When a Teenager’s Coping Mechanism Is SpongeBob

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Parents are often surprised to find that, even late into high school, teenagers return to the books, movies and TV shows they enjoyed when they were younger. When I ask adolescents to share how they like to recharge when feeling stressed, they consistently volunteer that they reread juvenile books like Percy Jackson, rewatch their favorite Disney movies, or mine Netflix for goofy shows like “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

As Samantha Eisner, a 15-year-old student at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, explained, childhood pleasures offer comfort because “they take you back to the days when the biggest problem you had was choosing what crayon to color your dress in your third grade self-portrait.”

When teenagers aren’t revisiting their early days, they sometimes turn to simple or repetitive activities to escape the ever-rising and shifting expectations that come with adolescence. In their efforts to gain a sense or mastery and control, some teenagers will go outside to drop in dozens of layups while others will rearrange their closets for the umpteenth time. “When I have really had it,” one adolescent told me, “I rip up a piece of paper and tape it back together again.”

Being a teenager isn’t easy. Thanks to puberty, neurological and hormonal developments introduce teenagers to an era of emotional fragility so it’s no surprise that adolescents find handy, if sometimes quirky, ways to reset when they are feeling overwhelmed.

Should parents stand back and admire their teenagers’ inventive coping styles or should they step in with support and guidance? The answer, according to experts, depends on how much control the teenagers have over the source of their stress.

When teenagers can actually do something about the challenges they face, new research confirms what common sense suggests: That adolescents feel better if they face their problems head-on. One recent study found that teenagers who engage in approach coping – working to solve their problems, or actively addressing their emotions about the challenges they face – feel more satisfied with their lives than teenagers who rely on avoidance coping strategies such as ignoring or simply worrying about their problems.

According to Michael Lyons, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia, “approach coping is about trying to change the stressor itself.” For example, a teenager in a fight with a friend might talk with the peer about the conflict or “look to others to find a different way to make sense of the situation.” By contrast, Dr. Lyons notes that teenagers who rely on avoidance coping might instead dodge the friend, or “engage in a negative way, such as gossiping about the peer or ruminating about the problem.”

But what about when teenagers face stressors that defy straightforward solutions, such as unrelenting school or social pressures? In that case, looking at old photos or playing an easy video game might be just what the doctor ordered.

Bruce Compas, a professor of psychology and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University and the author of a research review on teenage coping notes that adolescents may “just need to take a break from something that is stressful, particularly if they can’t change it or control it.” Dr. Compas’s research demonstrates that teenagers facing chronic or unavoidable stress feel better when they find positive distractions that can help “lift their spirits and get them out of a down or depressed mood.”

Of course, a coping strategy stops being adaptive if it gets in the way of real responsibilities. A teenager in the middle of an unpredictable social drama can easily loose track of time while taking refuge in the known plots and predictable twists of “Gray’s Anatomy” reruns. Under these conditions, a parent might gently say something in the spirit of: “I know that what you are doing helps you to relax. Just be careful not to pile on more stress by running out of time to tackle tonight’s homework.”

Teenagers who are casting about for useful strategies to deal with stress may benefit from mindfulness training or yoga programs that have been found to help adolescents decompress. Yet, as Dr. Lyons observes, “there’s a lot of individual variability in how people respond to stressors. What is an effective strategy for one may not be an effective strategy for another.” I’ve learned that some teenagers reset by playing with the family dog while others like to bake. Some adolescents restore themselves with having a good cry in a long shower while others rinse off the day’s stresses by listening to their sad, angry or happy playlists.

Parents can suggest ways for teenagers to regain their equilibrium while being sensitive to the fact that coping strategies tend to be highly personal. When I’ve asked groups of students how they like to rebound from a hard day, it’s not unusual for the bulk of the group to recoil in horror when a peer volunteers that he straightens up his room to feel better. According to Dr. Lyons, these conversations between parent and teenager about coping strategies might be “less about moving a teenager toward one approach and more about walking alongside them to discover what works best.”

It falls to adults to be on the lookout for teenagers who are dealing with stressors far beyond what any adolescent should be expected to handle, such as traumatic events, the death of a loved one or even extraordinary academic pressures. And we should marshal professional support for teenagers who rely on self-destructive tactics, such as abusing substances or harming themselves, to cope with emotional discomfort.

But most of the time, parents are helping their teenagers weather the normal trials that come with adolescence. As we take up this day-to-day work, Dr. Compas encourages us to remind teenagers that there are two types of problems: Those we can do something about and those we need to find a way to accept. “Then we can ask our teens,” he says, “what do you want to do about the ones you can change, and how are you going to manage the ones you can’t?”

Parents cannot shield teenagers from ordinary stress, nor should we try to. Yet we can still lend support. According to Dr. Compas, “if parents can guide kids to slow down and simply size up the nature of the stress, that, in and of itself, would help an enormous amount.”