Think your life is stressful? An overbearing boss? 10 meetings a day and no time to think? Incessant demands from your children? Sure, our lives are hectic – but so are those of our kids. Surprised? I don’t blame you.
I myself am amazed how often preteens and teens tell me they feel stressed out. The majority say they feel this way at least two to three days per week. Quite a few teens tell me that they feel stressed every single day. And it’s contagious: some say because their peers are stressed, they find they feel the same way, too.
What makes their lives stressful? Common reasons are interactions with parents and friends, the demands of schoolwork, or juggling school with paid work or extra curricular activities. Often, it is also the pressure they place on themselves.
How much stress is ok? Stress – the feeling of emotional or physical tension – is the body’s response to demand or pressure. Some stress can be helpful to finishing a paper, performing well in a competition, or acing that all-important presentation. From an evolutionary standpoint, experiencing stress has been lifesaving to fend off wild animals or other threats. When stressed, the body releases hormones that prepares us for the fight or flight mode. Unfortunately, in our current era with social media, peer pressure, moving homes and other transitions, global teens are experiencing stress all too often.
While stress in small, temporary bursts is helpful, a constant rush of stress hormones is unhealthy and eventually may lead to burnout in adults. Studies have shown that chronic stress can cause subtle changes in developing brains and affect cognition. Many teens I work with tell me that too much stress makes them forgetful, feel anxious and sick to their stomach. Others say they are grumpy, get into fights with family and friends or even harm themselves.
Whether students view their stress as helpful or harmful can influence their performance. In this piece, writer Jennifer Breheny Wallace cites a study where US high school students were given a 10-minute stress-reducing exercise before an exam. They were encouraged to either write out their fears or taught how to reinterpret their anxiety as a beneficial force. The study showed students did better on the exam when engaged in the journaling or reappraisal exercises. According to the study’s author, parents and adults can help teens to reinterpret stress.
Sure, reframing stress to use it to one’s advantage is a powerful technique. However, I also tell teens to create a toolkit for handling stress. They need to fill the kit with tools like scheduling down- or chill-time (preferably non-digital), talking about their feelings with friends and loved ones, exercising or other means of relaxation plus, very importantly, getting enough sleep.
Without support, stressed out global teens are at risk for issues like depression, alcohol abuse, binging on the internet, or self-harm. Parents and care providers play an important role in helping them to address stress and communicating regularly about the issue.
Here are some additional strategies to consider:
1. Introduce the concept of time management: Many teens get stressed because they find it hard to stay organized and balance needs. I tell teens to set goals, prioritize tasks and break them into smaller steps. Also, consider getting help from school or psychologists, particularly if kids are struggling with underlying conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or a learning disorder.
2. Focus on quality not quantity: Every kid has a different threshold for balancing activities. It is important for older kids and teens to have a say in choosing their extra-curricular activities. Also, getting them to periodically re-evaluate whether these activities are enjoyable and of importance.
3. Eat and sleep well: Research has shown that there is a very strong link between mental and physical health. Encouraging teen to optimum brain health by eating lots of healthy fats, fruits and veggies and protein and avoiding highly sugary foods, which may cause rapid changes in energy level and mood. Studies also show that kids today are simply not getting enough sleep. Developing good sleep habits (and modelling them as an adult) go a long way to handling stress.
4. Get active and get involved in service: Exercise produces chemicals that provide a feeling of well-being ad help counteract stress. This can be through walking, dancing, swimming, biking, etc. Taking time to help others in need can also serve as a strong anti-depressant, and can boost kids’ (and adults’) mood.
5. Explore alternative methods of handling mood: Breathing and stretching techniques in yoga and mindfulness can help relax muscles and release tension. Encourage teens who enjoy writing (and don’t see it as another stressful activity) to journal or write to express their mood and reduce stress.
6. Consider counselling: Persistent stress can may lead in extreme cases to depression, mood swings and self-injury. If these occur, get help or services. A few sessions with a professional may be sufficient to screen for signs of stress and positively change patterns or behaviors. It is best to be proactive and get help before stress related issues become a real problem.
Bottom line: Stress is a consistent problem today that affects all sorts of people, no matter their age, culture, or social and economic status. Some stress can be beneficial for completing a task. But too much stress can have dire consequences both physically and mentally. Help teens to build their own toolkit for addressing stress, reframe it so they can handle it and get help early on if there are warning signs of bigger problems such as depression.