When kids or teenagers tell adults they’re stressed, adults tend to take it with a grain of salt. After all, how stressed can they be? They don’t pay the bills, they’re not planning for retirement, and they don’t have to deal with overbearing bosses, annoying coworkers, or paying taxes.
Here’s a dose of science-based fact: stress – and the resulting anxiety – doesn’t know or care how old you are or how many bills you have to pay. Stress doesn’t know if its source is social, financial, interpersonal, or survival. When a human mind encounters stressful stimuli and the autonomic nervous system responds, the physical, emotional, and psychological consequences are as real for a 14-year-old as they are for a 40-year-old.
This means that if your teen says they feel stressed, it’s just as real as any stress you feel as an adult. Because stress, ultimately, is chemical. More specifically, stress and anxiety are caused by chemicals called hormones. Hormones are proteins produced and released by your endocrine system that circulate throughout your entire body. They’re chains of amino acids that cause physical, emotional, and psychological reactions – no matter who you are, no matter how old you are, and no matter why they ended up streaming through your bloodstream.
So: you have a stressed teen. Now that you know you should take it seriously and not shrug it off as something irrelevant or insignificant, what should you do?
Know the Warning Signs
We scoured reputable websites like those maintained by the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the National Alliance on Mental Health, and the Centers for Disease Control to find the most common warning signs of adolescent stress. Here’s a simplified list, so you don’t have to go search for yourself.
Top Ten Signs Your Teen is Stressed
- They express worry about school, friends, or other activities.
- They’re more irritable than usual.
- They get angry often and tantrum like a younger child.
- They begin putting off tasks they previously started with no problem.
- They neglect their school, home, and family responsibilities.
- Their appetite changes dramatically: they eat much more or much less than usual.
- Their sleep patterns change dramatically: they sleep much more or less than usual.
- They start getting sick more than usual.
- They’re unable to focus, follow-through, and complete tasks they used to complete with no problem.
- They avoid friends, family, hobbies, and social situations they used to enjoy.
If any of these things are true for your teenager, don’t ignore them. Because the stress hormones aren’t ignoring their body. They’re circulating. They’re causing short-term issues that, left unaddressed, could become significant long-term physical and emotional problems.
How to Your Teen With Stress
If your teenager complains about the stress in their lives, you can help them by showing them the following five tips, which we wrote specifically for them.
Teens: Use These Five Simple Tips for Reducing Stress
Pulling all-nighters might seem glamorous, cool, or something to brag about. And sure – an occasional all-nighter might be necessary. But sleep is way more important in the long run. Sleep is when your body and brain recharge. Long-term sleep deprivation leads to serious health problems, and short-term sleep deprivation leads to short-term decreases in cognitive capacity. Translation: if you don’t sleep, the next day your brain won’t work as well. Staying up all night to study for an exam might actually be counter-productive.
Garbage in, garbage out: you might know this phrase from computer science. Feed a program junk information, what you get is junk results. The same is true for your body: feed it junk food, and the result you get is junk. Feed your body good food – i.e. plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains – and you get good results. Not only for your body, but for your mind. The next time you have a big test, make sure you eat a balanced meal the night before, and a solid breakfast the morning of. It really does make a difference.
3. Let Go.
There’s no such thing as perfect. If you’re constantly striving for perfection, we can tell you right now you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. No one can be perfect all the time, and studies show an overemphasis on achievement and perfection can lead to anxiety disorders, stress, and self-esteem issues. So the next time you’re freaking out about a big test coming up, be like Elsa: Let it go, let it go!
4. Give yourself props.
Give credit where credit is due. If you get good grades, congratulate yourself for them. If you constantly criticize yourself, figure out a way to restate that self-talk. There’s never any reason to beat yourself up about anything. Instead of “Omg I’m an idiot, calculus is beyond me, I’ll never pass,” try something like “Omg calc is hard but I’m going to get a tutor, work on it, and do my best.”
Take a look at your schedule. Are you overextended? Even though you’re on the verge of adulthood, you’re not yet an adult. Don’t chafe at that fact: embrace it. Take advantage of the fact that you’re allowed – even expected – to have fun, be responsibly irresponsible, and do fun and frivolous things just because they’re fun and frivolous. Get the most our of the last few years of adolescence – responsibly, of course.
Early and Often
Like we said above: stress will never disappear completely from your life. That’s why you should learn to manage stress as early as possible – as in now – because a stressed-out teenager is likely to become a stressed out adult – and you know what they’re like, right?
You might also want to read: How to Help Kids with Anxiety
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.