Every year the American Psychological Association takes our emotional temperature with its report titled “Stress in America.” This year, for the first time, children were also asked about their stress levels. The conclusion is not only that our kids are feeling more stressed, but unfortunately, parents aren’t aware of what they are experiencing .
Psychologist Katherine C. Nordal, APA’s executive director for professional practice, warns, “What we’re seeing with stress is in line with existing research about parents’ perception of their kids’ engagement in risky behaviors. Parents often under report drug use, depression and sexual activity in their children. Now it appears the same may be true for stress.”
The APA study found that a third of the 1,206 children in the survey (ranging in age from 8 to 17) reported feeling more stress than they had a year ago. Nearly half are worried about school, while only a third of their parents thought their children saw school as a problem. Thirty percent are worried about family finances; just 18 percent of parents think that’s on their kids’ list of stressors. Twenty-nine percent of teens report worrying about what comes after high school, getting into a good college or finding work, but only 5 percent of the parents of teenagers think that is causing stress for their children. Parents seem to be out of touch with their children’s stress levels and what is causing them stress.
Stress is quite literally making children sick in ways that haven’t registered with their parents. The study shows that anxiety and depression are on the rise. There is a sense of not having the resources to cope with these stressful demands, and a concern about the consequences of teenager’s mental, emotional and physical health. The predominant emotion here is anxiety. Among 13-17 year olds, school is by far the most commonly mentioned source. Among 18-24 year olds, it’s jobs and financial matters. 85 percent of young people said they felt stress at least sometimes.
Looking first at the causes of stress, it boils down to teenagers having a feeling of not being able to cope with the demands that are being placed upon them. Girls and young women are less likely to feel safe in their neighborhoods, in schools, and are afraid of being attacked. Some additional causes of teenage stress include social media, technology, lack of self esteem, communication issues, divorce, and competitive environments. The most common symptoms of teenage stress are irritability, headaches, nausea, fatigue, increased heart rate, and a pessimistic outlook.
When stress overloads a teen’s life, they can feel it both physically and emotionally. The neurotransmitters in their brain can begin to fail. The first one that may shut down is their body clock, and this usually causes sleeplessness. The second neurotransmitter affects energy levels which can reduce motivation to get things done. The final neurotransmitter is in the pleasure part of the brain and can cause sadness and depression. As these neurotransmitters shut down, it becomes more difficult to react to additional stressful situations
As adults, are we being good role models for our children? According to one study: 47 percent of all adults report that they have remained awake at night; 45 percent report irritability or anger; 43 percent report fatigue; 40 percent report lack of interest, motivation or energy; 34 percent report headaches; 34 percent report feeling depressed or sad; 32 percent report feeling as though they could cry; and 27 percent report upset stomach or indigestion as a result of stress. Being more aware of our own stress will enable us to be more helpful to our teens.
So what is a parent to do? Here are some suggestions and tools.
There are three major aspects of teenage stress to consider:
1.Causes of teen stress include the following:
- Moving to a new home and school
- Tests and homework
- Too-high expectations
- Sports and other extracurricular activities
- Social awkwardness
- Too much to do
- Too fast or too slow physical development
- Family problems including abuse and alcohol
- Owning a car
- Relationships with friends
- Having a boyfriend or a girlfriend
- Not achieving something really wanted
- Money problems
2. Warning signs
Constant fatigue-prolonged stress can wear a teen out and make them feel tired all the time.
Persistent discomfort-prolonged stress can actually cause pain, since both mind and body register stress.
Burnout –prolonged stress can change what a teen cares about and leave them unmotivated.
Breakdown-prolonged stress can be debilitating, and cause depression.
3. How to help and become more aware of your teenager’s stress.
The American Psychological Association suggests the following:
- Notice times when your kids are most likely to talk — for example, at bedtime, before dinner, in the car — and be fully available to just listen.
- When your children are talking about concerns, stop whatever you are doing and listen.
- Express interest in what they are saying without being intrusive.
- Listen to their point of view, even if it’s difficult to hear.
- Let them complete their point before you respond.
- Repeat what you heard them say to ensure that you understand them correctly.
- Realize that your children may test you by telling you a small part of what is bothering them. Listen carefully to what they say, encourage them to talk and they may share the rest of the story.
- Shielding children from possible causes of stress or anxiety, such as unemployment, a parent’s marital problems or an illness in the family, can worsen a child’s anxiety because children commonly assume a worse case scenario. Help your child by providing age-appropriate information.
Interestingly enough, over 50% of teens polled in a survey said “chilling out with their friends” was the surest way to reduce stress. Another positive approach to reducing teen stress is to help build their self- esteem and introduce relaxation and meditation techniques, which have been documented to reduce stress and improve behavior. It is of the utmost importance for parents to be compassionate and sensitive to the challenges their teenagers face today.
Dr. Jeffery Gero is a pioneer in the field of stress management and the creator of the Success of Stress System. For over 30 years, Dr. Gero has worked with many organizations and individuals dealing with a variety of stressors. He delivered the first stress management program for the California Department of Corrections at San Quentin Prison. He assisted the Los Angeles Times with the stress surrounding the 1984 Olympics and helped JPL (NASA) deal with the stress after the failure of the Mars Project. He is one of the founders of LEAP, which helps teenagers master stress. Dr. Gero coaches athletes and individuals to enhance their performance. He is also former director of the Health Awareness Institute and the Stress Management Institute of California. He can be reached at 818 879-1373