Mastering Teenage Stress

Every year, the American Psychological Association takes our emotional temperature and reports the results in a research study titled, “Stress in America.” This year, for the first time, children were included in the survey and asked about their stress levels. The conclusion: Not only are our kids feeling more stressed, but unfortunately, parents aren’t aware of the stress their children are experiencing.

“What we’re seeing with stress is in line with existing research about parents’ perception of their kids’ engagement in risky behaviors,” says Psychologist Katherine C. Nordal, the APA’s executive director for professional practice.

“Parents often under-report drug use, depression and sexual activity in their children. Now it appears the same may be true for stress,” Nordal warns.

The APA study reveals that one-third of the 1,206 children (ages 8 to 17) surveyed reported feeling more stress than they had a year ago. Nearly half the survey participants said they worry about school, although only a third of their parents thought school was a problem for their kids. Another 30% of children surveyed said they worry about family finances, while just 18% of parents think money issues add to their kids’ list of stressors. Some 29% of teens reported feeling anxious about what comes after high school, getting into a good college or finding work, but only 5% of parents of teenagers think the future causes their children to feel stressed out. Sadly, parents seem to be out of touch with their children’s stress levels and what is causing them stress.

Stress is quite literally making children sick in ways that haven’t registered with their parents. The APA study shows that anxiety and depression are on the rise. There is a sense of not having the resources to cope with these stressful demands and concern about the consequences of a teenager’s mental, emotional and physical health. The predominant emotion at issue is anxiety. Among 13- to 17-year-olds, school is by far the most commonly mentioned source of anxiety. For 18- to 24-year-olds, it’s jobs and financial matters. In fact, 85% of young people said they felt stress at least sometimes.

Getting to the Root

Looking first at the causes of stress, it boils down to teenagers feeling like they are not able to cope with the demands being placed upon them. Girls and young women are less likely to feel safe in their neighborhoods or schools and often fear being attacked. Additional causes of teenage stress include social media, technology, lack of self-esteem, communication issues, divorce and competitive environments. The most common symptoms of teenage stress include irritability, headaches, nausea, fatigue, increased heart rate and a pessimistic outlook.

Stress Outcomes

When stress overloads a teen’s life, they can feel it both physically and emotionally. The neurotransmitters in their brain often begin to fail. The first one to shut down is their body clock, which usually causes sleeplessness. The second neurotransmitter affects energy levels, reducing motivation to get things done. The final neurotransmitter, located in the pleasure center of the brain, can trigger sadness and depression. As these neurotransmitters shut down, effectively dealing with stressful situations becomes increasingly difficult.

Spotting & Stopping Stress

As adults and parents, we should consider whether we are being good role models for our children. Taking positive actions to cope with our own stressors is one way to teach teens healthy habits to handle difficult emotions and situations. Sadly, many adults also struggle with overcoming stress, according to a recent study finding 47% of adults report remaining awake at night; 45% report irritability or anger; 43% report fatigue; 40% report lack of interest, motivation or energy; 34% report headaches; 34% report feeling depressed or sad; 32% report feeling as though they could cry; and 27% report upset stomach or indigestion as a result of stress. Being more aware of our own stress will enable us to help our teens better handle theirs.

So, what is a parent to do? First, consider the three major aspects of teenage stress: causes, warning signs and coping skills.

1. Causes of teen stress include the following:

  • Moving to a new home and/or school
  • Dating
  • Tests and homework
  • Too-high expectations
  • Sports and other extracurricular activities
  • Employment
  • Social awkwardness
  • Too much to do
  • Too fast or slow physical development
  • Family problems, including abuse and alcohol
  • Owning a car
  • Relationships with friends
  • Having a boyfriend or a girlfriend
  • Not achieving something really wanted
  • Money problems.

2. Warning signs of stress include the following:

  • Constant fatigue: Prolonged stress can wear a teen out and make them feel tired all the time.
  • Persistent discomfort: Prolonged stress can actually cause pain, since both mind and body register stress.
  • Burnout: Prolonged stress can change what a teen cares about and leave them unmotivated.
  • Breakdown: Prolonged stress can be debilitating and cause depression.

3. Coping skills are essential to helping your teens manage stress.

The American Psychological Association offers tips and suggestions for developing awareness of teenage stressors and helping teens deal with stress in a constructive manner. For example, notice when your kids are most likely to talk—at bedtime, before dinner and in the car—and be fully available to just listen. When your children open up about their concerns, stop whatever you are doing and pay attention. Express interest in what they are saying without being intrusive, and listen to their point of view, even if it’s difficult to hear. Let them finish what they’re saying before responding, and to ensure you understand them correctly, repeat what you heard them say.

Realize your children may test you by telling you a little about what is bothering them. Listening carefully and encouraging them to talk may coax them to share the whole story. Shielding children from possible causes of stress or anxiety, such as unemployment, a parent’s marital problems or an illness in the family, often worsen a child’s anxiety, because children commonly assume the worst-case scenario about the unknown. Instead, help children understand the situation by providing age-appropriate information.

Interesting enough, over 50% of teens polled in a survey said, “chilling out with their friends” was the surest way to reduce stress. Another positive approach to reducing teen stress is to help build their self-esteem and introduce relaxation and meditation techniques, which have been documented to reduce stress and improve behavior. In today’s changing times, it is imperative for parents to be compassionate and sensitive to the daily challenges their teenagers face and prepare them to effectively deal with whatever life throws their way.

Jeffery Gero, PhD, is a pioneer in the field of stress management, a former director of the Health Awareness Institute and the Stress Management Institute of California and creator of the Success of Stress System. Having worked with organizations and individuals to overcome stress for over 30 years, Dr. Gero delivered the first stress management program for the California Department of Corrections at San Quentin Prison, assisted the Los Angeles Times with the stress surrounding the 1984 Olympics and helped JPL (NASA) deal with the stress caused by the Mars Project. A founder of LEAP, which helps teenagers master stress, Dr. Gero coaches athletes and individuals to enhance their performance. He can be reached at 818.879.1373.