How Can I Help My Teen Manage Stress?

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 42 │How Can I Help My Teen Manage Stress?

Wednesday, May 12, 2021



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Episode 42 podcast banner
Is your teenager so stressed you worry they’re on the brink of burning out? Teens are still facing the typical pressures of navigating friendships, relationships, college admissions and now a pandemic. Our hosts spoke with adolescent psychologist and best-selling author, Dr. John Duffy, about how families can support their teens during this challenging time. He offers advice and shares how parents can distinguish between typical teenage stress and when it is time to seek help.


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LaWanda: I'm LaWanda Toney.

Helen: And, I'm Helen Westmoreland, and you're listening our Healthy Minds, miniseries focused entirely on our family's mental health and social, emotional wellbeing. We're releasing all the episodes at once, so you can listen however you like if you'd like to space them out, if you'd like to binge them all at once. Please do so, and let us know what you think by leaving a review on Apple podcast. So others can find us too.

LaWanda: Helen, I love that this miniseries lets you do a deep dive into mental health, because these conversations are so important. We're talking with psychologists about how to address serious mental illness and how to proactively address mental health.

Helen: That's right, LaWanda, and that's why we are so excited today to talk about something we all deal with and our kids deal with, which is stress. We are inviting the incredible Dr. John Duffy to the show to talk about stress and anxiety. Dr. Duffy is a clinical psychologist, bestselling author and certified life coach with nearly 20 years of experience supporting kids and parents. Dr. Duffy is the author of multiple best-selling books, including Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety. He also hosts his own podcast, Better with Dr. John Duffy and Julie Duffy, and lives outside Chicago with his wife and son. Welcome to the podcast, Dr. Duffy.

John Duffy: Thanks so much for having me, Helen and LaWanda. It's great to be here with you.

Helen: We are super excited, this could not be a more timely topic. We like to start our episodes with our experts just hearing a little bit about you and your journey to this work.

John Duffy: Yeah, my journey here has been an odd one. I'm a recovering CPA from about 25 years ago.

Helen: I didn't know that.

LaWanda: What a transition.

John Duffy: I always knew I wanted to do this work and, and kind of stumbled honestly, upon working with teens. When I started my practice, my referrals came from school social workers and psychologists. And, I wasn't that interested, honestly, in working with this population, and once I started, kind of fell in love with these kids, you know how this goes and, and every single one of them, and I think I've worked with over the course of all these years, about 500 teenagers and they're all amazing.

You know, whether they're depressed or anxious or going through social things. They're an incredible group of people and I've been impressed with every single one I've worked with all the way through the years. Never more so than, than this last year during this pandemic and the quarantine period and all of these shuffles back and forth school-wise and socially.

Kids have managed this with a lot of grace and with a lot of struggle and turmoil as well. So, I'm deeply concerned about the wellbeing collectively of our kids, but I'm also blown away by their resilience and their brilliance and their competence and everything they know, that they're able to kind of synthesize and integrate which sometimes is a blessing. And sometimes it's a curse for them.

LaWanda: Hmm. So it sounds like, Dr. Duffy, that there is hope. There is that light at the end of the tunnel, based on what you're saying and the interactions that you've had with some of the families and parents and teenagers.

John Duffy: Always, and absolutely now there is, but one thing that's incumbent upon parents and those of us who work with teenagers is to make sure that that hope that that light of hope doesn't go out, right? Because if you are 15, 16, 17, 18 years old right now, a big chunk of your life is spent dealing with this pandemic and with the quarantine and all the fallout that comes out of that. And, that's on top of everything that I wrote the second book about Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety.

I thought I knew what the age of anxiety was about when I wrote that book guys, and it turns out it's far more difficult than I thought it was a year and a half ago. But, on top of all the social media pressure on top of all the academic pressure on top of all the regular social pressure, pressure from parents, it is truly an age of anxiety for teenagers.

So I think what our job is to step in and alleviate as much of that anxiety as we can and make sure our kids get the help and support they need, so that they're not overwhelmed on a regular basis. And so, that they are able to enjoy a lot of this part of their life and go through all the developmental milestones that they need to go through in order to navigate adolescence, successfully.[RB1] 

LaWanda: Great. This is a perfect transition, you mentioned a lot of teenagers, you work with struggle with stress and recently we spoke to a parent facing some similar issues. Swarnima, she's a mom of a high school son in Seattle, and she shared some of her pressures, her son is facing. If you don't mind, let's take a listen and then discuss her needs on the other side.

Swarnima Aswinkumar: Students who are a part of the district have typically been high achievers, they continue to experience work-related stress further exacerbated by peer pressure, often brought about by parents. Anxiety due to expectations from parents, and to top it all lack of connection brought about by the pandemic.

Adults like us are constantly being told at work to take some time for self-care and to be okay with letting go. Most workplaces have adapted and are offering flexibility to employees, but these students still have the pressure to complete the curriculum, do well in the class quizzes and tests, and as well as outperform others.

So as to stand out, as they progress in their various pathways towards college, et cetera, how can these tweens or teenagers be guided to step back? What is the best form of support, for a teen experiencing stress? How can the students be encouraged to reach out for help before reaching a point of crisis?

LaWanda: What do you think Dr. Duffy?

John Duffy: First of all, what a perfect synthesis of what families are going through right now, and have been for years. And, you add the pandemic on top of it even more so. We parents are stressed out and we are getting a little more flexibility, most of us in our workplaces, but our kids still carry enormous social emotional and academic stress. And so, really the question seems to revolve around, like how do we help them navigate that, alleviate that and, and work through that successfully? Because even a very, very type A kid is going to have a very difficult time making it through this whole period without getting overly anxious, overwhelmed, and kind of crashing.

Kids who underperformed, tend to underperform more at times like this and opt out is kind of what I described they do. And, what they really need from us is some kind of a blueprint. And so, that doesn't mean adding to the pressure, talking about what they're not doing right. Going through the portals one by one every single day and pressing them to make sure that every single assignment is done perfectly.

They know the drill. They know what they're supposed to do. Our job as parents and, and, and counselors and therapists is to really serve as allies and guides and consultants, to these kids. So that, when they need support, when they need to just talk it through, we are available to them to do that.

And too often, we are not. Too often, we are going to lecture them about what needs to happen but what they really need more than anything else, is our ear. And, I think because we, as parents feel so much pressure for our kids to perform well, we sometimes forget to just listen, and sometimes all our kids need us to do is to listen to what they have to say. Tell us about the difficult day they've just had about the test they just failed, about the assignments that are late, about how overwhelmed they are, and we can't solve that for them. But, we can be there for them just to hear them out. And sometimes that's all the reset they need in order to get back to it.

But if we are lecturing, we're piling stress on top of stress on top of stress and eventually our children break, and that's where people like me get called in. The cavalry gets called in to kind of repair what's broken. But in order to re, fix that problem before it gets there a lot, a lot, a lot of listening has to happen on the part of the adults in these kids' lives. The more we listen, the better off they're going to be. The better off they're going to be able to navigate this time and they'll know, okay, I was able to tell mom and dad this terrible thing or this thing that's not done yet, and it's okay. It's not the end of the world.

Helen: Yeah, it really strikes me, Dr. Duffy as you're talking that some of the great advice you share with parents about how to support their teen are in the same during this time is not all that different from any of us who've been in couples counseling, right. And it's like, how do you listen without judgment, without problem solving, without making it about you. And, I'm curious as you work with teens and families, in addition to some of what you've shared about stepping on the brake a little of your reaction. Are there other strategies parents can use to either, be more self-aware or just show up for their teen, in that more like authentic listening space?

John Duffy: I'm so glad you asked that, Helen. So my first book I was trying to answer that very question, you know, what can parents really do to approach their kids in a way that doesn't guarantee that split, that that break in the relationship that we almost expect during those adolescent years in particular?

And what I find works is if we are aware, And, I don't expect any parents, honestly, to be perfect at this, none of us is. But if we are just aware of our own fear about whatever the situation is, whatever's going on with our kids. Our own sense of fear. And we can put that on the back burner, at least for a moment, while we're talking to our child. Our own judgment, our own judgment about our child, you know, you should've gotten this done sooner. My goodness. You're so lazy. This room's a mess. You're not doing your work. And our own judgment of ourselves, because sometimes we'll say like, boy, I think I'm failing my child somehow and, I'm not sure how to repair that.

So judgment aside is important and our own egos, that might be the hardest part because, we all want the bumper stickers that say our kids are doing amazing things and we can park that on the back burner as well, fear and judgment and ego, and bring a sense of lightness and a sense of humor and curiosity to our kids. That makes all the difference and curiosity, probably more important now than ever, because kids often feel, and I get to work with kids alone, so they'll tell me, they often feel rejected by their parents, for the music they listened to for what they were for what their problems are and, if we can just get into their worlds and listen to them. I always encourage parents to think about that emotional bank account.

And you're right, Helen, this, this is what we talk about with couples as well. Right? You've got to attend to the emotional bank account with each other, otherwise your relationship is doomed, no matter what else you do. No matter how much time you spend then together, if you're not attending to the emotional bank account and really putting deposits in there, then you're really not connecting.

So the idea to foster the connections to take fear, Judgment and ego move them aside as best you can, as often as you can, it's not going to be perfect. Bring a sense of humor and a lot of curiosity to the program. I always tell parents, your children don't listen to the music they listen to to challenge you. They listen because they love it. Just like you did when you were their age, so trust that, and be curious about.

Helen: Yeah, it's so hard as a parent, not to take it personal. I was telling LaWanda I'm going through this thing with my kid and it does feel it's like you're doing this literally just to make my day more difficult.  And she's three and I like, what a heavy thing to put on a kid, but I think you're so right that like, we know this in the context of adult relationships. But with our kids, we want to support them to be those healthy, emotionally available adults, and so sometimes that means looking at our own relationship dynamic a little differently.

LaWanda: Yeah, I agree with you, Helen. I think that when a friend has a challenge and they reach out to you like your girlfriend or, or a colleague, you take that judgment hat off immediately. You are there to listen, and I, but when we start thinking about our own children, we put on a different hat and I like what you said, Dr. Duffy, that we should have curiosity, and listen and, and humor. Don't take it so seriously. I think those are so important things to remember as a parent, but it's so hard in that moment to be able to do that.

LaWanda: I want to shift a little bit, because Swarnima and I also talked about how to help teens have realistic expectations. So we're going to play this clip and then we'll talk about it on the other side.

Swarnima Aswinkumar: They have seen what their peers in the previous years have been able to achieve. So, even if you don't want to, or even if the parents are telling the students, it's somewhere in built in their mentality that last year seniors from my school went to Stanford. Or last year, seniors from my school, started a company, when they were in 11th grade or last year somebody from my school helped a  nonprofit or everything. Like, all those things are so much harder to do at this point. So they have set the bar too high, and how can that bar, I mean, it's very difficult to say lower your bar, and let it be because like a year from now, things are going to switch back and they'll be the batch that don't do all that, so it's difficult to say that.

LaWanda: Dr. Duffy, I think that a lot of parents and teenagers are feeling that way, like graduation was different for my friend. College was different for my friend who had their freshman year and now mine is going to be different. And they think that that difference is going to be worse. How do we help them set these expectations? And, what Swarnima said was then, when things turn back or if they turn back, how do we have them adjust?

John Duffy: Yeah, it's such a great question and very of the moment, because this is what I'm dealing with every day in my office, it's where to put that level of parental expectation, based on where we are in this pandemic, in these strange times, where a school might be in session full time, or it might not. And our sports groups, clubs, activities might be meeting might not. It is messy and confusing. And I worked with a mom a couple of weeks ago who had a pretty good answer to this that I've been adopting and using with other client families.

And she said, we need to look at it, very temporary, new normal, and create a different set of expectations for this period of time. And she realized like she's been putting all this pressure on her family, on her teenagers and our younger kids, and it is not working and they are imploding as a family. And the household feels stressed and tense and unhappy, and she just didn't want that vibe anymore. So, what she decided was the, we're going through a pandemic and just making it through a difficult time like this, this is what our kids are gonna remember, first of all. They'll always remember this time in their lives.

And the goal here is not necessarily to know algebra as best as you can or to get straight A's, if you make it through this time and your kids get some of their work done and they attend most of their classes, zoom or otherwise, and their rooms are reasonably clean and you're not losing it on them every single day, she said, take the pandemic, pass / fail. And right now passing me, we are doing a good enough job here.

Isn't that great? Take, take some of the pressure off yourself, your family, and, and recognize that, you are doing something mighty and amazing just by making it through this time. And, you do have this opportunity to create new connections, because you're spending more time together with yourself and your kids and your family, then you maybe ever thought you were going to have the opportunity to do. So, make the most of it and create some memories, because this is time you're all going to remember and whatever grit and tenacity and resilience, that your kids pick up during this time, they're going to carry into the future with them. Might be a better, stronger more potent lesson than anything they would have learned otherwise.

Helen: Yeah, I think that's so true. It's like, we're, we're in a time where we have to give ourselves and our families a little more grace and, and it's like Swarnima said, in a professional setting. It's easier to sort of ask for that, but in our personal lives, sometimes it can be hard.

Just segueing a little bit, Dr. Duffy, I think universally, even outside this year, one of the questions we hear a lot from parents is this worry of like, when should I call you? When should I call the therapist? And underneath that is this sort of existential question around, like what's just normal stress and what escalating to a point of anxiety where you need help? And I was reading your blog before we started chatting today and noticed that you've really advocated normalizing therapy, preventatively, right for everyone.

So, I'd love if you could talk about that, when do we need therapy, from your perspective. And, and just what to look for in your kids to know if things are, are, are escalating to a point we need some outside help?

John Duffy: Okay, so let me start by talking about when we need therapy. So it, you know, we attend to our kids and most of us have this kind of sense of radar when something shifts, you know, kind of dramatically, our, our child suddenly is spending way more time in his or her room alone. They're sullen, they’re less interested in being out with friends or going to school, their grades drop precipitously and you can't quite figure out why is this, right? You know, there's, there's nothing in his or her life that seems to be going on, that would drive that. If you see that massive change in affect, so expressed affect, the way the, they express their emotions. Behavior the way they seem to be thinking.

If you see if they dressed differently, just all of a sudden, and it seems troubling and disruptive to either their functioning or your family, then that's the time to reach out to a therapist and you won't regret it, there, there is no downside. I would encourage parents to really consider reaching out to a therapist who is familiar with working with kids, your child's age. Regardless of what that child's age is, so that you are not shopping for therapists as you go, with most children, you don't get four or five tries,  you usually get one? So, make sure it's a good one. As for that preventive piece, you know, that you're right, Helen,  I do advocate for.

One remarkable thing about a pandemic is that, you know, I was seeing a lot of kids before the pandemic. And, I thought once March 11th or 12th of whatever it was last year hit, I thought, Oh, I'm gonna have to drive Uber or something mean, there's not, there's not going to be any work and nobody's going to come in. And, and so we were all doing this teletherapy right. Now, I'd never heard of a zoom call a year in a year and a month ago. And now all of a sudden that that's all I do for the better part of a year. it turns out that a lot of people in a preventive way realized my kid's going through a hard time, even though he or she is not showing any symptoms.

So even though emotionally, I think they're doing okay. I want them to have somebody out there to talk to. So, I did a number of sessions where I talked to somebody three or four times, and I can tell them kind of, on call for them. And then, some of the therapists that I keep in touch with they've had that same moment where all of a sudden the taboo that was there, maybe a year and a half ago has lifted a lot for young people.

For young people, it's barely there at all, but even for parents, they're more likely to just say, you know what, I'd like you to have somebody to talk to other than mom or dad. And so, we're going to go through therapist a few times and let's see how it goes. And, if you want to keep seeing them great. If you want to take a break and just know somebody, so that if, and when you want to talk to somebody, you've got somebody out there.

Then that's great too. And so, I love that model. I think that's going to work really, really well for kids going forward, because I don't know any of us who at some point in our lives, isn't going to benefit from therapy. And so to know, to know that that's okay to do and know a therapist or two, right. And, and understand the dynamics of just going, sitting and talking to somebody about your life, your feelings, to familiarize yourself with that.

LaWanda: Hmm. That is great, and I feel so optimistic because we've had conversations with families and now it is starting to normalize that people say, well, what therapist are you guys using? You know, do they, do you feel like it's working. Before talking about a therapist was like hush, hush thing, everyone didn't talk about that, and I feel like now people are more open to the conversation, which is great.

John Duffy: Agreed completely, and I, I do notice the same thing that you're talking about LaWanda, that, that parents are talking to one another and asking you to like, who, who are you talking to? You know, are they good with kids our age it's ages, you know? And that normalizes things and removes the stigma and the taboo really, really readily. And, you know, again, I think any kid is going to benefit from this. You know, if I could push it even further, I wish that grade schools, grammar schools, high schools, middle schools, actually taught some more social, emotional learning type skills, because I think our kids are ready for that. 20 years ago I was trying to push this on some school districts here in the Chicago area. And my, the timing was terrible then. Now, I think the timing is great too, because we've all gone through something truly traumatic in the last year. Right. And so, as awful as that is, there is this opportunity for more of us to seek the help we need, and more of our kids do the same.

LaWanda: Dr. Duffy, thank you so much this discussion. I know that we've gained so much from talking to you and we hope that our parents and families listening will also gain a lot of your expertise from this conversation. So, thank you for joining us. Before we leave, I wanted to ask you, are there any resources available for families that you might suggest?

John Duffy: Yeah. So depending on the ages of your child I have some colleagues who I am very, very fond of. If you have a middle schooler Michelle Icard, I C A R D is wonderful. And, Phyllis Fagell also a middle-school expert.

Helen: She's a friend of the show. Yeah.

John Duffy:  I love her. I love her. And you know, My bias would be to follow. Some of these people Lisa Damour and, and there's so many wonderful experts and, and a lot of them are very accessible and show up on, on podcasts and things like that, wonderful shows like yours to kind of share their wisdom. So, my bias is don't just follow me, but follow a bunch of parenting experts because listen, it.

Today really, truly takes a village to raise kids, and you want to make sure you gain expertise from a number of points of view, because I'm always blown away by some people who I really respect and they come up with ideas and I, and I'm thinking. Why didn't I ever think of that? So, I worked in that parenting space all the time in my head. So I think the more you read about parenting, and the more you, listen to podcasts and learn about it, the better off you're going to be.

LaWanda: Awesome, and Dr. Duffy, remind us what your social media handles are and where listeners can learn more about you and your work.

John Duffy: Sure. I am Dr. John Duffy on Twitter and @DrJohnDuffy on Instagram and Dr. John Duffy on Facebook, My, my website is So, anything I'm doing or anything I've got going on, you should find right there.

LaWanda: Awesome. Great. Thank you. To our audience listening at home, thank you for joining us and for more resources related to today's episode, check out We also want to share with you National PTA's created a mental health resource webpage for parents, students, and educators. Learn more at

Helen: Thank you again, Dr. Duffy for joining us.

John Duffy: Thanks so much for having me

Helen: And thanks listeners, we'll see you next time.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.