Updated: Apr 10
The teenage years can be a rollercoaster of emotions and challenges, which can take a toll on a young person's mental health and executive function skills.
As parents and caregivers, it is crucial to provide support and guidance to help teens navigate this crucial developmental stage.
In this article, we'll delve into the impact of stress on executive functions, provide practical strategies for managing stress, and discuss the importance of using healthy strategies and building coping skills for a balanced and fulfilling life.
Table of Contents
What are executive function skills?
Executive function skills act as the brain's command center, deftly coordinating essential cognitive abilities such as planning, organizing, time management, mental agility, self-discipline, and memory retention to navigate life's complexities and achieve desired outcomes.
A teenager, let's call her Elena, decides she wants to throw a surprise birthday party for her friend Sarah. Her executive function skills kick in, helping her plan the event by creating a guest list, choosing a venue, and deciding on a theme.
Organizing and time management come into play as she juggles schoolwork while coordinating party logistics, including sending out invites, ordering a cake, and purchasing decorations.
Elena's mental flexibility is tested when, just days before the party, the venue cancels her reservation. She quickly adapts and comes up with a new plan to host the celebration at her home. Meanwhile, her working memory keeps track of every little detail, ensuring nothing is forgotten in the midst of chaos.
On the day of the surprise party, Elena's self-control is crucial. She manages to keep the secret and act normal around Sarah, preventing her from suspecting anything. Ultimately, Elena's executive function skills make the surprise party a resounding success, much to the delight of Sarah and their friends.
How does stress impact EF skills?
But what if during the surprise party, Elena is unexpectedly approached by a group of friends who, inspired by her event-planning skills, ask her to organize an elaborate flash mob for a local charity event?
They give her only a week's notice and request a complex choreography involving participants of varying skill levels. With limited time, no prior experience in choreography, and the pressure to create a performance that will delight the audience and support the charity, Elena finds herself in an unpredictable situation that truly tests her executive function skills and resourcefulness.
Needless to say, Elena starts to feel very stressed...
Stress is an inevitable factor we all have to manage. Unfortunately, stress greatly impacts executive function skills! According to Dr. Adele Diamond:
“feeling stressed because you are feeling ashamed or embarrassed, or worried about doing well in the eyes of others, does not appear to be conducive to executive functions being at their best for most people most of the time.”
To which she concludes:
“If you want people to be able to problem solve, use self-control or logically reason, then you probably want to minimize their stress"
In the Journal of Attention Disorders, researchers note that "ADHD symptoms are associated with stress, especially for those adults who primarily have the inattentive presentation. Chronic stress makes symptoms worse, and even causes chemical and architectural changes to the brain, affecting its ability to function."
Given this relationship between ADHD symptoms and stress, it's crucial for individuals with ADHD to develop effective coping strategies and seek appropriate support in order to mitigate the potential negative impact on their brain function and overall well-being.
Which begs the question, how do we help Elena reduce stress so that her executive function skills can improve and even flourish? Before we dive into that, it's crucial you understand the difference between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
What are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems?
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are two special groups within your body, working together to keep you safe and healthy. They are part of a larger team called the autonomic nervous system, which takes care of things your body does automatically, without you even thinking about them.
Imagine the sympathetic nervous system as a group of heroes that spring into action when you're frightened or facing danger. This "fight or flight" group speeds up your heart and sends extra energy to your muscles, making you stronger and faster.
In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system is like a group of heroes that help you unwind and feel at ease after the danger has passed. This "rest and digest" group slows down your heart rate and helps your body break down food to store energy for later use. Together, both groups ensure you're prepared for anything that comes your way.
5 strategies to teach teens to cope with stress
Some of the best strategies for managing stress come from therapy, mindfulness, and setting limits on technology. If your student is experiencing high levels of stress that are debilitating, they should see a therapist as well as talk to a trusted adult.
At home, you can support your teen by teaching them coping skills for stress such as:
Breathing strategies- these are useful for self-regulation and stress reduction. It is amazing how much breathing can help reduce stress. Try these "Deep Breathing for the ADHD Brain" exercises
Yoga and movement- Yoga helps people get out of their heads and into their bodies. The breathing, stretching, and movement are supportive of switching the body from a sympathetic nervous system state to a parasympathetic nervous system state.
Exercise- when you sweat you release endorphins which can significantly decrease stress.
Brain dump- write down everything that is taking up space in your brain. Sometimes students like to write the things that are feeling really challenging in a larger font.
Take a screen break- put your phone or technology in another room and do a calming activity like reading or drawing.
Ready to manage your stress? Download our stress management workbook below 👇
Signs that teens need better coping skills
Does your teen come home irritated and (extra) snappy or have a change in normal behavior? Are they more forgetful than usual? Are they having trouble sleeping or sleeping more than usual? Do they procrastinate until the very last moment?
Believe it or not, those can be symptoms of a very stressed-out teen.
As the parent of a teenager, it is essential that you attend to their emotional and behavioral cues.
Students with ADHD feel overwhelmed easily.
I work with clients from a huge age range, from 3rd grade through college, and across the board I have observed that students with ADHD have a much lower tolerance for stress and are often chronically stressed out than their neurotypical peers.
Yet, many of them NEED stress in order to be productive which is a vicious cycle. It can look a lot like self-sabotage (and sometimes is) because logically, why would they stress themselves out intentionally?
This counterintuitive riddle stems from the fact that the ADHD brain thrives on adrenaline and cortisol in order to overcome procrastination.
Procrastination is often caused by a deficiency in dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter that is involved in motivation (more on that here if you are interested). There are a lot of neurobiological factors to consider and it's not as simple as "just relax!"
As a note, this need for adrenaline can be turned into a strength! People with ADHD are often quick on their feet and make incredible EMTs, ER doctors, and other professionals who need to act quickly. That's a great and healthy way to harness adrenaline!
To learn more about how young people with ADHD can find a suitable career, check out our article, "Finding Work That Works For You: A Career Guide For Young Adults with ADHD".
What are some ideas for teenage stress management?
For my master's thesis, I compared the stress levels of college-aged girls with and without ADHD.
Across four weeks, all of my participants rated their stress levels, selected a daily mindfulness practice, and answered question prompts to build metacognition and awareness about their habits.
The results? Students with ADHD were the most stressed out, had the lower scores on executive function screeners AND decreased their stress levels and improved their executive skills after utilizing a daily mindfulness practice.
To get these results, guide your student to make a list of daily mindfulness strategies they are willing to use. Here are some suggestions:
Spend time in nature, intentionally (read about how nature reduces stress)
Identify the feeling (name it to tame it!)
Creating a gratitude list
Take a cold shower
Take a break from screentime
Spend time with a friend
What is the link between trauma, stress and ADHD?
According to numerous studies and clinicians, "the main symptoms [of ADHD] include impulsivity, hyperactivity, distractibility, poor concentration, racing thoughts and emotional reactivity.
Interestingly, these symptoms can also be seen in chronic hyper-arousal after trauma" (Staniland, 2019).
Indeed, trauma and stress share a connection. Trauma encompasses distressing or unsettling experiences that often jeopardize an individual's security, welfare, or identity. In response to trauma, the body undergoes stress, which triggers reactions such as fight, flight, or freeze.
Prolonged stress due to unresolved trauma can create lasting impacts on a person's psychological and physical well-being, potentially resulting in conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and other health concerns linked to stress.
Does social media increase stress for teens?
More and more research is emerging about the effects of social media use on mental health. Jean Twenge is a professor at San Diego State who has studied these impacts and has concluded that heavy social media use can lead to depression.
Nearly every parent of teenagers would agree that raising teenagers is hard. But make no mistake about it, being a teenager is hard, too.
Students are bombarded with information every day, in school, on phones, and in the media. It is truly information overload and can be stressful.
Mental health is always more important than school success. If you notice your student's mental health declining, support them at home with therapy or by consulting with their doctor or psychiatrist about other, research-based treatment options such as medication.
What is self-talk and how does it help to manage stress?
Your child's inner dialogue is extremely important. You can often get a sense of what is going on internally (not always!) by the comments they make.
For example, a student might be stressed about earning better grades. When they receive a lower grade than expected on an assignment, they may say, "I suck at everything!" or "I hate myself!" or "why can't I do (fill in the blank) like everyone else?!"
Automatic hegative thoughts (ANTs) are an aspect of mental health that often goes unnoticed unless a student is in therapy. These can be debilitating and cause stress and elevated emotions. To learn more about the emotional world of teens with ADHD, check out our article, "6 Signs Your Child Has Rejection-Sensitive Dysphoria (And How To Support)."
Positive self-talk can help students work through mental roadblocks. Often students with ADHD have been criticized for a large part of their life because their brains work differently, they struggle to regulate themselves, and are often forgetful.
Positive affirmations are a great way to support positive coping skills and positive self-talk. This can help reframe and rewire the brain to be more positive.
Here are 5 positive affirmations you can share with your child to reframe stressful situations:
"I have the power to overcome challenges and grow stronger from them."
"I will remember to breathe deeply and trust in my ability to handle any situation."
"It's okay for me to feel stressed; I know I am capable of finding solutions."
"I believe in myself and my ability to navigate through difficult times."
"I am resilient, and every challenge I face helps me learn and become a better version of myself."
Emotional Dysregulation and Stress
Regulating emotions can be challenging for students with ADHD but it can be exacerbated when students are stressed out. Managing big emotions, especially feelings of anxiety, can be extra challenging. If students have unhealthy or poor coping skills, this emotional overwhelm can compound and potentially impact overall health. For more on emotional control, check out our article, "The Definitive Guide To Emotional Control (2023)".
Identify the stressors and adjust
Sometimes it is clear what is the main cause of stress and other times it is not as clear. The pressures of school, homework, and social interaction are especially demanding in the age of social media. If the stressor is related to homework try these positive strategies (these are key EF strategies for a reason!):
Using the Pomodoro technique (this is a great online resource)
Use a calendar to plan out big assignments (Google Calendar is helpful)
If the stressor is related to taking tests or test prep, try these:
Writing the test date on a calendar or on a big whiteboard
Review the study guide at least four days in advance
Highlight what you know and what you don't know in two different colors
Consider testing accommodations- let us know in the comments if you want an article on this!
Eat a snack before the test
Brain dump - study and review the most challenging material immediately before and once you get the test, write down everything before it leaves your memory!
What can you do as a parent to help your student reduce stress?
Empathy is the biggest thing I wish parents would have for their students with ADHD or executive dysfunction. Having ADHD is hard and the demands of school are enormous. Having empathy for your child and helping them manage stressful situations with kindness will make a huge difference.
Consider reflecting on how you might be contributing to their stress by asking your student some of these questions:
How can I best support you this week?
What is a relaxing activity we can do this weekend?
Is there anything we can change about your environment that would help you focus?
How can we restructure the family schedule to make time for something you want to do?
It is important to remember that the adolescent brain is still learning how to cope with stress. As a parent, you want to model healthy coping skills for teens while validating their feelings.
Talk to your child about how you manage stress and share with them some of the challenges you have had to overcome. How do you find balance and well-being?
These are such important skills to develop especially before college! I know they may seem like simple things but once students begin to implement these new coping strategies, they will be better able to cope with stress and increase feelings of resilience.
If you are wondering what happened to Elena, fret not. After careful consideration, she decided to prioritize her well-being and say no to organizing the flash mob for the charity event. She realized that taking on such a demanding task on short notice would cause unnecessary stress.
By setting boundaries and making a conscious choice to reduce her stress, Elena successfully managed her executive function skills and maintained a healthy balance in her life.
Stress greatly impacts executive functioning skills, so if you want to support your student while developing those essential skills, focus on stress reduction!
Some big categories to emphasize are movement (yoga, exercise, etc), mindfulness (journaling, breath work, meditation, gratitude), and therapy.
Students need a toolbox of various positive coping strategies, skills and strategies which they can learn from you as a parent, us as coaches, or therapists.
If your child struggles with feeling anxious about school or is constantly overwhelmed, learning how to reduce stress while also learning how to improve executive function skills will be beneficial.
If this resonated with you, you can book a free inquiry call to see if our services can support your child and their success. We would love to help!
Resources to try out
About the author
Ella Holton-McCoy is an Executive Function Coach and Educational Therapist at EF Specialists. She is a firm believer that executive functioning skills are the key to success in education as well as in life. Her specialty is working with college-aged students who are interested in exploring how mindfulness can reduce stress and improve their executive functioning. In her free time, she enjoys playing frisbee golf, swimming, reading, and spending time with her family.