Telling Teenagers That People Change Can Reduce Stress

What should you do if your teenage daughter becomes upset because she tangled with a respected teacher? Or was teased by the girls in her gym class? Or perhaps your son spectacularly bombed his chemistry test? Reminding teenagers that they and their peers are still growing and changing might be surprisingly helpful.

Psychologists have long known that personality develops and matures throughout adolescence, and research finds that teenagers feel less anxious when we point this out. Take, for example, a new study on adolescent stress led by psychologist David Yeager.

Two groups of adolescents were asked to complete a task that almost anyone would find socially stressful: give a five-minute speech on high school popularity to an unfamiliar audience of teenagers. To make the situation even more awkward, the teenagers in the audience were told to sigh rudely, frown, and cross their arms as they listened.

One group of presenters was told that personality develops and matures over time; the other group was told nothing about personality.

Remarkably, the study found that the teenagers who had learned about the flexibility of personality traits weren’t unduly stressed by their hostile audience. In contrast, stress levels soared in the adolescents who had not received the lesson on the plasticity of personal traits. (In case you’re wondering, experts generally agree that personality becomes quite stable by age 30.)

In order to confirm that these results translated to real life, the research team brought a modified version of the experiment to school.

A key factor appears to be the drop in psychological stress, which, as we’d expect, improves concentration.

For several days in a row, ninth graders took time out of their algebra class to offer up saliva samples (which can be used to detect stress hormone levels) and diary accounts of every negative event that occurred that day. Again, the researchers found that the teenagers who received the lesson that people grow and change were less bothered by daily stressors than their unenlightened peers.

How do we account for the stress-busting power of such a simple intervention? There are a couple of explanations to consider. As a psychologist in my third decade of practice, I’ve learned that shame and helplessness are particularly excruciating emotions. Perhaps reminding teenagers that they are still very much under construction— that they can develop new qualities and tweak old ones—helps defuse both of these painful feelings.

Even the most insightful adolescents can have difficulty maintaining perspective on bad days. Indeed, most parents have struggled to support a teenager who is collapsing under the certainty that a short-lived crisis guarantees a future of misery. This new study suggests that at these moments, parents can help by saying, “You might have blown it today; that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from your mistake and make a change tomorrow,” or “Yes, those kids are acting like jerks—they’re probably feeling insecure about something and might get to a better place in time.”

It’s worth noting that the research team also tracked the grades of the adolescents participating in the study. After accounting for where students stood academically when the research started, they found that seven months later, the teenagers who learned that people can change had higher grade point averages than the students who didn’t receive that lesson.

Why would learning that people can change boost a teenager’s grades? A key factor appears to be the drop in psychological stress, which, as we’d expect, improves concentration. Indeed, the research team asked the teenagers to perform an intellectual task (counting down from 996 in steps of seven) immediately after they presented to the unfriendly audience. They found that the adolescents who held a flexible view of personality outperformed the teenagers who didn’t.

Put another way, a run-in with a buddy at lunch might distract a student all afternoon if he’s worried that the friendship is doomed. But a student who feels confident that he and his friend have room to grow might set the squabble aside until it can be resolved after school.

So much of what stresses our teenagers cannot be controlled. Daily hassles are here to stay—as are hard classes, social friction, and heavy homework loads. When adolescents can’t avoid or alter the things that bother them, they may find it helpful to know that they, and their peers, can still change for the better.

Lisa Damour is the author of the New York Times bestseller Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood, writes a monthly online Adolescence column for the New York Times, and is a regular contributor at CBS News. Follow her on Twitter @LDamour.