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Adolescents - Conducting the Experiments: An Excerpt From Ready or Not, Here Life Comes

Page 2 of 5

By Mel Levine, M.D.

Contending with Stress

The ability to manage stress ought to be considered a basic skill. Depressing interludes, aggravating setbacks, rejections, and nasty conflicts are leitmotifs that recur throughout life. But teenagers can't let such daily defeats wipe them out or immobilize them; they must learn to withstand and rebound, a capacity called resiliency. Some kids lack coping skills, so they are apt to react to stress by ignoring, denying, or overreacting. A student who is failing geometry tells everyone (including himself) that he's doing okay: he just can't cope with the cold reality of his situation. Such denial almost never works. Other unhealthy copers put down anything they're not good at: "History is stupid, it's completely useless." Still other stressed-out teenagers love to universalize their personal problems: "None of my friends did well on that test," or "No one else likes Mrs. Simpson," or "I don't mind that I wasn't invited; hardly anyone wants to go to Susan's party." Still others explode, fall apart, or develop physical symptoms like lost appetites, headaches, or disillusionment and depression. These are all signs of failed coping.

People are better off when they acknowledge their stress and engage their problems. Then the sufferers can react more directly and work to heal the wounds. Adolescence is when both good and bad coping patterns become established. In the future, making derogatory comments about a supervisor behind her back won't make that manager vanish from one's life. Making believe you're doing well at a job you're really messing up is likely to have catastrophic consequences. When a kid has a problem, he can start by admitting it. Then he can discuss his stress with someone, a really good friend or an adult who can use some crafty techniques to help him cope with the challenge.

I frequently encounter a teenager whose patterns of reacting to problems are more problematic than the problems he's reacting to. Such maladroit coping skill can return to haunt him during his startup years.

Positive reacting, first of all, demands slowing down and thinking things through. Some of the worst reactors are people who do or say the first thing that enters their mind, kids who explosively tell off a teacher, and adults who do the same with a boss or collaborator.

To avoid establishing bad patterns, adolescents have to groom their inner reactions. When something goes haywire, how sad does it make you feel? If it makes you feel blue, how long do the doldrums last? Can you bounce back and sink that rebound shot? There's nothing abnormal about feeling low, but are you so depressed over something that you become emotionally paralyzed? That incapacitating pattern can be habit-forming, so adolescents have to work on overcoming their anxieties, recovering from bad moods, anger, and serious disappointments or losses.

Sometimes kids have to tune in to an internal voice or cheering section that can give them reassurance when they feel they are sinking into a black hole of despair. That voice might say, "Okay, Jared, this too will pass. You've had these kinds of defeats before, and they always work out. You have to keep going. You can't let things like this wipe you out." This is called self-coaching or verbal mediation, and it's one great way to cope. Kids should rehearse this kind of script and be encouraged to talk to themselves - honestly.

From time to time, I have lunch at a cooperative market not far from the campus of the University of North Carolina. Many of the employees there are startup adults, and quite a few of them appear to be struggling in life to establish an identity and a pathway. Recently I overheard a manager say he had just interviewed a job candidate who obviously had a lot of personal problems. I could not resist chiming in, "I thought that was a requirement for working here." He laughed and said, "I don't mind them having problems as long as their issues don't interfere with their work." A startup adult can't let problems interfere with the way she performs. When she comes to work, she should leave her troubles behind her. That takes some practice, but adolescence is a great time to practice separating preoccupations from performance.

Finally, a person must know how to react in a healthy way to positive events and victories. Overdoses of adolescent success are sometimes far more damaging than chronic failure. I've known some kids who were superstars in sports or extremely popular or securely atop their classes academically, and they let their success inebriate them. They became some of the fallen idols described in chapter 3.