family is certainly not immune to the pressures our world places on young people to achieve in a particularly narrow way. We have discussed this before on this blog.


A study released this week by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation found that more than three-quarters of college students who considered dropping out of college cited overwhelming stress as the primary reason. Interestingly, a large majority of those students also indicated that achieving a college degree was very important to them, and that they acknowledge the positive impact it could have on their lives and careers. How significant must the stress of schooling be then to make them consider abandoning these goals, even if temporarily?


Stressed out college students were likely also stressed out high school students. Somewhere along the line, a “stress script” was written as a response to stressful situations. Maybe they were taught to ignore stress (“Just keep working, you’ll get through it.”), or to tough it out (“C’mon, it’s not that bad, you’re better than that”), or they are taught to question their own assessment of the presence of stress (“I’m not stressed, why are you?”). These patterns and scripts have downstream consequences if not adjusted and rewritten in time. As we rewrite these scripts, consider how reframing can help show support. Open-ended questions such as, “What would be helpful to you right now?” and acknowledging that it’s okay to be nervous or worried can help greatly.


I appreciate that my son can express his worry to me, which allows the two of us to rewrite his stress script. Together we can give a name to his concerns, and be able to talk through them, and, in turn, it validates them. We can also seek solutions or ways to handle the stress. In his case, we were able to advocate that his 504 plan be updated to include a chrome book for the writing section and extended time. When we shared the updated plan with him, the weight of the world seemed to dissipate from his shoulders. Had we just said, “You’re in seventh grade. Testing doesn’t matter that much,” we wouldn’t have acknowledged his feelings, nor would we have shown him that positive steps can be taken. This is how young people learn how to engage their support network and handle the pressures they will inevitably experience in our achieve-hustle culture. As Yoda said, “Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”


Stress is inevitable. It is in the air like germs. And just like how we teach our children to wash their hands, and work to keep ourselves fit to help our own immune systems fight off sickness, so too can we teach our children behaviors to handle stressful situations, and must always be working on our own self-care as a model for our kids on how adults handle pressure.


Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.


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