Stress and insecurity seem like universal aspects of the adolescent experience. More than 1 in 3 high school students had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, a 40 percent increase since 2009. In 2019, approximately 1 in 6 youth reported making a suicide plan in the past year, a 44% increase since 2009. And studies show that while a large percentage of teenagers face high stress on a daily basis, rates of coping skills are weak.

But researchers from University of Texas at Austin have identified ways to help young teenagers shore up resiliency and develop coping skills to manage these difficult years. David S. Yeager, an assistant professor of psychology, has published a surprisingly effective technique in the journal Psychological Science. 

The Method

At the beginning of the school year, students took part in a reading and writing exercise designed to help them manage tension. 

First, students read a short, engaging article about brain science, describing how personality can change over time. The article’s tone was accessible and chatty, presenting novel information about how personality can evolve.

Then they read personal accounts written by high school seniors which detailed times they faced peer conflicts and the ways they were eventually able to shrug things off and move on. “When I was a freshman,” one senior wrote, “I felt left out when everyone got invited to one of my friend’s houses and I didn’t. It’s like ... they forgot about me. Or even worse that they thought about me but didn’t think I was cool enough to get invited.” Then, the writer showed closure, continuing, “No matter how much it hurt, it wasn’t going to last forever. ... They might even realize how much pain they were causing others and decide to change.” The writer detailed making friends outside of school, becoming involved in clubs and sports and, in time, “things definitely improved.”

Finally, the young students were asked to reflect on a time when they themselves felt rejected. Then they were given a writing assignment: “Looking back, what advice about change would you pass on to younger students? Write encouraging advice to younger students."

The Results

Dr. Yeager and his colleagues have so far tried this intervention in five schools. In one study, 300 high school freshmen used this same method; nine months later, the prevalence of depression they reported was 40 percent less than in a control group. Another study compared 205 ninth graders in one school, half of whom received the intervention. On “stressful days” (as reported by the students in journals they kept during the study), the intervention students showed a 10 percent decrease in cortisol and said they could manage the stresses. In contrast, the control group showed an 18 percent increase in cortisol on stressful days and said they “couldn’t handle” the stress.

Dr. Yeager believes part of the reason this technique works is the teenagers learned coping skills from peers in a lecture-free zone. “The more adults tell kids how to deal with their social life, the less kids want to do it that way,” he said. “We’re asking kids to persuade other kids,” he added. “That feels respectful to them, and motivating. It’s a chance to matter. As these freshmen reflect on how they coped in middle school, the exercise forces them to put things in perspective.”

Our Takeaway

Poor mental health in adolescence can impact many areas of a teen’s life. Youth with poor mental health may struggle with school and grades, decision making, and their health. With the right support though, teens can develop coping skills that improve their teenage years and may serve them for life. How can this technique be applied to help more young people, especially for at risk teens?

Source: Yeager DS, Lee HY, Jamieson JP. How to Improve Adolescent Stress Responses: Insights From Integrating Implicit Theories of Personality and Biopsychosocial Models. Psychological Science. 2016;27(8):1078-1091. doi:10.1177/0956797616649604