Parenting a teenager and being a teenager is an incredibly challenging time for both the adults and the young person. I certainly don’t look back fondly on my teenage years with my raging hormones, know-it-all attitude, and the ever-present “unfair” rules and expectations that always seemed to interfere with any plan I had.
Now, raising 2 teenagers, I see whole new levels of pressure on today’s young people, fueling the stress they are experiencing.
It’s important to remember that stress is part of life, and our bodies are designed to recognize and protect us from it. Unfortunately, continuous high levels of stress are detrimental and can have negative effects on our general health and wellbeing.
While we all have an opinion about stress in teenagers, it’s hard not to be alarmed by what teens are telling researchers. According to the 2014 Stress in America survey and the WHO adolescent mental health fact sheet:
- Nearly half of teens (42%) reported they were not doing enough or were not sure if they were doing enough to manage their stress.
- The average self-reported stress level rating for a teen was 5.8 on a 10-point scale compared to an average rating of 5.1 for an adult.
- Globally, 16% of adolescents suffer from a mental health condition.
- American high school students reported that their stress level during the school year “far exceeds what they believe to be healthy.”
Causes of teenage stress
School and its demands impact heavily our teen’s levels of stress. The crowded curriculum, constant assessments, and the pressures of meeting expectations (their own or of others) are certainly significant contributors to their stress. There are also specific times where our teens are more stressed by school. Be mindful of the start of the academic year or a new semester and periods when assessments are due.
Friendships, both online and in the real world, also affect strongly our teens and cause a great deal of stress and angst. While friendships have always been a source of stress for adolescents, the added complexity of the online world makes things so much more difficult to deal with. Bullying can take place 24 hours a day, even in our teens’ safest places. According to a study, 37% of American teenagers believe they have been bullied online.
Pressures within the family and home also add to the stress teenagers experience. Divorce, separation, illness, and death all greatly affect our teens as they can feel abandoned, isolated, and helpless in these situations.
Recognizing stress in your teen and how to deal with it
Teenagers are not adept at using words to express their stress, so it’s a good idea to be on the lookout for any behaviors that may not appear normal. It’s also wise to remember that there is a function or reason for these behaviors, and they are your vital clues to recognizing that your teen may be experiencing higher levels of stress than normal.
So, what are the signs of stress in teens and how can we help in managing it?
1. A really bad-tempered teen is certainly not an easy person to deal with
However, their bad temper is your clue to the fact that they’re not managing in some aspects of their life.
- Do not try to talk to them when they’re having a teenage temper tantrum as they aren’t using the part of their brain that enables them to think and reason. Use language like, “I can see you are upset” or “I’ll give you some time.”
- When they have returned to baseline (or a more normal state), you could talk to them about what may be worrying them.
- Keep the conversation respectful and open.
- Try not to appear like you’re prying, and provide reassurances and affirmations. You may choose language like, “We can solve this together” or “Maybe I can help you?”
- Avoid using diminishing language that tells them you consider their stress insignificant.
2. Being introverted and withdrawn can be described as “normal” teenage behavior, but we should be very cautious with this
When our young people withdraw from family, friends, and the community in general, it limits their opportunity for support.
- Ensure you have established routines that require participation. A family evening meal where everyone eats together is an easy place to start.
- If you take your teen to school or activities, the car ride is a great place to explore if they’re struggling with a difficult situation.
- Sitting alongside you removes the need to have a face-to-face conversation and often makes your teenager more comfortable with opening up and sharing. Again, remember to use the suggestions when you’re talking to them.
3. Changes in weight or eating patterns also indicate that your teen may be struggling with something
Recently, this became very real in my best friend’s family when their teen dropped 10 pounds in a matter of weeks. The changes in her eating patterns were easily explained.
She wasn’t hungry, she had eaten, or she would eat later. When I suddenly realized how thin she had become, I knew we had a problem. Gentle discussions showed that she was struggling with many aspects of her life, and her eating was one way she could control something that was spiraling out of control.
In situations like this, you do need to seek outside help. Start with your doctor, find a great psychologist that your teen likes, and enlist the help of the school and the community. Develop a collaborative plan that will genuinely support your teen.
Stress management activities for teens
Our lives are busy, and this busyness can add to the stress that teens experience.
Modeling a genuinely balanced life where you engage in things that make you feel good and relax will show your teen that it’s okay for them to do it, too. My daughter and husband spend time watching Grand Prix racing together. They both get to relax and watch something they share a genuine interest in while spending quality time together.
Encourage and model healthy eating. Stress can impact our eating habits, and your teen is not immune to this. Make sure there are plenty of healthy snacks available and serve healthy and nutritious meals.
Exercise is an excellent way of managing stress. It’s common for teenagers to withdraw from teen sports for various reasons, and if this happens, find other ways to keep them moving. A step counter with targets might be an easy way to start and keep them motivated to move.
Develop an “attitude of gratitude.” Build routines into your daily life to reflect on what is good in your life, share, and encourage your teen to do it, too. An attitude of gratitude inspires our teens to look further than themselves and reflect on others and their community.
The world we live in is hectic, confusing, and busy. The stress your teenager may be experiencing will be very real, but it doesn’t have to define them or your family life. Monitor their behavior, be gentle and supportive in your actions, and get help for you and your teen if you feel they need it. Nobody has to suffer the very real consequences of stress, least of all your precious teenager.
If you’re anything like me, you are busy, too. However, it’s important that we model reflective and self-care practices. When our teens were little, we showed them how, remember? They need us now more than ever to show them how to take care of their most precious gift-their wellbeing.