Physical changes, teetering relationships and lack of confidence have stressed teens since before your great-grandparents noticed the opposite sex. However, according to Jeff Rossman, Ph.D., director of Behavioral Health at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, 21st century teens face stresses that didn’t exist a generation ago. The pressure is on, and young adults are more stressed-out than ever before.
Pressure to succeed is tremendous, he says. “Teens trying to get into high-powered colleges are having to work extraordinarily hard, with course work, extracurricular activities and preparation for standardized tests. Many have incredibly busy schedules – it leaves no time for rest and relaxation.”
A packed schedule and towering homework often means staying up late. Stress comes with the territory. “They’re just not getting enough sleep,” says Dr. Rossman. “Parents need to work to get kids in bed at 10 o’clock. It’s crucially important.”
How you can help
Teens deal with countless distractions, from instant messages to emails and MySpace interactions. Social connections are an important source of support that can help teens deal with ongoing stresses – but help your child set boundaries. Use the “off” switch when necessary.
Surveys show that teens rate a good relationship with family as the most important factor for happiness. Most parents are very concerned about helping their teens depressurize – this was apparent when Dr. Rossman, being interviewed for this article on a train to New York, received smiles and nods of agreement from several bystanders.
Maintain an open dialogue with your teen. Be an approachable parent. Find a common interest, then share outings to ballgames or sci-fi movies. When your daughter enjoys a book, ask to borrow it – then share your thoughts on the characters you loved or loathed.
What does stress look like?
Signs of teen stress can be physical, mental or emotional, says Canyon Ranch behavioral therapist Peggy Holt, so be observant.
• Physical: Headaches; stomachaches; nervousness; eating disorders (eating too much or too little).
• Mental: Forgetfulness; being disorganized; difficulty concentrating; a drop in grades; lack of sleep, sometimes causing behavior resembling attention deficit disorder.
• Emotional: Anger; impatience; sadness; irritability.
Boys and girls experience stress differently – girls are more likely to talk, whereas boys tend to clam up, making them more prone to use drugs, alcohol or smoking as a coping mechanism. Parents can offer healthy ways to combat stress, says Holt. Help your teen to learn coping and relaxation skills. Teach him or her about time management, and how to organize in order to prevent stressful last-minute panics.
Ways to promote positive communication could include holding family meetings. Empower your teen by letting him take a turn at facilitating. Listen respectfully to his opinions and problems. Let him make decisions and come up with his own solutions. Share your values, but resist the urge to step in with answers. “Helping kids learn how to make good decisions for themselves is the best gift we can give them,” says Holt. “Otherwise, they’ll go to college and still not know how.”
Avoid overcorrecting. Nobody likes being told what to do. Instead, catch your teen doing well, and offer praise whenever possible. Encouragement boosts healthy self-esteem – a great deterrent to stress. Don’t forget the importance of down time, says Holt. Play games that promote conversation, like board games, puzzles, or cards. And, she says, “Encourage kids to explore their passions and have fun.”
Exercise works wonders
Regular exercise and a healthy lifestyle are A-plus stress relievers, says Dr. Rossman. “When teens increase their level of skill through hard work and dedication, they learn a vital life lesson – that hard work can accomplish important goals. They learn to believe in themselves.”
When self-image is low, and grades suffer, exercise offers a huge bonus, he says. It not only relieves stress, “It helps students think better and perform better in school and on tests.” When a school district in Titusville, Pa., engaged every child in a personal fitness program,” he says, “academic test scores increased dramatically and aggressive behavior declined.”
Exercise offers other wonderful benefits, including teamwork and a sense of camaraderie – a great buffer against stress. The summer is a terrific time to give teens an opportunity to improve their lifestyle or play a sport that they really enjoy.
Stress has its place in a balanced life, says Holt. “It’s just knowing what level is good for you and how to manage it. We need stress – it’s what helps us meet deadlines. If we didn’t have stress, we wouldn’t get anything done.”