Do you romanticize your teen years with memories of hanging out with friends, dancing at homecoming and participating on a winning sports team? Or do you remember the gory details of every breakup, every failed test and every bad hair day? Whether your memory is reality or revisionism, somewhere you must remember the feeling of stress. Your teens are now confronting this stress.
“My daughter was just finishing her sophomore year of high school and final exams were just around the corner,” says Jane Rice of New Hampshire. “At the same time, she insisted on completing her driving school classes while participating in track that spring. One slight from her friend was enough to put her over the edge. It was not hard to diagnose my daughter’s stress,” says Jane, “but alleviating it was another matter all together.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics defines stress for teenagers as, “the uncomfortable feeling you get when you’re worried, scared, angry, frustrated or overwhelmed. It is caused by emotions but it affects your mood and body.” Stress is the body’s way of protecting itself from emotional and physical pressure, and danger.
Dr. Kimberly Bell, clinical psychologist at Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development in Ohio, believes that “our memory of our teenage years may seem less stressful in retrospect. As adults, we face life with more emotional resources. Teenagers are confronted with many challenges that push the limits of their cognitive and psychological strengths. Stress is a personal and subjective experience.” Limited stress can be positive, motivating a person to do well; but too much stress can be debilitating to one’s body and mind. Why are teenagers are stressed, how do parents know when the stress level is too high, and what can parents do to guide their teenagers who are stressed?
Teens Respond to Challenges
Every teen responds differently to stress. If you have more than one child, you probably witness this daily. Some teens seem to do it all: they work hard in school, volunteer, and participate in extracurricular activities. Even as you marvel at their capacity to keep so many balls in the air, you also know that they can feel overwhelmed. Sometimes they are simply stressed out. Esme, a mature and independent 14-year-old from Ohio, has learned to both recognize and alleviate her own stress. “Over the years,” she says, “I have learned that when I start to feel mad and frustrated, I am stressed out.” She attributes this to stressful social situations and excessive schoolwork, or simply too much going on in her life. “I’ve learned to stop what I’m doing, and do some sort or exercise. Practicing yoga or going for a walk helps me feel better.”
It’s not just the super achievers who feel stress. A father of a 14-year-old boy reports that when his son feels too much pressure, he simply quits trying. The frustration felt by both the teenager and his father is palpable. They are currently working on healthy responses to stress.
Simply being a teen is stressful. Regardless of the number of commitments, teens often feel too much is asked of them. A teen’s capacity to deal with stress ranges from creating a detailed plan to alleviate stress to absolute inertia, and everything in between.
Teens are constantly dealing with demands from school, extracurricular activities, parental expectations, social pressures, time constraints, negative self-image and changes in their bodies. Occasionally, more serious situations are part of the mix, such as family conflict, divorce, death of a loved one, an unsafe living environment, family financial worries and worries about the future.
Signs of Stress
Parents should learn to recognize stress in their teens. While people respond differently to stress, there are some common signs. (See sidebar).
For the most part, stress is a healthy response to challenge. It’s your body’s way of heightening focus, strength and stamina. When properly managed, stress enhances a person’s ability to perform quickly and effectively under pressure. However, when a person has not developed successful coping mechanisms to ongoing stressors, such as being bullied, dealing with divorce, or juggling too many activities, the body begins to respond through physical symptoms. These include, but are not limited to, fatigue, insomnia, nausea or headaches.
Parents can help their teens work through their stress by sharing the following tips:
- Set priorities. Decide what needs to be done first. Learn how to break a large task into smaller, more attainable tasks.
- Set realistic goals. Setting your sights too high is setting yourself up for stress if you can’t realistically achieve them.
- Acknowledge your feelings. It is normal to feel overwhelmed when there is a lot to do. If you are feeling especially stressed or depressed, let someone know and try to figure out a way to cut down on some of your activities until you feel better.
- Learn to feel good about doing a competent or “good enough” job rather than always demanding perfection. You don’t always have to be an overachiever.
- Take a break from stressful situations. Listen to music, talk to a friend, draw, write or watch a movie.
- Build a network of friends who help you cope in a positive way. Avoid negative ways of responding, such as using alcohol or tobacco.
- Share your talents by helping someone else. This will make both of you feel great.
- Recognize that sometimes making little changes in your life can really add up to big feelings of relief.
- Learn stress management skills, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and positive self-talk.
- Learn to accept yourself as you are and identify your unique qualities and strengths. Learn to build on these strengths but always remember that no one is perfect.
- Last, but certainly not least, take care of yourself. A combination of a healthy diet, regular exercise and plenty of sleep helps relieve stress.