When a Teenager’s Coping Mechanism Is SpongeBob. By Lisa Damour Feb. 2017. The New York Times.
Parents are often surprised to find that, even late into high school, teenagers return to the books, movies and TV shows they enjoyed when they were younger. When I ask adolescents to share how they like to recharge when feeling stressed, they consistently volunteer that they reread juvenile books like Percy Jackson, rewatch their favorite Disney movies, or mine Netflix for goofy shows like “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
As Samantha Eisner, a 15-year-old student at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, explained, childhood pleasures offer comfort because “they take you back to the days when the biggest problem you had was choosing what crayon to color your dress in your third grade self-portrait.”
When teenagers aren’t revisiting their early days, they sometimes turn to simple or repetitive activities to escape the ever-rising and shifting expectations that come with adolescence. In their efforts to gain a sense or mastery and control, some teenagers will go outside to drop in dozens of layups while others will rearrange their closets for the umpteenth time. “When I have really had it,” one adolescent told me, “I rip up a piece of paper and tape it back together again.”
Being a teenager isn’t easy. Thanks to puberty, neurological and hormonal developments introduce teenagers to an era of emotional fragility so it’s no surprise that adolescents find handy, if sometimes quirky, ways to reset when they are feeling overwhelmed.
Should parents stand back and admire their teenagers’ inventive coping styles or should they step in with support and guidance? The answer, according to experts, depends on how much control the teenagers have over the source of their stress.
When teenagers can actually do something about the challenges they face, new research confirms what common sense suggests: That adolescents feel better if they face their problems head-on. One recent study found that teenagers who engage in approach coping – working to solve their problems, or actively addressing their emotions about the challenges they face – feel more satisfied with their lives than teenagers who rely on avoidance coping strategies such as ignoring or simply worrying about their problems.
According to Michael Lyons, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia, “approach coping is about trying to change the stressor itself.” For example, a teenager in a fight with a friend might talk with the peer about the conflict or “look to others to find a different way to make sense of the situation.” By contrast, Dr. Lyons notes that teenagers who rely on avoidance coping might instead dodge the friend, or “engage in a negative way, such as gossiping about the peer or ruminating about the problem.”
But what about when teenagers face stressors that defy straightforward solutions, such as unrelenting school or social pressures? In that case, looking at old photos or playing an easy video game might be just what the doctor ordered.