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Teenage Stress Matters

13-year-old Lou (all names changed) and I chatted about general ‘stress’ matters during our coaching session. I’ve been working to have her distinguish between useful and non-useful stress. That is the difference between stress that she utilises to drive her, and the stress that holds her stuck.


Until now, she has had two differing strategies that she has generalised simply as ‘stress’.


One strategy drives her motivation to be getting stuff done; the other strategy prevents action and holds her stuck.


Lou regularly tells me that she is ‘stressed’ describing it as a label or even as her identity, rather than something that she is doing and feeling.

In fact, the word stress defines a cascade of physiological responses that prepare the body for action (fight, flight or freeze). And with a couple of exceptions (i.e. real threat of harm), the physiological responses are unwarranted and worse still, stimulated by thoughts, and then thoughts about thoughts.


When I unpick her account of school related stress, it soon transpires that she is actually running useful strategies with successful outcomes (e.g. staying focused and driven to complete homework or to revise). She has developed a strategy for self-propulsion (both away from failure and towards personal gain).


In a social setting however, she sometimes feels inertia. This is when she cannot drive herself towards a solution or away from feeling awful and keeps looping the problem around on itself through rumination or catastrophising.


In both scenarios, ‘stress’ is caused by an idea that she might fail, or by a negative comparison of herself to others.


So let’s remove the word ‘stress’ and instead, use the word ‘strategy’ because she can have more objectivity when using the word ‘strategy’ as it’s less emotive.


One ‘stress’ strategy Lou shared was her torment about whether the birthday gift she had bought for her friend Gemma would be ‘enough’. She was looping around ‘Yes, it’s fine/it’s what I want to give/it’s what I can afford, BUT, is it enough compared to what she bought me (disproportionately large and expensive)/what will Gemma think/what will others think/will Gemma be angry


Lou’s thinking strategy was caught in a loop that she couldn’t comfortably exit.

So we spent some time thinking laterally by looking at different mental maps of the world, different beliefs about giving and receiving and different value systems, plus different intentions (why do we give gifts). We explored different fears and rules (for self and for others).


Her conclusion was that it was OK for her to stick to her original gift plan.


By working through this perceived problem using drawings, movements and perceptual positions, she was able to begin to refine her strategy for problem solving. The problem (‘what should I give Gemma’) was not actually the problem; the problem was actually a bundle of stress responses she had generated by endlessly looping around the thinking (‘but what if my choice is not good enough’ etc).


Lou’s strategy upgrade involved starting and ending at the same place (‘what should I give Gemma’ – ‘I have decided what I will give Gemma’), but this time has the thinking processes were swift, uncomplicated and directed only towards solution. Previously they had looped back around on bad feelings generated by unhelpful imaginings. But now, any looping quickly swishes itself to reinforce the original good decision and feel good from authentic decision-making. This is efficient thinking.


The potential saboteur to this new strategy however, is her needing approval from others, which actually Lou thinks she does, but doesn’t feel is necessary. Such incongruence is the next bit of the jigsaw. We need to strengthen her sense of authenticity and her feeling that she is making the right decision, so that the ‘thinking about which social rules to follow’ becomes a choice rather than a series of rumination/catastrophising thinking loops.


More generally on the subject of Gemma’s attention demanding behaviours, we explored emerging (teenage) maps of the world and different value systems, and the notion that whilst most people gravitate towards ‘sameness’ some people need to find ‘difference’ in order to discover more about themselves. Lou and Gemma were indeed very different characters and held polar opposite values, but this was only a problem because Gemma wanted Lou to be step inline with her own mental map.


We discussed a variety of behavioural strategies for dealing with conflict arising from ‘different’ maps of the world.

For example A might simply respect B and discover there is much to learn from the difference between them.


A might try to influence/persuade B to change because A feels threatened by the difference between them.


A might try to influence/persuade B to change because A thinks that his/her version of how the world works is the only/best/better version.


A has already learnt how to manipulate the behaviour of B and has established an illusion of control. B may or may not yet know s/he has a choice about this.


There are many other variables. The key-coaching point with Lou is that when she learns to trust her authentic self she has great wisdom and confidence (ratified by her initial AND then final decision to buy Gemma a certain gift).


This self-respect is what will keep her focused through the ‘stresses’ of teenage life and especially when dealing with Gemma-type personalities.


We also explored a concept model of 100% joy – her birthright and entitlement. Of course it is not really possible to feel 100% joy 100% of the time because we all experience a variety of ‘routine’ emotions. However, she can ask the question of herself and of others:

  1. Is that thought/feeling stealing my joy?
  2. Does this person have (or have they earned) the right to influence my joy?


With regard to her relationship with Gemma, the answer to A) is yes, and the answer to B) is no.


And so we turn to boundaries and return to mental maps of the world. Lou’s world – Gemma’s world.


We can agree that there is a space between both worlds where communication is ideally respectful, flowing (2-way) and transparent. This is a space for Lou to visit and we used hoops to illustrate the boundary conditions of each world and the space between. By stepping into the space in between, Lou can take a neutral standpoint. A place to observe the structures of communication and a place to ask questions, check insights and apply ever-evolving wisdoms.

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