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Parents, counselors discuss teen stress at forum

Adolescent Counseling Services hosts intimate discussion at Cubberley Community Center

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Many Palo Alto parents know that stress is part of their teens' lives, but spotting the difference between normal teen stress and potentially troubling behavior can be a challenge, according to parents who attended an intimate gathering with mental-health experts Tuesday night at Cubberley Community Center.

Sponsored by the nonprofit Adolescent Counseling Services, the event was part of a series of community forums aimed to educate parents and community members about how to better understand and care for teenagers. Two counselors from Adolescent Counseling Services and two from Community Health Awareness Council in Mountain View spoke.

The phrase "stressed-out" in Palo Alto is a taboo term, said Roni Gillenson, Adolescent Counseling Services on-campus counseling director. With the competition intense among peers, students may not even know they are anxious or may not wish to admit it since they feel the expectations of a high-performing culture, she said.

Gillenson advised parents with children who don't display signs of stress to not ask them directly of possible anxieties, which may lead to them becoming quiet, but to pose questions concerning their well-being, such as the amount of sleep they've been getting or how much time they've been spending with friends.

Counselor Ursula Vogelsang of Community Health Awareness Council encouraged parents to model healthy friendships in their own lives for their children to emulate.

Parents can also describe their own stresses to their children, which puts a name to their experience, Gillenson said. This enables teens to recognize their own stress and in turn cope with it by using strategies demonstrated by their parents.

Although some teens may not show stress, there are some who do. Warning signs may include obsession, irritability, procrastination or lack of response, changes in eating habits, rebellious behavior and secretiveness.

Vogelsang named secretiveness, what she defined as a complete loss of interaction between parent and teen, as the most dangerous.

"When they stop talking and sharing things about themselves or they don't look you in the eyes, then something's going on," Vogelsang said.

"How do you discern between secrecy and a desire for more privacy, which is normal for teenagers?" a parent asked.

Vogelsang clarified that privacy comes in short bouts whereas secrecy entails a constant feeling of disconnection between parent and teen.

"When teens have built a wall, then do quick interactions with them just to acknowledge that you are in the same family, under the same roof, breathing the same air," said Enrique Flores, Adolescent Counseling Services adolescent substance-abuse-treatment program director.

Adolescent boys respond differently than girls, and the best approach with the former would be to engage in an activity such as playing ball or listening to music when talking to them about stress, he said.

Presenting a "friendly demeanor" during parents' daily check-ins rather than approaching teens as a "punitive correction officer" will help avoid an awkward conversation, Flores said.

Opening up and maintaining channels of communication with teens about their emotional lives is key in preventing a stress breakdown, the counselors said.

Channels of communication with individuals outside of the home are also healthy, because family may carry hurtful associations, Flores said. It may be easier for the teen to vent feelings to a friend.

The notion of an outside friend was of concern to one parent at the discussion, who asked how one can assess whether an outside relationship is a healthy one.

Vogelsang advised parents to size up the kind of relationship the teen has with the friend by approaching the task positively and asking the teen what they like about the friend. After gaining general information, Vogelsang recommended the parent ask themselves whether the relationship is really dangerous to their teen or only an experiment outside of the norm. The parent can then decide whether it is appropriate to end the friendship.

However, the teen's relationship with his or her parent should be the priority, Flores said.

"If you still have that influence in your teen's life, use that window of opportunity," he said.

He concluded that parents should create boundaries and spend time with their kids through small excursions or activities on a weekly basis.

"Even if they are not excited about it -- when they leave the nest, they might miss these moments."

Editor's note: To watch 15 minutes of uncut footage from the forum, go to youtube.com/paweekly.

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