COPING WITH TEEN STRESS

You think you’ve got problems? Look at the emotional confusion our teens face every day over peer pressure, bullying, taxing, grades, smoking, drugs, alcohol, sex and love – all against the background of raging hormones. To top it all off, they’re also expected to make education and career choices affecting their entire future.

Now add to it the stress of living in a family affected by divorce or serious illness, and the scenario is compounded. How do teens cope in these situations? Badly managed stress turns into anxiety, withdrawal, aggression and physical illness. It leads to self-destructive coping strategies that often end up in drug and alcohol abuse.

Take my family for example. I’m a mother of four children – an eight-year old and three teens (16, 19 and 22). Their lives are complicated, because I’m divorced and I suffer from multiple sclerosis (MS). Their father was absent for most of their lives and they had to deal with abandonment issues and live without an in-house male role model.

An MS diagnosis means putting your hopes and dreams into a new perspective – one of constant uncertainty but also of appreciation for every healthy day. Throughout a period of self-discovery and growth, I realized that my children were affected by my illness too, and I made it my mission to understand the impact of my illness on their lives.

I sat them down to talk about chronic illness in general and MS in depth. I thought we discussed the merits of living with adversity – how we can grow spiritually, and become stronger, resilient and more caring human beings, and to always know we had each other for support. Now looking back, I realize that I did all the talking.

I tried to hide my emotional and physical pain from them, and to show only strength, endurance and a positive attitude. Like most mothers, I instinctively wanted to protect them and saw no point in adding more to their already full and complicated plates.

But, one day I saw my normally chatterbox thirteen-year-old daughter became uncharacteristically silent when the subject of MS cropped up. She just went pale and expressionless. I said nothing at the time, but kept my eye on her. Soon, she started acting out by becoming aggressive, irritable and rude. When the smart-aleck remarks began I chalked it up to hormones. But her face became so glum and withdrawn, and her enthusiasm so low, that I couldn’t stand it any more. I asked her straight out: “Does my illness stress you?” The blunt “Yes” still reverberates in my ears.

I’d assumed that since we’d had our open discussion, she’d come to me if anything bothered her. After all, she does that with everything else in her life – her friends, her school, even her changing body. But when I raised the subject this time around, I felt like I was breaking a taboo.

How could she have hidden this for so long – or how could I have been so blind? Was this just the tip of the iceberg? Perhaps my other two teenagers were upset and struggling with this in silence. Was my stoicism squashing them? I was a cool mom. Were they angry at me ?

My mission intensified – I had to do something. And then fate stepped in. A doctor friend wanted to compile a series of stories aimed at teens with parents facing serious illness. I decided to give it a try. A writer himself, he agreed to track my progress, and with his encouragement Crossed Signals started to take shape.

Crossed Signals tells the story of a family whose lives are thrown into turmoil by an MS diagnosis and every weakness in their interpersonal relationships is exposed and magnified. It also describes a journey of transformation where they look for and find a renewed sense of family love and unity.

Writing this book made me see – really think about – the pressure kids have to deal with today. A frighteningly large number of parents watch fearfully, paralyzed into inaction by their own inexperience and stress. The armor of silence and denial by parents and teens alike may bring short-term protection, but it also hems them in. Only by learning real coping skills in their youth would they be able to truly protect themselves when they graduated into the real world.

We need to send the message to parents and teens that there is a way to deal with this and other kinds of stress. They need to know that talking; expressing; sharing, is much more than words. Dialogue transforms the sense of isolation and fear into compassion, hope and love. Sounds like a Disney movie doesn’t it? But it works! I’ve seen first hand in schools, workshops, and just talking with hundreds of chronically ill people., how letting go of pent up pain and fear can change a person’s life.

In today’s overstressed world we can’t overstate the need to reach out to our children’s hearts as well as their heads. I’d like to see Crossed Signals taught in every high school in North America. What better way to reach our teens?

Caroline Courey
Montreal, February 2002