Teens and Stress
When parents hear their teenage children complain about stress, most laugh out loud, roll their eyes, and say something like this:
“Kid, you have no idea what real stress is. Just wait until you have real responsibilities. Come talk to me when you get a job, have a mortgage and monthly bills to pay, have to figure out how to afford health insurance for the whole family, plus set something aside for retirement and plan for your college education. Then come talk to me about stress. For now, go have a snack – which we provide – go do your homework – in that nice room we provide – and count your blessings.”
Okay – maybe most parents don’t actually say that out loud. They typically stop after the laugh – which tends to be a guffaw – and leave the rest unsaid.
But let’s be honest: if you’re a parent, we’re willing to bet you’ve thought those exact things. More than once. Possibly every day your teen comes home and complains about being stressed about something. Which is fine, and you have a good point: adult stress does feel much more significant as compared to adolescent stress. The stakes for adults seem higher, the pressures seem greater, and the coping mechanisms needed to meet and exceed the daily expectations of adulthood seem to dwarf those needed by teens as they face their various versions of daily stress.
We sympathize – but.
The Science of Stress
Here’s a dose of science-based fact: stress doesn’t know about context. 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.
What this should mean to you as a parent is that if your teen is anxious and stressed, then that stress is 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. And now 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 tell you they’re worried 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.
Teen Stress and Anxiety: The Statistics
Before we give you the latest statistics on teenage stress and anxiety, it’s important to have a working knowledge of how mental health professionals define them. We’ll assume most people experience some amount of stress every day of their lives. Complications begin when stress or anxiety becomes chronic, and the individual lacks the necessary coping skills to process the associated symptoms in healthy and productive ways.
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.” They have a shorter list than the one we provide above, because typical teen stress does not always need professional intervention. Here they are:
- Restlessness, feeling on edge.
- Getting tired easily.
- Difficulty concentrating, or feeling their mind is blank.
- Muscular tension.
- Sleep disturbances.
Again, there is some overlap with first stress list, but this list is short because it’s meant to screen for clinical anxiety. 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 National Institute of Mental Health reports that:
- 9% of teens have an anxiety disorder
- 3 % of those with an anxiety disorder have severe impairment as a result.
- 38% of female teens have an anxiety disorder.
- 1% of male teens have an anxiety disorder.
The American Psychological Association reports that:
- 59% of teens say managing their school, home, and extracurricular activities cause significant stress.
- 40% of teens say they neglect home responsibilities due to stress.
- 21% of teens say they neglect their school or work responsibilities due to stress
- 29% of teens say they procrastinate due to stress.
- 17% of teens say they cancelled family or social plans within the past month due to stress
- 40% of teens say they’re irritable due to stress.
- 31% of teens say they feel overwhelmed by stress.
- 30% of teens say they feel ad or depressed because of stress.
- 36% of teens say they feel tired because of stress.
- 23% of teens say they’ve skipped a meal due to stress.
Remember: stress is normal. Stress is part of life for every organism on the planet, humans included. Stress itself is not inherently bad – it helps us survive. 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.
How You Can 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 that you already know what to do about it, consult the following list. It will help 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 too mnay sodas and sugary snacks.
- Teach your teen basic mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, or self-relaxation techniques.
- 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.