Talking to teens about stress at the end of the school year


Courtney Harris is a frequent contributor to the Alt Ed Austin blog, and today she’s back just in time to help families of teens manage the special end-of-school-year challenges. As a child-centered coach for teens and parents, Courtney supports children ages 11–19 in finding their voice, growing confidence, and thriving. Through 1:1 and small-group coaching sessions, teens and tweens overcome anxiety, disconnect, and isolation as they discover their truest sense of self and develop a deep sense of empowerment. Courtney supports parents in self-care, growing alongside their children, and developing balanced sensitivity toward the process their child is creating. Sessions with both teens and parents guide families in developing the trust, communication, and connection that's crucial for a life of ease.

The following is adapted with Courtney’s permission from the “Talking to Teenagers” series on her website, Courtney Harris Coaching;  we encourage you to follow her on Facebook to learn more.

The stress is on. As the end of the academic year nears, pressures for your teenager to boost grades and “finish strong” may increase. Alternately, a feeling of failure and giving up may intensify. Wherever your tween or teen falls in this spectrum, we can assume that they are facing some variety of stress as they enter the final phase of this academic year.

On top of academics, your teen may be motivated to get a summer job, which brings its own elements of excitement, competition, and unknowns. They may be dreading the unstructured time of summer, feeling lost or purposeless without school. Instead, they may be anticipating the freedom and fun of summer so much that it becomes challenging to focus on school and academics. Social life may finally be picking up, causing your teen to worry about whether they will be able to sustain it during summer. And maybe your teen simply feels overwhelmed as they try to balance academics and extracurriculars as the year closes out. These are all potential sources of stress!


The Routine and Stress Connection

Parents often share their observations about their teen’s routines with me. As a parent, you are likely tuned into what and when your teen eats, how much they typically sleep, how many hours they spend on homework, on their screens, or with their friends. You know which routines serve your teen and which ones are challenging. In other words, you are often aware of your teen's stress patterns.

Furthermore, when you notice a drastic shift in their habits, you, too, may experience stress. For example, if you notice that your teen is no longer spending time with a friend who was previously their “bestie,” you wonder what changed. If mornings become harder and your teen is now running late and skipping breakfast, you feel concerned about how they’re sleeping and what they are staying up late doing.

Stressed-out teens may quickly change habits or routines. When you become aware of this, it can be easy to go into investigation mode. You want to know what your teen is facing so that you can help them solve it and find relief. These moments require you as the parent to slow down, breathe deep, and focus on connection first; keep reading for strategies on how to talk to your teenager about stress and overwhelm.

7 Tips for Talking to Teenagers about Stress

1. Maintain your own self-care.
If your child is facing intense stress, they will need you to be a sort of respite for them. This, of course, doesn’t mean you have to be perfect, and it definitely doesn’t mean that you are doing wrong by feeling stressed. It simply means that to show up fully for yourself and your teen, you need to be sure to refill your own tank regularly. Reserve time each day to take care of yourself—mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.


2. Observe behaviors with compassion and curiosity.
The data you have about changes in your teen’s routine can help you tap into the stress or worry your teen is facing. As you observe changes, do your best to keep breathing and to act in a calm and collected way. Focus first on connecting with your teen, rather than trying to correct “the problem.”

3. Take your teen’s lead.
If you can, and the stress has not escalated to a crisis, use compassion and curiosity as you approach your teen. Wait and see if they will to come to you with their challenge first. Once they mention a stress trigger, such as “I have a massive biology test on Thursday” or “I don’t think I’ll ever find a summer job,” follow up by saying, “Tell me more about that.” You may also affirm their feelings by repeating back to them what you heard: “You have a big biology test this week” or “I understand that you don’t think you’ll find a summer job.” Allow your teen to elaborate by gently guiding them to say more using “Is there anything else?” and repetitions until they are finished. This feels more inviting and spacious to teens than a series of investigative (yet loving) questions.

4. Use open-ended questions to tap into feelings.
After your teen has expressed all they need or want to for the moment, you may invite them to explore their stress more deeply: “How does all of this make you feel?” A list of feelings can be helpful at this stage. This can also be a good opportunity to ask, “Where are you feeling this (emotion) in your body?”

5. Use open-ended questions to tap into needs.
Next, you can support your teen in acknowledging their wishes and wants. Ask, “What do you most wish/want to happen?” This is an opportunity for you to listen. Refrain from offering suggestions or ideas. Repeat their wish or want back to them. For example, “You want to start summer with a job that will help you save up for a car.”

6. Use open-ended questions to tap into actions and solutions.
You can invite your teen to practice self-compassion by asking, “What would bring you comfort right now?” or “What would help you feel rested and supported in this situation?” You may also get more specific here as your teen seems ready to problem solve: “What steps have you taken to prepare for the test/summer job/etc.?” and “What else do you feel ready to try?” If you get shoulder shrugs or “I don’t know,” it’s okay to offer a few suggestions or ideas: “How would it feel to take a walk before getting back to studying?”


7. Take breaks.
Steps 3–6 offer many questions and prompts you can use to support your teen in assessing their stress and managing it with self-awareness. However, they might not have the stamina to answer or reflect on all of these in one sitting. And you might be tired, too! Let this be okay. Know that their stress doesn’t need to be completely resolved after one conversation. This is a great opportunity to focus on encouragements, such as, “I love you no matter what.” Furthermore, rest assured that you have created connection, and this connection can be massively healing already.

As we approach the end of the 2017–2018 school year, I wish you and your teen lots of fun and celebration. In times of stress or big emotions, know that you and your teen are completely normal for having these feelings. If your family would like support during this process, I’d love to gift you with a one-hour call to help you and your teen create a plan for peace and ease.

Courtney Harris

Talking with kids about social media


As a child-centered coach for teens and parents, guest contributor Courtney Harris supports children ages 11–19 in finding their voice, growing confidence, and thriving. Through 1:1 and small-group coaching sessions, teens and tweens are able to overcome anxiety, disconnect, and isolation as they discover their truest sense of self and develop a deep sense of empowerment. Courtney supports parents in self-care, growing alongside their children, and developing balanced sensitivity toward the process their child is creating. Sessions with both teens and parents guide families in developing the trust, communication, and connection that's crucial for a life of ease.

The following is republished with Courtney’s permission from her “Talking to Teenagers” series on her website, Courtney Harris Coaching;  we encourage you to follow her on Facebook to learn more.

Courtney Harris_social-media.jpg

Teenagers spend up to nine hours a day on social media.

Let that sink in.

Now, consider: How many hours a day do you spend on social media? Right now, check battery usage under settings on your phone. Where have you spent your screen time in the last 24 hours and the last 7 days? And how much time have you spent? Let’s go ahead and admit that as adults, we struggle with device overuse, too.

Tweens and teens, however, have grown up socializing on and through social media to an extent that is unprecedented. During the teenage years, the brain is changing very quickly and can be easily influenced. Thus, impulsivity and the drive to impress others can occupy much of our young peoples’ thought processes. Enter social media and the ability to engage and interact 24/7.

This cocktail of impulsivity and nonstop stimulation can be a huge drain on teenagers and a massive barrier in family relationships. Parents often share with me that their teens have “unhealthy relationships” with their phones or laptop. They often continue, saying that they feel helpless and uncertain about how to help their teens navigate their relationships to technology and social media.

Get Curious About Your Teen

I’d like to invite all parents and supporters to work toward a curious approach when addressing social media with their teens and tweens. This requires letting go of our biggest fears about what they’re doing on their devices, our resentment over their addiction to their devices, and so on. While these fears and hurts may be real, it’s important that we loosen our grip enough to get curious and to listen authentically.

Here’s a list of open-ended questions (my favorite) that we can use to open space for our young people to share (and become aware of) their process:

  • What kind of posts (that you see or create) make you feel joyful?
  • What kind of posts (that you see or create) make you feel upset?
  • How does social media help you express yourself?
  • How does social media create a sense of competition?
  • How does social media feel like a tool for you?
  • How does social media feel like a chore/challenges for you?
  • Where do you go online for support?
  • Where, online, do you feel fearful or insecure?
  • What will you create online? In your online presence?

All of these example questions can be followed up with a “why” or a gentle encouragement to dig a little deeper. As our young people engage in dialogue with us, it’s important that we refrain from responding with judgmental comments or quick advice.* The goal is to give our young people space to put a name to what they’re feeling and to grow consciousness of their behaviors and patterns. We are careful, in this dialogue, not to fault or scold.

*Of course, if our teen shares that they or someone they know is in danger, we must take action, set boundaries, or intervene.

I also encourage parents to share their own responses to these questions. This is a sweet, authentic, and inclusive way of modeling healthy behaviors for social media and technology usage. It is also a pathway to relating to our children, acknowledging that we, too, are challenged by social norms and pressures of the internet.

Creating Routines

Another crucial piece of this conversation is about helping our teens create routines that help them thrive, not just survive, this highly stimulating time of life. Co-creating norms for technology usage supports teens in growing awareness of their thoughts, feelings, and actions, and it encourages them to self-regulate. Norms and routines must be created together for our young people to feel a sense of ownership and purpose. Thus, we may use another series of questions to empower our children:

  • What types of things do you need your phone for on a daily basis?
  • What time should screens be put away, so we can get the rest we need?
  • How long do you think you’d like to be on your phone for socialization each day?
  • Where will you keep your phone overnight so that it doesn’t disturb your rest?
  • What times or situations is phone usage not appropriate for?
  • What types of things do you find it useful/fun/joyful to post/share about?
  • What types of things do you find it unhelpful/hurtful/damaging to post about?

These questions allow our teens to develop habits that serve them, name their needs, and become aware of boundaries. Likewise, they provide parents the same opportunities.

Tips for Dialogue

  1. Start with one or two questions at a time. We aren’t interrogating or interviewing the child.
  2. Share the adult experience! This makes it a true dialogue.
  3. Adapt questions to individual languaging/style (but stay curious and receptive by using open-ended questions).
  4. Initiate this dialogue in a time free of technology-related conflict. Start with a fresh slate.
  5. Boundaries and safety are important. Trust your judgment if there’s something you know you need to intervene in.
  6. Revisit this conversation time and time again. Routines need to be updated as life and technology shift and change. Emotions and reflections will get lost in the daily pressure to perform from time to time. So, come back to these questions often. Come back to a calm, shared space of curiosity and conversation.

Courtney Harris

Tools and tips for parents of teens with anxiety

Guest contributor Courtney Harris is a child-centered and teen life coach. She supports teens and tweens in moving from anxiety and overwhelm to self-love and intentional self-expression. She also partners with parents to integrate new skills and improve communication and connection within the family. Courtney Harris Coaching offers 1:1 coaching sessions and Austin-area workshops and events; follow Courtney on Facebook to learn more.

In my nine years in the classroom and one year working with young people and families privately, I have come to hear the terms anxiety, social anxiety, and overwhelm more than I can count. Starting at very young ages, our children are internalizing patterns of overwork, perfectionism, and constant public performance. According to Psychology Today, 7 percent of the population in the United States is estimated to have some form of social anxiety within any given 12-month period.

Many of our children, especially those who identify as introverts, are highly sensitive, or have learning or developmental disabilities, do not feel supported by society. They feel that their way of being is not acceptable according to many social norms. The pressures to perform both inside and outside of the classroom are often too much to handle, particularly when the young people are not affirmed for the patterns and behaviors that are most natural and comfortable to them.

During this past year, I have been working with a 13-year-old who prefers face-to-face communication over social media, which feels isolating to him, given his friends’ heavy technology use. Yet he found it difficult to identify shared interests to relate over in person when he had those opportunities. All the while, he was managing and worrying about his honors courses, feeling exhausted by the workload, managing demands and expectations from his parents, and struggling to ask for help. Under the weight of these pressures from home, school, and social life, this teen was exhausted! He felt robotic, disempowered, and stuck in his life. Every Sunday was a source of anxiety for him, knowing the the cycle of overwhelm was starting anew. After months of watching him living this way, his parents saw that he needed to slow down; they recognized his need to feel secure and grounded and to develop new patterns for being his most authentic self.

If your child is already beginning to fear the pressures of the upcoming school year or is refusing attendance at a summer camp, rest assured that there are pathways to greater ease and peace for your child and your family. I’d love to share some of the big tips and tools that worked for this 13-year-old on his journey, especially when starting a new activity or semester.


Most of these are simply opportunities to think about your own thinking and share your process with your child. By telling them about how you think and problem solve, you can invite them to develop their own (not necessarily the same) processes.

  • Show your tween/teen the planners, calendars, and time management techniques you use. Talk about how your system works, how you prioritize tasks, when you say “no” to things you can’t commit to (or don’t want to). Allow your child to choose the type of system they prefer.
  • Create family routines around planning the week ahead. On a designated day, at a set time, stop to talk about the upcoming week. Discuss which activities bring a sense of joy and ease, and which activities bring up stress.
  • When talking about upcoming activities or plans, you can share your inner dialogue about how you are preparing for the week. Describe what kind of things you need to do in order to be prepared for your meeting, or in order to have all of the meals cooked for the family, or in order to get the bills paid on time.
  • Encourage your child to mentally prepare as well. Ask questions like, “What do you need to do in order to feel prepared for the test?” or “What do you need in order to feel safe on the first day of school?” Letting your child name their own needs will give them a source of power and control, which will motivate them to take action.

Outside of scheduling and planning, there is a great deal of metacognition you can share with your child to help them develop self-awareness.

  • Talk about how anxiety feels in YOUR own experience. How does it show up in your body? Give qualities and descriptors to it. For example, do you get tense shoulders, a racing heart, shortness of breath, scattered thoughts, etc.? You also might consider giving your anxiety a number, using a 1–10 scale. In naming our anxiety, we can begin to understand that while it is something we experience, it does not define us. Over time, if you notice anxiety or tension in your child’s body, words, or behaviors, you can begin to ask them to notice what they observe or to rate their sensations. They will have the language for this through your modeling!
  • Make time to talk about support systems and resources. Tell your child about those you go to for help. Whom do you seek advice from? Where do you get your information? Whom do you open up with? Tell them what this experience feels like. Ask your child whom they feel comfortable asking for help. Help them identify the people they can socialize with comfortably. Role-play situations in which they ask for help. The more your child practices this with you, the more prepared they will be to advocate for themselves as needed.
  • Help your child generate a list of the top five topics they like to talk about with peers. Share the types of questions you like to be asked when meeting new people. Help them develop some go-to questions to ask new acquaintances and friends.
  • Share with your child about the ways you incorporate peace and quiet into your life. Do you read for 20 minutes before bed? Do you do a crossword over coffee? Encourage your child to commit to time in their day for quiet and calm. Help them pick places they can go during the day to recharge or get away from the chaos of school life. Having routines that offer safety and security will enable your teen to feel more equipped and energized for the other activities that may be more draining.

The more often you and your child engage in conversation about the ways we perceive and process the world, the more self-aware they will be, and the more connected you will feel. While transitions may still be challenging in your family, the more intentional practice we have with approaching new opportunities with authenticity, the more confident and grounded our young people will feel.

Courtney Harris