Have a Plan in Place When Life Overwhelms Your Teen

Help your teen learn to give themselves a break 

When an activity or event is overwhelming for your teen, best practice is to encourage them to take a break to calm down, then return to the activity when they are feeling more equipped and ready to tackle it.

It's important to note that breaks like this should be PLANNED and TEMPORARY and that too long of a break results in straight avoiding a stressful situation and that will only serve to make it more difficult in the end!

Help your teen come up with a list of activities or events that stress them out or overwhelm them. Knowing in advance what is going to be difficult will help you partner together to devise a "Cope Ahead Plan." Maybe you teen has difficulty with math homework, or maybe it's getting to school in the morning. Identify the trigger situations that cause distress so you can put a solid coping plan in place.

Be Mindful 

Help your teen identify what thoughts, emotions and body sensations arise when they feel overwhelmed.

You may ask them...

"What goes through your head when this happens?"

"What differences do you notice in your body when you're feeling stressed?" (This could be tension, changes in heart rate or breathing patterns.)

"What emotions come up for you? Do you feel sad? Angry? Anxious?"

When you can identify the warning signs of stress you can head it off before it gets to the point of crisis and it gives your teen a clear indicator of when to actually use coping skills.

Come up with a solid list of ways to cope 

Help your teen choose at least 5 activities to engage in when stress hits. This could be ways to distract them from the difficult feelings until they lessen, such as...

+ Journaling
+Listening to music
+Talking to a friend about something else
+Taking a walk

It's important to have these activities chosen in advance and for your teen to have a list of them somewhere they can easily access so that when they are upset, they know exactly what to do. It can be difficult to make decisions or come up with a plan when emotions are swirling, so it's important to BE PROACTIVE.

Here's a list of just some of the coping skills our teens have come up with in past groups.  (This is part of a list of fifty!)

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Make a plan to return to the situation 

Remember, coping skills are planned and temporary, so you need to decide when your teen feels ready to return to the situation too. This again should be something that is planned in advance when your teen is calm.

Ask them...

"What would let you know you were calm enough to return to the situation again?"

"How would your thoughts/feelings/body sensations be better or different?"

"What are the signs that you would notice that would let you know you were feeling calm enough to try again?" 

Find a language for talking about mood intensity 

Sometimes using a number system of 0 being completely calm and 10 being the most upset can help you and your teen decide on a good time to return to the activity as well as when it's time to take a break.

Some helpful ways to track moods include using a family journal, having your teen record a number daily on the calendar, or doing a daily text or spoken check in at the same time each day.

The Fuel to Your Emotional Fire

Many times, you and your teen are experiencing feelings you don’t recognize well enough in the moment and then react to that stress with self-judgments that often lead to decisions and behaviors that make the situation ultimately worse.

This “full mind” allows you to live life on autopilot and prevents you from being intentional in your interactions and choices.

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You can CHOOSE to be mindful! 

Mindfulness creates a space between feeling and reacting so that you have a choice in how to respond in the moment.

See the breakdown of the six components of an emotion here.

Mindfulness means having an awareness of and describing your experience in the moment without judgment so that you can make a choice in how to effectively proceed.


Here’s an example of unmindful reaction that includes judgment... 

Lisa gets her test back and school and sees a big red F at the top of the page and immediately feels disappointed.  She thinks, “I’m such an idiot!  Of course I failed again!” This judgment increases her emotion from disappointment to anger and self-hatred.  The bell rings and she leaves class feeling tense and dizzy and beginning to hyperventilate.  She began to have swirling thoughts about never being good enough and never getting into college.  She texted her parent saying, “I can’t be here right now” and leaves school to walk home.

Lisa arrived home where her father (who had worked from home that day) greeted her at the door.  He immediately thought, “Here we go again.  She’s so lazy.  She’s just not trying hard enough!”  This was followed by a hot rush of anger spreading from tension in his chest through his body.  He reacted by yelling, “Why aren’t you at school?  Enough of this already!” His tone was angry which made Lisa feel invalidated when she was experiencing sadness and disappointment.  She thought, “He never understands!” and ran to her room where she then engaged in self-harm behaviors that led to even more consequences and undesirable outcomes for the whole family.

Notice the bold-faced judgements in the story that fueled the emotional fire and led to each person’s emotional experience escalating.  

Let’s look at how the situation could have played out differently using the mindfulness skill of describing without judgment:

Lisa gets her test back and school and sees a big red F at the top of the page and immediately feels disappointed.  She noticed a pit in her stomach and said to herself, “I feel really disappointed about this” and texted her mom to say, “I feel like crying right now.  I just got my test back and I got an F on it..”  Her mom acknowledges that this disappointment makes sense and that it stinks to get an F.  (A validating response that helps Lisa feel heard.)

She leaves class feeling sad and connects with a friend in the hallway where she shares that she’s frustrated about her grade.  The friend relates to her experience by saying she took the same class last semester and it was really hard.  (Another validating comment that makes Lisa feel heard and accepted.)  They begin then talking about the upcoming formal together and Lisa’s mood slowly returns to balance while she enters her next class.

Having an awareness of your thoughts and feelings and being able to acknowledge them, or describe them to others is critical.  

Be like a sports announcer and narrate your thoughts and feelings to create a cushion of time between urges and behaviors.

Track your judgments and notice how they fuel your emotions! 

In our Teen Groups and DBT Groups, we have a “Judgment Jar” where group members will recognize theirs and others’ judgments by putting a marble in the jar.  It’s a kind way of being mindful of judgments in the moment and reminding others to practice nonjudgmental stance too.


When you can bring an awareness to your experience and slow it down, you can then make choices that are effective in how to proceed, rather than reacting quickly which often makes the situation worse.  In next week’s email, I’ll review the 3-part model for skillfully coping with stressful situations in the DBT model.

Parenting Priorities + Changing Teen Behavior

When your teen has a history of hard times, setting effective limits can feel daunting. 

You may fear triggering a safety concern or starting and argument with your teen, or you may just not know where to start given the host of concerns at hand including:

  • Not completing school assignments
  • Arguments at home
  • Isolation, depression or self-harm
  • Anxiety that shows up as avoidance and shutting down

Prioritizing parenting goals... 

When your teen is making unsafe choices or engaging in self-destructive behaviors, this take priority over all other concerns (yes, even grades.)  The #1 priority to reinforce for teens who are experiencing safety concerns is getting them into treatment and ensuring that they engage in it (even if this makes them angry with you.)

When your teen is safe, prioritizing goals and tackling issues comes down to a few things:

  1. What is the most challenging concern that your teen or family faces?
  2. What values do you have as a family and how does this impact the decisions and goals you develop within the family system?

The goal or challenge you choose to address first matters less than being clear and staying consistent in communicating expectations and consequences to your teen.  This is how they learn what to expect and where limits lie... limits that create consistency and security for your teen.

Increase Positive Behaviors by Reinforcing Them 

When you respond to your teen with attention and/or reward, it increases the likelihood that whatever behavior they are exhibiting will continue to occur.  Some examples of reinforcers include:

  • Smiles
  • Hugs
  • Praise
  • Compliments
  • Extra privileges
  • High fives
  • Gratitude
  • Attention

There are lots of ways to say or show that you appreciate your teen's behavior and that you want more of it.  

Your interactions with your teen (whether they'd like to admit it or not) can be a POWERFUL way to reshape their behavior.  

Be very mindful of what you may be accidentally reinforcing with your time, attention, or strong emotion (and also aware that giving too much focus to an unhealthy behavior can reinforce that behavior too.)

Punishing your teen sucks (and it doesn't even really work) 

Taking something away from your teen, like the car or phone (or even having them do chores or other tasks) has been proven to be LESS effective at getting them to stop problematic behaviors.  AND, it often leads to sneakiness and dishonesty as your teen will just continue to do the same thing but try harder to make sure they don't get caught.

Punishing your teen doesn't tell them what they should do either and ends up creating a divide in the parent-child relationship.

What works?

Notice and reward healthy behaviors.  << Years of psychological research back this up.

What if it doesn't work? 

Help your teen learn natural consequences by not fixing mistakes for them.  As long as they are safe, let forgotten homework, embarrassing social judgment and failed tests have real world responses.

When you protect your teen from what would naturally happen in these situations, your teen doesn't learn that their behavior has consequences and you give them permission to shift blame to others when life doesn't work in their favor.

It's hard and scary to watch your teen "fail' but it's a necessary life lesson so that they can learn from these experiences and adjust their behavior accordingly.

It definitely gets worse before it gets better 

It's called the behavioral burst.  As you're making changes (which take time), you're shaking things up and your pulling your teen out of their comfort zone.  Expect that your teens emotions and behaviors will increase in intensity as they try to maintain the status quo.

Trust the process.  Stay the course.  It makes sense that you'd want to give in, but doing so will only strengthen your teen's unhealthy patterns.  

You're about to make the changes that will set your teen up for success today, tomorrow, in college and beyond. You got this!

Finsta, Rinsta or SnapChat Story... You Decide

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This just in... 

A “Finsta” (fake instagram account) is for posting photos of dogs and connecting with friends.  Your teen’s “Real” Instagram account is reserved for…

  • “Hot pictures of myself.”
  • “Me and my boyfriend”
  • “Only the best version of myself but if no one likes it fast enough I’ll take it down.”


Social media is a STRESSOR and the struggle is REAL!

Our teens are immersed in putting their best face forward at the expense of real and genuine connections that would actually give them the self-esteem boost they want and need.

Use the following tips to guide your teen in creating genuine peer connections and improving their overall happiness social media style...

Use Social to BE Social

Instead of surfing the scroll, send messages, comment and engage on others posts to create a shared experience and look for ways to genuinely connect with others.  This starts with a willingness to be authentically you and not some screen persona that’s aiming for likes and comments.

Use Comparisons to Find Your Personal Best Self

Instead of comparing yourself to others, compare yourself to yourself.  Think of it as a before and after photo for a fitness ad.  Where have you been and where are you now?  What’s improved?  How is your life better or different and what have you done to get to this point?

If They Have It, You Can Too

Jealousy can be used as a motivator when you reframe it.  Instead of, “She has lots of followers and I don’t,” look for traits and lifestyles on social media that are a step or two beyond where you are currently.  It gives you something to strive for without that feeling that it’s unfair because they have something that feels unattainable for you.

Focus on the Good

What you focus on expands.  Instead of focusing on what you lack in your life, begin working on highlighting what’s good.  It’s the most important www you’ll ever type:  what went well.  Share what’s working in your life, share what brings you joy.  Use your social media as your gratitude journal to highlight the favorite parts of your life.

Follow People Who Inspire You

Who are some people you admire who inspire personal growth for you?  Let others lift you up by following those who model a life of mindful joy and kindness so that you can do the same.

Validate to Make your Relationships GREAT!

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When you validate others, it means that you express and understanding of them and share how their thoughts and feelings make sense in the situation.  It does not mean that you agree with them, just that you understand.    Validation is one of the building blocks of engaging in effective relationships.  

Use the following guidelines to validate others.

Value Others
Seeking the inherent value in others is essential to validation. Adopt an attitude of acceptance toward others. Demonstrate your caring and concern, and let others know they are important to you.

Ask Questions
We ask questions to help clarify others’ experience. Ask specific questions about what others are feeling. Ask about thoughts and beliefs. Be genuinely curious about what is behind behaviors. Use questions to draw out others’ experience.

Listen and Reflect
Listen to others’ answers to your questions and reflect back the major themes. Invite others to confirm your understanding (or lack of understanding). Continue to question, listen, and reflect for clarity.

Identify with Others
Work to see the world through the eyes of others. How do relationships and the world make sense to them? Seek to understand others, identifying when you can and accepting differences when you cannot.

Discuss Emotions
Talk about others’ feelings and how they affect them from their perspective (not how it affects you). Acknowledging the impact of others’ experience on them demonstrates understanding.

Attend to Nonverbals
Notice others’ nonverbal communication to give you information about their experience. Do they look open or closed? Are they making eye contact? Read facial expressions and body language to identify feelings, and then check out your observations with others for accuracy.

You don't have to agree to validate! 

Some parents hesitate to validate because they don't want to condone or agree with an unhealthy teen behavior.  But, validation is actually about communicating that you understand WHY your teen FELT a certain way so that you can open the door for communication and problem-solve HOW to respond in a more healthy way to a difficult situation next time.

Validation is the #1 key to communication success!

Group Therapy: It's Not Just "Social Hour"

A few parents have remarked in the past that group wasn't the right level of support for their teen because they didn't believe that a "social hour" would ultimately help their depression or anxiety.

But here's the deal...

Support support has been scientifically proven to be the #1 indicator of overall wellbeing in humans. It leads to improved symptoms of anxiety and depression, better physical health (and actually higher incomes too!)

Here are three reasons that group WORKS and why it's a valuable layer of support for your teen:

Group helps your teen experience and understand that they are not alone.

Being in a group with others who have similar struggles normalizes this experience to help your teen understand that they are not weird, bad, wrong or different for having the feelings that they do. It allows them to feel heard and understood and this validation is the first step towards making any changes.

Group helps your teen learn to love and accept themselves for exactly who they are.

The experience of showing up week after week, being able to "take off the mask" they wear at school and allow themselves to be know for who they are at their core is a priceless experience that most don't get in life. It allows your teen to actually live the truth that they are accepted for exactly who they are which leads to courage, confidence and sky-rocketing self-esteem.

Group provides your teen with a built-in accountability system.

Group members support each other in making healthy decisions. I've had group members commit to quit smoking, end toxic relationships, finish school work and more... and they actually follow through because they have PEERS checking in on them on a weekly basis to hold them accountable and cheer them on.

There are MANY ways to find a social support system for your teen.

Whether you decide on group as a way to help your teen find support, or you seek connection for your teen elsewhere, our mission is to help your teen understand that they are not alone.

(The key is to find a social support that your teen is interested in so that they will actually invest in the process.)

As Montgomery County's Teen Support Center, we've collected a list of local resources for 7+ ways to increase your teen's social support system.

Click the image below to get your free printable resource guide for local teen activities.


How to Help Your Teen Break Free of Limiting Beliefs

Our beliefs influence our thoughts, words and actions, and then the way we interact with the world around us.  The way your teen thinks then impacts their words and behavior too.

Watch the video below to learn how your beliefs about your teen are actually a part of the story in how they see and define themselves.  You'll also learn how you can use this information to boost your teen's confidence and productivity.

Some examples of limiting or unhelpful beliefs include...

  • I am unlovable
  • I'm not good enough
  • I am unwanted or uncared for
  • I am helpless or powerless
  • I am weak
  • I am trapped

Here are 2 ways to help your teen break free of limiting beliefs:

Technique #1:  Observe and Dismantle

Your thoughts, words and actions are always a reflection of what you believe.  Pay close attention to what you think, say and do when you notice a difficult emotion start to arise.  Ask yourself, "What's going through my head?" then flip the unhelpful or limiting belief into something more helpful or empowering.

For example:  If you normally look at a pile of homework and say to yourself, "This is too much.  I'll never get through it."  Instead you might say, "OK, one thing at a time, I totally got this!"

Technique #2:  Bulldoze and Liquefy

When you can explain and rationalize all the reasons that your belief is NOT true (even when it's hard) you begin to create evidence for a new truth.  I encourage my teens to put pen to paper and write down all the evidence that a current belief is false.

For example:  If you normally believe that no one likes you, write down all the evidence that you can find that others appreciate you, want you around, or are kind to you.  Then, begin to make it a habit to find evidence of your new and empowering belief.

 Remember to "Act as if!"

The super important follow-up to both of these exercises is to begin taking action and behaving in ways that reinforce that this new belief is true.  Choose at least three new, healthy and empowering behaviors that will help you make lasting changes that match your new beliefs about yourself.