April is Stress Awareness Month. We will publish a series of helpful articles on the topic over the next few weeks, so keep checking back or follow us on Facebook to get notified.
Stress is part of life for everyone. From children to adolescents to adults, we all deal with some amount of stress every day of our lives. It’s normal. Complications begin when stress becomes chronic, which means that, over a six-month period, the stressful days outnumber the non-stressful days. Chronic stress has significant negative physical and emotional effects – for everyone, not only adults.
Chronic stress can either cause or contribute to the following physical problems:
- High blood pressure
- Decreased immune function
- Heart Disease
Chronic stress can either cause or contribute to the following emotional issues:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Negative/pessimistic thoughts
We’ll focus on that last bullet point: anxiety.
Like stress, anxiety is part of life for everyone. We all deal with a little bit of anxiety every day. It only becomes a problem when it persists, and we lack the coping skills to process the associated symptoms in healthy and productive ways. If your teen complains about being stressed or anxious, you should take it seriously. For adults, it’s both tempting and easy to minimize teen stress and anxiety because – well, from our perspective, they don’t have to deal with half of what we do.
But minimizing teen stress and teen anxiety is a mistake. Here’s a fact: their stress is every bit as real for them as it is for us. So are the negative physical and emotional consequences of their stress. And if your teen’s stress becomes chronic, they’re at increased risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety Disorders in Adolescents
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll use a clinical definition of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) to help you gauge the severity of your teen’s stress. When the symptoms of stress cross the threshold from typical to the level of a psychological disorder, that’s when you need to pay special attention. And that’s when the professionals say it’s time to seek help.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) defines GAD as “…excessive anxiety and worry about a number of activities or events occurring more days than not for at least six months.” The DSM-V identifies the following symptoms of anxiety:
- Restlessness, feeling on edge.
- Getting tired easily.
- Difficulty concentrating, or feeling their mind is blank.
- Muscular tension.
- Sleep disturbances.
If your teen displays any of these symptoms on more days than not for six months or more, the most prudent course of action is to consult a mental health professional for a full psychiatric assessment. This list is not an at-home diagnostic tool – it’s meant to help you decide if your child needs professional help or not.
Now, for the statistics on adolescent anxiety and stress.
The Child Mind Institute reports that:
- 19.3% of teens have a specific phobia
- 9.1% of teens have social anxiety disorder
- 7.6% of teens have separation anxiety
- 2.3% of teens have a panic disorder
- 2.2% of teens have Generalized Anxiety Disorder
In addition, he National Institute of Mental Health reports that:
- 31.9% of teens have some type of anxiety disorder
- 8.3 % of those with an anxiety disorder have severe impairment as a result.
- 38% of female teens have an anxiety disorder.
- 26.1% of male teens have an anxiety disorder.
The American Psychological Association reports that:
- 10% say stress causes them to get lower grades than they think they can get
- 59% say balancing all their activities causes stress
- 40% say they neglect home responsibilities due to stress.
- 40% say they’re irritable due to stess
- 37% said stress causes them to feel overwhelmed
- 36% say they feel tired because of stress.
- 30% say they feel sad or depressed because of stress.
Remember: stress is normal. Stress is part of life for every organism on the planet, humans included. Stress itself is not inherently bad. However, when stress is chronic and/or affects daily functioning, that’s when it has the potential to cause problems, and possibly develop into an anxiety disorder. As mentioned above, if you think your child or teen may have an anxiety disorder, seek professional help. If, on the other hand, you think your child or teen simply needs help coping with their stress, there are some very simple steps to take.
Help Your Teen Deal With Stress
None of this advice will seem new or groundbreaking to you. It’s mostly common sense – but when things get stressful, common sense can go out the window. If your teen’s stress is causing you so much stress you forget you already know what to do about it, consult the following list. It will help both you and your teenager get back on track.
How to Decrease Teen Stress
- Make sure your teen eats healthy food regularly.
- Make sure your teen gets plenty of exercise.
- Make sure your teen gets plenty of outdoor time.
- Make sure your teen gets plenty of sleep.
- Avoid caffeine.
- Avoid sodas and sugary snacks when possible.
- Teach your teen basic mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, or self-relaxation.
- Encourage your teen to reframe self-talk from negative to positive. Instead of “I’m the worst at math,” they can say “Math is challenging but I’m working on it every day.”
- Encourage your teen to spend time more time with positive friends. Sure, teenagers can be a moody bunch at times, but some glorify the doom and gloom. Help your teen know when enough is enough.
- Take a break. If life is too scheduled, rigid, and filled with one activity after another, all day every day, consider a week off, spent doing simple things like listening to music, drawing, riding bikes, walking the dog, and talking to old friends.
Early Intervention Works
Left unaddressed, stress can lead to long-term health problems. Left untreated, anxiety can become a crippling psychological and emotional disorder. The good news is that there are proven-effective ways to address and treat both stress and anxiety. A stressed teenager can benefit from any and all activities on the list above, while a teen with a clinical anxiety disorder can benefit from professional treatment, which typically includes a combination of therapy, medication, and basic lifestyle adjustments. In both cases, the sooner you begin taking proactive steps to help a stressed out or anxious teen, the better. The most important thing for you to do, as a parent, is listen. That’s the beginning: what you do next and how you help depends on what they say. The fix may be simple, or it may be complex, but it all starts with open, honest, and direct communication.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.