Today’s teens are under a lot of pressure. They are expected to get great grades, hold down part-time jobs, and take on extracurricular activities so that they can get accepted into a good college. Though these pressures have always existed and parents feel that they had the same experiences, with the proliferation of technology and the always-on mentality, it can be argued that things just aren’t quite the same. With so many pressures, it’s no wonder that as a result, teens are more susceptible to stresses related to various triggers in today’s world.

Certainly, the number one stress that teens face is school. But many teens also worry about their ability to get into college too. And in some truly unfortunate situations, teens may have to worry about how to help their family financially. Perhaps they have an ill parent who can no longer work. Or worse, maybe their parent died years before and the teen is left with a single parent who is struggling to make ends meet.

What exactly is a trigger, however? Emotional triggers are those topics or situations that make us feel uncomfortable. These triggers are tied to certain past experiences or aspects of our life that make us feel frustrated, unsatisfied, or scared. Every person has triggers, though in certain situations and in some people, these triggers can be far more serious and damaging than in others.

Commons triggers for today’s teens

There are some common triggers of stress in today’s teen population. Understanding how your teen works through their stress and what causes that stress is an important conversation point for parents and their teens. Parents need to encourage open and honest communication and work with their teens to teach that stress is normal and that the key is to develop the appropriate coping mechanisms to persevere.

Common stress and emotional triggers for teens include:

  • Academics – Whether it be grades or standardized test scores that can determine a teen’s collegiate future, these concerns can be a lot for a teen to manage. Teens worry about their ability to make their grades, maintain the right GPA, respect their teachers, please their parents, and keep up with their classmates. Unfortunately, many teenagers today aren’t taught how to effectively manage their time. And in an always-on world, it can be difficult to ascertain where to place focus and when.
  • Family matters – Though the divorce rate is actually on the decline, nearly 50% of marriages end in divorce. This means that today’s teens have a high probability of being raised in a broken home. Sadly, before the divorce comes, the arguing and the tough times at home run rampant. All of this can be exceptionally stressful for a teen, especially with split custody situations and kids being handed back and forth depending on the weekend or day of the week.
  • Peer and social pressures – A teen’s social life is very important to them. The majority of their time is spent amongst their peers. With any teen group, there can be volatility that can sometimes lead to bullying or pressures to try drugs, early sexual experimentation, and more. This can be very trying for a teen who feels pressured to try different things when they are still trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be.
  • World events – It seems that any time we turn on the news these days (or see the news in our social feeds), we hear about some tragedy. As of the beginning of September, there have been 283 shootings so far in 2019, which means an average of more than one shooting every day. Other acts of terrorism and natural disasters, not to mention those school shootings, can strike fear in anyone. Teens are no exception, and in many ways, may find it more difficult to cope than others.
  • Loss of loved ones – The death of a loved one can be exceptionally traumatic, regardless of the cause of death. Illnesses, accidents, emotional or physical abuse, etc. can leave lasting marks on a teen and are significant factors towards stress.
  • Life changes – Whether it comes from divorce, the death of a loved one, remarriage of a parent, additional of step-siblings, or even a residential move is stressful, to say the least. If teens are not taught how to cope with these changes or are not allowed to voice their concerns, it can be even more difficult for a teen to adjust.

How teens respond to triggers

With all of these stressors and apparent triggers facing today’s teens, it is no wonder that they can function at all. The world has become a scary place and the stress from those worries sits on top of academic, job, and extra-curricular related pressures. This begs the question as to how teens respond to these triggers.

  • Over-processing – If a teen is experiencing a trigger tied to a traumatic event, they may start going over the memory in their head over and over. In many ways, this can make it feel like they are reliving the experience with each replay in their mind. Even if it is not a traumatic trigger, teens may overthink a grade on a test or a comment made by a friend in passing. Overthinking these concerns is unhealthy and keeps the teen living in a difficult moment rather than working through how to move forward, learn from the event, or rise above a terrible situation.
  • Nightmares – Whether the nightmare is about a traumatic event or simply triggered by stress, nightmares can be very unsettling for anyone. Further, nightmares can mean a lack of sleep which can be especially difficult for teens who need over nine hours or sleep each night in order to function as well as possible.
  • Flashbacks – For traumatic events, even when not thinking of the situation, a memory can quickly recur, sparked by something that the teen encounters in their environment. This can make it feel like the trauma is happening again, and in much more keen detail than when simply over-processing and playing the memory over and over. Flashbacks are exceptionally upsetting because they bring a flood of emotions and memories of the trauma.
  • Anxiety – When teens stress over their grades, peer pressures, or other worries, it can lead to anxiety. And though anxiety is a natural response to stress, it can make teens fearful of participating in certain activities. The first day of school, the first day on a new job, giving a speech in front of their peers, etc., can all be stressful events that can make a teen feel overly anxious.
  • Anger – Some teens will be more prone to anger as a reaction to their stress. Perhaps they feel that it was unfair for them to get a certain grade on a project, or they may be in denial or struggling with why they were the unlucky one to experience a traumatic event. Perhaps they are angry at others or themselves. Wherever the anger is directed, this response is very common in teens.
  • Sadness or depression – It is not unusual to feel sad or to come to tears after a traumatic event or a highly stressful event. Crying is a way for the nervous system to rebound after a fight-or-flight response and can help to calm the body and mind. Sadness can also be caused through feelings of being overwhelmed whether it be due to world events, academic concerns, parental discord, etc.
  • Guilt – In some cases, the teen may feel guilty if something happened to someone that they loved. They may berate themselves because they were unable to prevent the situation, whether they were involved or not. They may even feel guilty as though they caused the traumatic event.
  • Lack of trust – Teens who do not work through their stress and resulting triggers may find it difficult to find trust in others. They may feel that others are out to get them or may feel that they are alone. When teens create this shell and aura of distrust, it can make it very difficult for well-meaning people to help them.

How to help a teen through their triggers

The best way that parents can help their teens avoid triggers (or cope through them) is to help them become aware. Parents who help their teen to become aware of their triggers will also help their teen develop the coping mechanisms to move forward and ensure that triggers do not shut them down.

Aside from traumatic situations that might have more obvious triggers, there are more common triggers that can result in outbursts from your teen. Parents need to pay attention and be aware of the warning signs of triggers. Looking for patterns and connections can be helpful.

  • Being told “no”
  • Being left out
  • Being bullied or criticized
  • Bad news
  • Not knowing what to do
  • Being ignored by friends
  • Too much activity or overstimulation

Parents may find that thinking backward can be beneficial. If your teen has an outburst, parents should consider what the teen was doing shortly before the outburst. Perhaps your teen has to study for a coming exam and starts acting short or restless. This could be an indicator that your teen is worried about not performing well on the exam. They may be worried about the consequences of a poor grade.

Encouraging conversation with your teen is also very important. Triggers are directly connected to feelings. And, remember that the trigger is not the problem. The problem is tied to how your teen thinks and feels about a certain situation. Thus, look for opportunities to encourage conversation. Don’t try to converse when your child is tied up with an activity, is in a rush to get to work, or when they have not slept well the night before. The best time to engage in open and honest dialogue is when your teen is calm and relaxed.

When that time comes, be open with your teen. Share that you have observed certain behaviors recently that don’t seem usual for your teen. Ask them to tell you about how they are feeling. When your teen starts to share, temper your reaction. If you react with your own anger or outburst, you will be sure to shut them down and it will be even more difficult to get them to talk to you the next time. Allow your teen to share their thoughts with you freely.

Patience is critical here as well. Remember that your teen is still learning how to best communicate. Perhaps your teen will overshare in details or will share irrelevant details. Maybe they’ll jump around and it will be hard to follow, making you want to interrupt for clarity. If you allow them to get through their thoughts and finish, you can then leverage that time to ask clarification questions and even to get them to elaborate on key points that you might think are important.

Remember that you are your teen’s best advocate and you are central to their livelihood and feelings of safety. Taking the time to respect what your teen has to say and acknowledging those feelings as real will go a long way. Parents who shut down their teens or dismiss their feelings may end up making the problem greater.

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Help is available

On occasion, you may find that your teen needs more help than what you can offer. In these cases, it is important to know that help can be available. Your teen may benefit from an outpatient therapy arrangement at a facility like Hillcrest where they can talk individually (or in a group setting with others their own age) with a trained counselor. In more extreme cases, a residential program might be needed, especially in situations where a serious trauma has been experienced. Your family may even benefit from a family counseling arrangement so that you can all discuss how certain events have impacted you.

Whatever arrangement that you determine is right for your teen, it is important to encourage the teen to participate and to follow the steps so that the right coping mechanism can be developed. Though triggers may never go away entirely, teens can learn the methods that can help get them through those difficult times.

If your teen needs help processing trauma or stress and healing, Hillcrest can help. Reach out today to find out how our team works with teenagers to help them manage their trauma triggers and move forwards toward a better future.