5 Things NOT to Say to Stressed Teens

Ask teens about school-related stress, and you’ll probably hear about seemingly endless piles of homework, nonstop tests, not enough time, too little sleep and, most worrisome, the sense that no matter what they do, it’ll never be enough. That they’ll never be enough. There are a myriad of practical strategies that can effectively reduce stress and build teens’ resiliency. But here is a short list of what teens usually say they wish their parents didn’t do. These 5 well-intentioned parental comments usually backfire, in fact, causing even more stress. Here’s why you might consider avoiding them—and what you might say instead:

1. “You can do anything you set your mind to!”

You’ve probably said this in the hope of encouraging your son or daughter or to foster self-esteem. The problem is, it just isn’t true. Everyone has limitations. Despite hard work and diligent practice, for example, your daughter may never ace AP calculus and your son may never play competitive tennis. If you tell them they can, they might redouble her efforts—further exhausting themselves and feeling like that much more of a disappointment if they don’t reach their goals. Instead, why not give teens honest feedback? By talking about their true strengths and weaknesses, we are helping teens to get to know themselves. This is vital not only for forming their identity, which is a chief developmental task of adolescence, but also for their general emotional health.

2. “You have so many more opportunities than I did. You should take full advantage of them.”

In our desire to give our kids the best of everything, we may give them the unfortunate message that they can—and should—do everything. But juggling hectic schedules and commitments that would humble most CEOs is contributing to teens’ sense that they can never do everything well. They can’t do everything well; nor should they try. It is more prudent to talk with kids about making good choices and setting priorities, which are invaluable skills we want them to have for the rest of their lives.

3. “Just try your best!”

As guidelines go, this beats, “You need to come in first” or “Nothing less than perfection.” But vagueness invites problems. That’s because teens who desperately want to please read into such comments and typically imagine even loftier goals than their parents have in mind. For example, if you say “Just try your best,” they might think, “My mom expects nothing lower than an A” or “My dad thinks I should never let other team score a goal.” That’s why it’s better to talk about specific changes your teens can make to improve in school or activities—for example, not doing their homework on the bus, proofreading their papers, practicing their music, or keeping their school materials organized.

4. “Your schoolwork is suffering! No more texting or I-chatting!”

Sure, you want to encourage good study habits. But severing teens’ social ties makes them (especially girls) markedly more anxious, resentful, and preoccupied, which further distracts them from their school work. So instead, it’s better to emphasize the principle, “Everything in moderation.” Encourage teens to set limits for themselves. Provide only as much structure as they needs to do that. In the long run, this strategy will pay dividends. Studies have shown that good self-discipline is far more important than even innate intelligence in determining academic success.

5. “Everything you do now counts for college!”

With the frenzy about getting into college, many parents want to make sure their teens are motivated, do well, and have plenty of choices available to them. Yet these anxious comments only trigger girls’ panic about their futures. As they say, “Do our parents think we ever forget about college, even for a minute?” Worse, focusing intensely on the single goal of getting into college robs teens of other vital experiences. The high school years are not the Pre-College Years. To encourage all-around growth, think of this as their time to learn about themselves, acquire skills, discover their passions, and develop healthy relationships. So keep college talk to a minimum—and ask instead about what teens are enjoying, what they’re learning, and what would make their school experience even better.

What's New

My 10-year-old wears makeup, and I’m (mostly) fine with it


To Reduce Kids’ Anxiety, Stop Telling Them How Great They Are


See all the New Items »

Speaking Engagements:

To book Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler for a speaking engagement

E-mail Sign up to receive
Dr. Roni's e-mails

For TV, radio, and print interviews, email Roni Cohen-Sandler at media@ronicohensandler.com

Back to Top