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

special-needs-stories-spell-stressWith 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 wellbeing, but it may also enhance the goals of traditional classroom learning.[1]

How Positive Emotions Help With StressHow does this all work? In lots of ways, says Christine Carter, PhD, 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, PhD, MPH 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.[2] 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.[3],[4]

Ways to Promote Positive Emotions in TeensSo 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.”

Continue to the next page for nine techniques recommended for teens.
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