Helping teens cope with stress and strain
February 13, 2019
Every teenager in every generation faces stress and strain, simply due to the very nature of the age. But teenagers today are dealing with higher levels of pressure, with more outside influences, than previous generations.
All teens in the history of the world has had to shoulder stressors such as the physical and cognitive changes that some with puberty, conflicts with family and friends and being bullied or exposed to sexual violence or harassment.
But average teenagers today also deal with overly crammed schedules; social media pressures and standards; more focus on test scores; college applications and career decisions; and increased availability and pervasiveness of nicotine, drugs and alcohol.
Other stressors include dating, friendships, jobs, or pressure to be a particular size or body shape.
When the stress becomes too great, teens might self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, but they can also try and release the pressure with sex, self-harm or attempts at control such as cutting, bulimia or anorexia, or suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the second leading cause of death in America for people ages 10-24.
Signs or symptoms of overload include: Increased complaints of headache, stomachache, muscle pain, tiredness; shutting down and withdrawing from people and activities; increased anger or irritability; crying more often or appearing teary eyed; feelings of hopelessness; chronic anxiety and nervousness; changes in sleeping and eating habits; or difficulty concentrating.
While some things are immutable, like school or puberty, other stressors can be lessened with adult intervention and understanding. Initiating a conversation with your teen about how they feel about their extra-curricular activities and the pressures they face with college and career choices can produce some surprising results. Often children feel obligated to partake in multiple activities or take a difficult class load, because of parental pressure, whether real or perceived.
Just because they’ve been in soccer since they were five doesn’t mean they must continue with it as a teen, especially if it’s stressing them out. An open conversation about their schedules can be helpful, and give them a sense of control that they might desperately need.
“The intensity of extra-curriculars has changed greatly,” notes Chris Bader, CU Boulder’s Director of Psychological Health and Performance. “When I was seven, I’d put on a yellow jersey once a week and go kick the soccer ball around on the field, and that was it for my soccer participation. Now, kids are traveling all over the state every weekend to play soccer at the same age. We have to look at how that intensity has increased from when we were kids.”
Schedule changes aside, there are other tools we can equip our teens with that will help them. Bader adds, “We can’t take away stress--some stress can be good, and motivating--but we can change how we deal with it.”
Helping our kids improve basic habits, such as sleep, nutrition or exercise, provide some practical shields against stress and strain. Bader said that it’s important to help them set up healthy behavior patterns, instead of telling them what they can’t do. For example, instead of taking away their screen time at eight o’clock, so that they can wind down to get a good night’s sleep, let them know you’re helping them set up patterns that will help them feel better.
“They have to give new healthy behavior patterns time,” says Bader, “to show them that it really works. Two days of an earlier bedtime won’t show benefits, but two weeks will.”
Another way is to help how children view certain challenges. Bader suggests helping them view tests, which create anxiety for many, not as punishments, but as opportunities to demonstrate what they know.
How parents deal with their own stress is a model for their children, according to Bader.
“There are parallels on how we respond to stress and how our kids respond,” Bader says. “We need to model down time, and healthier ways to deal with stress.”
The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Adolescent Health offers stress-busting suggestions for teens and adults. Aside from good nutrition, reasonable exercise and decent sleep, parents can help their teens by talking with them about their schedules, lowering unrealistic expectations, and letting them know that they are loved for who they are, not what they do. Simple acts like taking a walk, meditation or taking deep breaths to relax are both good to model and encourage.
For the complete list and more information, visit http://www.jhsph.edu/adolescenthealth