As I’ve pondered the different topics to address and have been offered different suggestions from readers, I thought it most appropriate to discuss teenagers and stress especially since we are headed back into another school year. The most often “heard” complaint in my office and home from teens is that they are “stressed out”. When I look at their lives I’m not surprised by this description that they so commonly use in conversation with the adults and peers closest to them. From entering into high school and being the new class (freshman) to being seniors and having the belief that they have to have their entire life figured out, it makes complete sense to me why they are stressed and overwhelmed. I even wonder how much down time these kids get in their lives between practices, work schedules, homework that must be done, balancing friends, significant others, and family, keeping up with multiple social media entities, etc it is no wonder that they feel frazzled and on edge.
According to a 2014 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, our teenagers are now the most stressed group in the United States. According to the survey, teens report that their level of stress during the school year is at a unhealthy level, 31% of teens report feeling overwhelmed due to stress, 30% say they feel sad or depressed due to the level of stress they are experiencing, and 36% share they feel tired due to stress. In addition, over 30 % of teens surveyed share that their stress level has increased over the past year. What is more concerning as a counselor and parent is that 42% of teenagers believe they are not managing their stress level well enough. Furthermore, over half of the teenagers surveyed did not believe there was a connection between their level of stress and an effect on their physical or mental health. So we can see from this information and I can share with you from my many years of working with teens, they have significantly high levels of stress and many of them are not handling it well and they minimize the effects the high level of stress has on their body and mind. This is disheartening and I’m not certain that parents (who are not counselors such as myself) are aware of the significance of this issue and I am even more concerned that parents and those who love these teens are unaware of the red flags indicating that stress is getting out of hand and how to manage these feelings.
Teens who are significantly stressed report feeling agitated and worrisome. They are exhausted and are not sleeping well. Teens who are very stressed often complain about having a headache or an upset stomach. I often find they have a negative attitude and a “doomed” outlook as if nothing is ever going to change. Teens seem to fly off the handle quicker when overly stressed, typically crying easily, and they often have difficulty focusing and staying on top of their responsibilities. These are the red flags I am typically looking for in teenagers and these concerns become problematic when they are occurring over long periods of time.
As I mentioned earlier, what is most concerning to me and many people who love the teens in their lives is the fact that teens need to learn ways to manage the areas of stress in their lives. I believe teens today are much more overwhelmed than earlier generations. It certainly isn’t uncommon that teens have difficulty with peers however with today’s world of social media, teens never get a break and the difficulty that they may have had with a peer at school continues through the evening at home with comments being made on social media. The issue grows larger and continues to cause worry for teens well after they have left school. Homes are no longer areas of great comfort due to texting and social media allowing the drama to continue and it is consuming our kids and causing significant stress.
Another area of stress that I notice occurring so often is our teens are overscheduled. Many teens have the mindset that they need to be the best at everything they are doing. The pressure to perform at high levels academically and athletically is taxing on teens. Admissions to Universities require higher grade point averages, class rank, and ACT/SAT scores, challenging course choices, and involvement in an array of activities and teens push themselves to do more and do it the best. Adults and parents often question teens about what they “want to do with their life” after high school. Furthermore, teenagers are no longer participating in sports during a sport “season” but rather year round and again pushing themselves to excel. Often times this commitment to club teams involves additional practices during the school week as well as tournaments on the weekends that can often take the teens and their parents out of town for the entire weekend. The pressure at times is so heavy and I often wonder how much these teenagers are enjoying life under these circumstances.
A continued area of stress for teens is the desire to be accepted and to fit in. Pressure from peers continues at high levels and again this plays out over social media. During a time of their lives when they are working on figuring out who they are and what they stand for, teens are pulled into every direction and measuring themselves against what is considered “perfect”. Am I pretty enough, skinny enough, tall enough, muscular enough, funny enough, popular enough, outgoing enough, interesting enough? Teenagers are in the comparison mindset in so many areas of their lives and during a time when they are developing themselves into adults. And the comparisons are constant.
So the question I hear most often from parents and adults who interact with teens is, what can I do to help? Healthy ways for teens to manage stress that you can encourage is: getting enough sleep, eating healthy and regularly, getting exercise, engaging in activities that they enjoy, making time for relaxation, yoga, meditation, and deep breathing. Teens and those who love them can find suggestions on the internet all day long about ways to reduce stress and finding what works best for them is very important. Teens get much less sleep and exercise than is recommended and with the pressure to perform at high levels in so many areas of their lives, taking time to engage in what they like or taking time to relax typically gets thrown to the wayside.
So often it comes back to making time to be with your teen and just listen. Let them talk it through. I have often found that going on a drive or sitting in a coffee shop gets them away from things and allows them to just vent. Asking questions that may help them think about things in a different way can be helpful to such as “is there anything you feel you can let go?” or “what is most important to you to do right now?”. Sometimes things are so overwhelming to them because there is so much. Teens find if they can break it down into smaller portions and address tasks from most important to least important it becomes much more manageable. Also, getting them to recognize anything that they can let go especially if they are a teen that is overscheduled. I’ve often asked questions such as, “what in your life is most important to you?”, “Is there an activity that you find doesn’t matter as much to you as it once did?”, “Is there anything you feel you can let go of or not do anymore?”. As I said in the first blog, listen with your mouth closed most of the time. Lecturing teens and telling them how to handle their concerns will shut them down and you will find they will no longer share their concerns and feelings with you. And please, make the time. To be honest, I was someone who believed that once my kids were older and more independent that they would need me less and boy was I so wrong. Teens need engaged parents who take time to listen and who support them without taking over. It is the biggest lesson I have learned. Be a quiet listener and strong encourager in this fast paced, information slammed world.