Positive Emotions: Helping a Teen with LD Cope Better with Stress

With mounds of homework, looming SAT tests, and worries about the future – being a teen in today’s world can be incredibly stressful. Add a learning disability (LD) to the mix, and you’ve no doubt witnessed your fair share of short fuses. You can’t eliminate stress altogether for your teen – nor would you want to. But when stress is taking too high a toll, what’s the answer?

A growing body of research shows that instilling positive emotions, such as gratitude, hope, awe, and compassion, can make a big difference. Not only can it counteract the fight-or-flight stress response and improve well being, but it may also enhance the goals of traditional classroom learning.

How Positive Emotions Help with Stress

How does this all work? In lots of ways, says Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, and sociologist and happiness expert at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

“When we teach our kids skills like compassion, they become more resilient, better problem-solvers, and more able to approach learning in a way that they can get the most out of it,” she says.

Judith T. Moskowitz, Ph.D., M.P.H. agrees. Negative emotions are a normal and expected response to stress, says Moskowitz, associate professor in residence at the University of California, San Francisco’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. In fact, they evolved for good reason, helping us to avoid risks and rapidly respond to threats in a focused way.

“But positive emotions – even short-lived ones – can broaden that focus, helping you think of other solutions to problems and ultimately increase lasting resources for coping with stress,” she says.

For one, people who show positive emotions, even in the midst of crisis, tend to elicit more social support. These positive emotions may help create an upward spiral of increasing coping resources, success, and fulfillment – not to mention health and longevity – in much the same way pessimism and depression can create a self-reinforcing downward spiral.

Ways to Promote Positive Emotions in Teens

So how can you help? How can you generate more positive emotions in the midst of so much stress and teen angst? First of all, says Carter, walk the talk. “Model what it takes to lead a happy life before you try to raise a happy kid.” Also, don’t overlook the obvious, she says, things like exercise, down time, and sleep. “If your teen isn’t getting 9.25 or 9.5 hours of sleep, start there.”

Moskowitz helped develop a pilot program for teens, called Coping and Emotional Development for Adolescents to Reduce Stress (CEDARS), in which she and colleagues tested a “buffet” of skills, tools, and practices for eliciting positive emotions. “Different skills appear to work better for different people,” she says, adding that a variety of learning styles may have something to do with this. The trick is to build a set of skills, tools, and practices that work best for you and your teen. If one technique loses it luster, try another.

Moskowitz adds one other caution: This is not a quick fix, magical package, or Pollyanna pie in the sky. “It’s not about denying stress or eliminating negative emotions. It’s about changing the way you are in the world to make room for positive emotions alongside them.”

Here are a few techniques Carter and Moskowitz recommend for teens. You can start by modeling some of these techniques yourself.

1. Notice and celebrate positive events. Noticing good – even little – things can have an impact, says Moskowitz. The key is to notice it when it’s happening – a hug from a friend, a beautiful sunset, finishing homework. Celebrating a touchdown, great performance, or improved grades with someone else increases the effect, she says. The family dinner is a tried-and-true place to recount the day’s best happenings. And, when used judiciously, sharing with social media such as Facebook or Twitter can also be helpful, says Moskowitz. It’s a way to celebrate and savor good things with others, even when you’re alone.

2. Consciously teach and practice gratitude. There are lots of theories about why gratitude boosts happiness, says Carter. For one, it’s a social emotion that ties us to others. And it changes what we’re paying attention to. Boosting it can be a little trickier during the teen years when entitlement can run rampant. Studies suggest, however, that keeping a gratitude journal – the practice of writing down what you’re thankful for – is a great way to promote greater satisfaction, better sleep quality, and fewer physical symptoms in students, says Moskowitz.

3. Be mindful. A growing body of research also shows the positive emotional benefits of mindfulness. “This is nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment – not rehashing the past or rehearsing the future,” says Moskowitz. Teens can start by sitting quietly and focusing on their breath for 5 to 10 minutes each day. Not a chance your teen will try it? Then, see if it makes a difference for you. There’s bound to be a ripple effect.

4. Foster kindness. Teens who show a giving spirit by consistently volunteering, for example, are not only at reduced risk for stress, says Carter, but also for risky behaviors such as substance abuse, smoking, and unprotected sex. Why are volunteering and even doing chores so helpful? “They make kids feel like they’re a part of something larger than themselves, which is really important in adolescence,” says Carter. Interestingly, she says, some research shows that teens with more chores actually feel less stressed than their more pampered peers.

5. Use positive reappraisal. Positive reinterpretation of an event is the lemonade-out-of-lemons idea, but it requires some finesse on the part of parents. Start small. “And don’t ‘run over’ your kid’s negative emotions,” says Moskowitz. “You don’t want to say in the same breath, ‘Sorry you didn’t make the soccer team, but now you’ll have more time to do your math homework’!” Let the negative emotion run its course, and then do some gentle coaching from the sidelines, gradually suggesting ways something good might materialize. Soon, your teen may take over with this technique.

6. Focus on personal strengths. Recognizing your unique strengths or skills can help you feel good about yourself and cope better with stress, says Moskowitz. And, that’s a particularly helpful skill for kids with LD. You’re-so-awesome kinds of praise, however, can feel less authentic. Kids will see right though it. Instead, provide some evidence and be specific when praising teens, says Moskowitz. Say something like: “That was a really nice thing you did for her – I can see you’re a really good friend.” Encourage the use of strengths in new ways – in school and with extracurricular activities, friends, and family. Your teen can learn more about his or her signature strengths by answering questionnaires online.

7. Promote growth mindsets. Knowing that their brains work differently than everyone else’s, kids with learning disabilities may have fixed mindsets about what they’re able to accomplish, says Carter. They may think they can’t improve. “We need to teach them that their brains can still grow – that they will improve if they work hard. It’s really about helping them fulfill their potential, rather than helping them be superstars in every area.” How can you promote a growth, rather than fixed, mindset? Praise the process, strategies, and effort, rather than the end result, says Carter. Ask questions like, “What strategy did you use to get there?” Comment on the steps your teen took to make improvement. Also celebrate mistakes and failure. Emphasize that sometimes the only way to learn is to make a mistake, adds Carter.

8. Set attainable goals. Advise your teen to set goals that are not too easy and not too hard. “They should be challenging enough to get a feeling of success,” says Moskowitz. “You need to hit the sweet spot.” And, when you cross something off a list, it feels good.

9. Envision the future. It also helps to imagine possibilities without worrying about creating a goal-setting “roadmap.” You might have your teen use a journal to visualize where he or she wants to be in ten years. This is a way to imagine your best possible self, which can make you happier, says Carter. Again, this is not about being realistic or setting goals, she adds. Instead, have your son or daughter describe the qualities of that person. Your teen might ask himself or herself questions like these to better see who this person might be: Is it someone with integrity? Someone who’s quiet and content? Who are your friends? What is your career? What are your hobbies?

How to Instill Happiness Habits

Learning to be happier is not unlike making other changes. It takes practice. “The idea is to learn and practice these skills, and make them habits so they’ll more easily work once you encounter extra stress, says Moskowitz.

Have your teen start very small, advises Carter. “It’s much better to make small incremental progress and end up with a new solidly established habit in a year than to have a great week and then a spectacular failure.” After a success, no matter how small, celebrate with a woohoo! “There has to be a positive emotion associated with it, or your brain doesn’t want to lay that track down as a habit.”

The overall message to send to teens with LD? Tell them you trust they’ll fulfill their potential if they learn the skills it takes to be happy in life. Carter advises encouraging your teen with something like this: “Although school and academic success are important, what’s really important to me is that you learn who you are and what you want in life and what it will take for you to lead a happy life. If you accomplish those tasks, you will be successful.”

Additional Resources
Raising Happiness (The Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley)
Authentic Happiness: Strengths Questionnaires (University of Pennsylvania)

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Article written by Annie Stuart – From National Center for Learning Disabilities.  Annie Stuart is a freelance writer and editor with nearly 25 years of experience. She specializes in consumer health, parenting, and learning disabilities, among other areas.

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