If your teenager’s life seems more stressful than yours was when you were a teen, it probably is. A 2014 study by the American Psychological Association found that teen stress levels now exceed those of adults. You don’t have to dig too deep to see why. School is more stressful, thanks to the increased emphasis on college admissions—today’s students start worrying about college on day one of high school—not to mention the always-on nature of our current culture, which includes 24/7 access to technology. Parents and teens alike need to find ways to reduce stress to keep from being swallowed up by it all.
In general, parents should help teenagers find a balance in which they’re challenged but not overwhelmed at school, enjoying meaningful activities, spending time with friends and family, and sometimes doing nothing at all.
Here are some specific ways to reduce teen stress levels in your home.
3 Ways to Manage Stress For Teens (And Parents)
1. Check your expectations.
The bottom line: High expectations are one thing, but expecting that your teenager will go to an Ivy League or some other elite college may cause more stress than your teenager can reasonably handle. For starters, teenagers worry deeply about disappointing their parents. And, moreover, for the vast majority of our teenagers, gaining admission to these colleges is not realistic. Less than one percent of all students go to these schools. The fact is that even if your teenager can pull off top grades, top scores, top everything, there’s an excellent chance he won’t get in. (Yes, it’s that hard).
“The kids who come from families where performance is valued highly, they are maxed out. They are going to bed at 11:00 at night and getting up at 4:00 in the morning,” explains Sara Linberg, a middle- and high-school counselor at the top-ranked Central Kitsap School District in Washington. “I have been doing this for 17 years. Once in a while I run into a kid who loves it, but for the most part, they don’t.”
Linberg instead encourages parents to think less about college and more about helping their teenagers discover who they are. What does your teenager enjoy doing outside of school? What classes does your teenager really want to take, regardless of whether they’re AP or not. As it happens, this is also what most colleges say they’re seeking: authentic students, who pursue their own interests, not someone else’s. “High school should not be about checking off a list for college. There really is a college for everyone,” Linberg says. If you’re a parent who struggles in this department, we recommend Frank Bruni’s wonderful book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.
2. Focus on the present.
It may sound New Age-y, but if you are looking for ways to reduce stress, there’s scientific evidence that taking some time each day to practice mindfulness brings down stress levels—and, in turn, makes it easier to handle stress. “There is a lot of evidence-based research that shows the brain’s anatomy changes in profound and impactful ways when we practice mindfulness,” explains Dr. Francoise Adan, a psychiatrist and medical director of University Hospitals Connor Integrative Health Network. Mindfulness is basically about being in the moment. That helps reduce stress because so much of what we stress about has to do with what has happened—“I failed the test”—or what we think may happen—“I am going to fail the test.” And oftentimes, these worries have no basis in reality, adds Adan. “So learning to be present can be very helpful.”
3. Find some downtime every day.
We all need time to relax in our day, and that includes our teenagers. If your teenager is so scheduled that she can’t regularly spend 30 minutes to an hour just “chilling,” then it may be time to make some changes. “The business of our lives is really taking the fun out of it,” says Adan. “Parents, teenagers, even younger kids, have a long to-do list. And we tend to add and add to it and forget how to just be.” Also important is downtime from technology, and in particular, social media. “Their lives are so wrapped up in Twitter, Snapchat, all these apps,” explains school-counselor Linberg. “And there’s all this self-imposed pressure.” Consider setting guidelines for the whole family: no technology at the dinner table, for example.