Teens and Stress

students taking a test

1/3 of students report symptoms of stress and anxiety

For many teens, performing well academically can be overwhelming, stress due to class rank, entrance exams, challenges in the classroom, peer pressure and more.  All of these, in addition to family life, friends and work can take a toll on the most organized and even-tempered teen.

A 2013 study found that American teenagers were the most stressed-out age group in the US. On a ten point scale, teens rated their stress levels at 5.8, while adults rated their levels at 5.1.

Signs of stress in teens can appear several ways:

  • anxiety or panic attacks
  • a feeling of being constantly pressured, hassled, and hurried
  • irritability and moodiness
  • physical symptoms, such as stomach problems, headaches, or even chest pain
  • allergic reactions, such as eczema or asthma
  • problems sleeping
  • drinking too much, smoking, overeating, or doing drugs
  • sadness or depression

ADC pediatrician Theresa Willis, M.D. weighs in. “I think an important thing to make a point about when talking about teens and stress is that the stress may manifest in ways that make it hard to recognize (like frequent physical complaints or moodiness or poor sleep) and that the teens often have no idea that they are stressed out. Parents have to watch for those subtle signs and help their teens identify their feelings. Often the first response to “what’s wrong?” is something surface like “my teacher is an idiot” when in fact the deeper issue is academic overload or social stressors at school, etc. Unrecognized stress and mental health issues are a big problem for many teens.”

What can a parent do?

  • Observe if stress is affecting your teen’s health, behavior, thoughts, or feelings
  • Listen carefully to your teen and watch for overloading
  • Learn and model stress management skills
  • Support involvement in sports and other pro-social activities

Additionally, parents are urged to provide good nutrition, encourage plenty of sleep and exercise:

#1 Nutrition

According to the American Psychological Association nearly 23% of teens reported skipping meal due to stress monthly, while an alarming 39% of those reported skipping meals weekly.   It’s not just skipping meals; many teens (like adults) turn to unhealthy foods because of stress, forming bad habits which carry over into adulthood.  Parents should first set the example and then provide healthy foods in the household.  The body and mind function best with the right fuels.  Foods high in protein, antioxidants, folic acids help keep the mind sharp, and developing bodies strong. Berries, whole grain breakfast foods, lentils, spinach, fish and eggs.  Of course, teens should also keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

#2 Sleep

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teens get 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep each night.  Most America teens only get 7.4 hours on school nights and 8.1 on non-school nights.  Getting enough sleep can help the body and mind stay sharp and able to cope with the stressors of teen life.  If your teen is having trouble sleeping, ask them to charge their phone, laptop or tablet in another room; try breathing or relaxation exercises to help calm the mind; get them to organize the next days’ backpack/school work so they don’t have to rush in the morning to pull it together.

#3 Exercise

Teens who report high stress 3.2 hours online while those with low stress only report 2.0 hours.  Exercise has long been proven to help with stress – a 30 minute walk can do wonders for clearing the mind.  Encourage your teen to take some time for physical activity during the day.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry provides some additional tips for teens to cope with stress:

  • Avoid excess caffeine intake which can increase feelings of anxiety and agitation
  • Avoid illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco
  • Learn relaxation exercises (abdominal breathing and muscle relaxation techniques)
  • Develop assertiveness training skills. For example, state feelings in polite firm and not overly aggressive or passive ways: (“I feel angry when you yell at me” “Please stop yelling.”)
  • Rehearse and practice situations which cause stress. One example is taking a speech class if talking in front of a class makes you anxious
  • Learn practical coping skills. For example, break a large task into smaller, more attainable tasks
  • Decrease negative self talk: challenge negative thoughts about yourself with alternative neutral or positive thoughts. “My life will never get better” can be transformed into “I may feel hopeless now, but my life will probably get better if I work at it and get some help”
  • Learn to feel good about doing a competent or “good enough” job rather than demanding perfection from yourself and others
  • Take a break from stressful situations. Activities like listening to music, talking to a friend, drawing, writing, or spending time with a pet can reduce stress
  • Build a network of friends who help you cope in a positive way

If your teen discusses or shows signs of being overly stressed, talk with your doctor.  They can make additional recommendations or refer you to a qualified mental health professional.