No doubt about it, our youth today are feeling the STRESS! A study by the American Psychological Association found that one in five youth reported they worry “a great deal or a lot”, and at least 30 percent of youth reported experiencing headaches due to stress and worry. The same report also found an even more somber statistic: parents frequently underestimate the amount of stress that their children are going through.

So, what do youth stress out about the most? A study by the Center for Adolescent Health in Baltimore reported that youth felt schoolwork and parents caused the most worry and stress in their lives.

People scolding teen girl under stress

Parents, I doubt that any of you woke up this morning and thought, “Hm, what can I do to stress out my child today?” So, if that’s the case, why are you the second leading cause of stress as reported by youth?


In my 20+ years’ experience working with youth, I have encountered certain phrases parents often use that can be problematic. Most of these phrases are well-intended, and parents often mean them to be encouraging! However, the message is easy to misinterpret, and this often leads to youth feeling invalidated instead of encouraged.

Here are some common phrases I’ve gathered over the years, and some advice on how to truly get your message across in a more supportive way.


AVOID: “We know you’re capable of more, but you aren’t working to your potential!”

We’re starting big with one of the most common offenders! Parents will often use this phrase when grades start to slip, and they mean it to be motivational. However, the word “but” in a sentence works to psychologically negate whatever comes before it. Thus, children don’t hear that you believe they are capable; they hear they aren’t enough.

Hearing this, they feel like there is something wrong with them. Things like stress, trauma, anxiety, and depression affect our ability to work to our potential. Instead of telling them they are capable when they might not feel like they are, try to find out what’s going on!

SAY THIS INSTEAD: “I know you’re usually capable of this. Is there something going on that is keeping you from doing it?”

AVOID: “Wait until you’re older and find out what REAL problems are!”

As adults, we often forget how big problems felt when we were kids. Things like lost toys and tears over first crushes seem small compared to paying bills and balancing work/home commitments. However, youth don’t have our perspective. To them, those “small” problems may be the very biggest ones they’ve ever encountered! Telling them their problems aren’t real invalidates their experience. The more a child feels invalidated, the less likely they will be to open up to you.

SAY THIS INSTEAD: “That sounds really rough! Why don’t you tell me more about it?”

AVOID: “You’ll be fine!” or “It’s not a big deal!”

Just like the last point, this is another form of invalidation. Children and teens are often tethered to the “here and now”. It can be hard to access future thinking when everything NOW feels tough! It’s understandable that we would want our children to be okay, and we need to remember that it’s okay to NOT be okay. Without acknowledging the stress they are going through now, we send the message that it’s more important to be “fine” than to experience genuine emotion. Instead, we as adults should be the ones to help youth express and regulate their emotions, including stress.

SAY THIS INSTEAD: “I imagine that’s really hard to go through! How can I support you right now?”

AVOID: “I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.”

This is another big one that needs to be talked about. Parents, chances are you know deep inside just how much this one stings. It might even be why you like to use it, because it drives the point home. However, I can’t count the number of times a child I’m working with has said, “Don’t tell my parents! I don’t want to disappoint them!”

Honest question: Is it worth risking open and honest communication with your child just so you can drive a point home? You can still communicate your emotions to your child in a way that invites them to share with you.

SAY THIS INSTEAD: “Yes, I’m upset, and that doesn’t change that I love you and want to help you make good choices. Is it okay if I share why I’m upset so you can understand?”

Parents, your job is a tough one, no doubt! If you are needing more support in learning how to communicate effectively with your child or teen, we at Heartland Therapy Connection are here for you! Contact us today at (816) 287-0252 to set up an appointment with one of our therapists. We look forward to supporting you!

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