By Bianca Williams | Contributor
For many students, getting back into the school routine is challenging to say the least. Figuring out how to juggle homework, extracurricular activities, home chores, high expectations, and peer relationships is certainly stressful—not to mention the pressure of trying to “fit in” socially or dealing with serious issues like bullying, breakups, or problems at home.
While people of all ages say their stress levels are higher than they believe is healthy, youth are particularly vulnerable. Along with Millennials, iGen children and teens are growing up at a time when exposure to weighty topics—like gun violence, climate change, and sexual assault—is occurring at younger ages. This, coupled with the everyday pressures of school life, compounds the problem of stress.
Sometimes adults view the issues children face as insignificant events, nothing compared to the “big” problems they will face later in life. They may downplay or minimize the magnitude of a teen’s problems in an attempt to put them in perspective.
However, it’s important to understand why stressful events feel like “the end of the world” to teens. They are facing these pressures, problems, disappointments, and failures for the first time and do not yet have the life experience to know they can get through those tough times.
Most students experience significant amounts of stress, and this stress can take a toll on health, happiness, and grades. A study by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that teens reported stress levels similar to those of adults, meaning that they experience significant levels of chronic stress. Roughly 30 percent reported feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or sad because of it.
“It is alarming that the teen stress experience is so similar to that of adults. It is even more concerning that they seem to underestimate the potential impact that stress has on their physical and mental health,” said Norman B. Anderson, Ph.D., APA CEO and Executive Vice President.
Left unchecked, stress can cause health-related issues and is the number-one trigger for depression.
Now that school has started, it’s an ideal time to check on your teens’ stress load and help bolster their mental health for the academic year ahead. Being empathetic to their daily challenges is the first step, but equipping them with the positive, healthy skills they need to handle daily stressors is just as important.
How to help teens deal with stress
If you notice signs of high stress in your teen, initiate a conversation about it and offer helpful remedies for stress relief.
# 1 | Push the pause button
First off, let them know it is okay to take a break when they are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. “Pushing the pause button” allows them to reflect, relax, and reboot.
# 2 | Identify the stressors
Help them sort out the sources of their stress and think of ways to eliminate or reduce the tension around the culprits. Maybe it’s time to cut back on some activities to lighten the load or prioritize what’s most important. It’s easy to get over-committed and over-involved to the detriment of our health.
# 3 | Make a plan
We all have different ways of dealing with stress. Find out what works for your teen. It may be relaxing, listening to music, taking a walk, writing, or drawing—whatever it is, help your teens find healthy ways to alleviate their stress and encourage them to make it their go-to solution.
# 4 | Check in frequently
Keep the conversation going and check in often to assess their stress levels. Observe how well they are managing stress, so you can help fine-tune the plan if needed.
Stress is not all bad
While the idea of stress seems like a negative, there is a positive side to having stress in our lives.
“You always think about stress as a really bad thing, but it’s not,” said Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. “Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral, and cognitive performance.”
Like butterflies in the stomach before a big game, performance, or presentation, stress can serve as motivation. It’s a normal part of life. We feel a little stressed in the morning when we’re rushing around to get ready for the day, but that stress motivates us to get up, get going, and be on time to school and work.
The goal isn’t to eliminate stress entirely, but to evaluate it, address it, and manage it in an open and healthy way. If we can help our teens learn to do this, it will go a long way toward boosting their health and well-being.
Editor’s Note: Bianca is an Outreach and Education Manager at Grant Halliburton Foundation, facilitating educational presentations in North Texas schools and community organizations for children, teens, and young adults. The Foundation works to help families recognize the signs of mental illness and offers a variety of programs on mental wellness, suicide prevention, bullying, resilience, and other mental health issues. For more information, go to www.granthalliburton.org.
Common signs of stress in children
• Thinking only about the problem
• Avoiding friends, activities, school, social events
• Difficulty concentrating
• Behavioral changes: moodiness, aggression, or clinginess
• Decreased or increased appetite
• Complaints of stomachaches or headaches
• Sleep problems
• Anger/rage toward self or others
• Substance abuse
Common stressors that adolescents experience
• Social media
• Changes in body
• School demands
• Friend/peer relationships
• Parents/family problems
• Too much on their plate
• Recent move/changing schools
• Trouble with the law
• Family financial problems
• Separation/divorce in family
• Unsafe home life
• Teen dating violence
• Chronic illness
• Victim of bullying/cyberbullying
• Death of a loved one
Healthy ways for children & teens to relieve stress
• Find a way to vent in a healthy way
• Write down thoughts and feelings
• Draw or paint
• Spend time with family and friends
• Pet animals
• Do breathing exercises
• Listen to music
• Eat healthy foods
• Practice positive thinking and affirmations