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Teens and Stress: What are they Stressed About? What Can Parents Do about it?


Your teenager is what you would describe as a "good kid," but lately she's been keeping to herself more, not talking with you or her siblings the way she used to. She stays up late studying, and she has a part-time job on the weekends.

A college student is feeling pressure to do well in school, hoping that high achievement will give him the best career opportunities. He loads up his course schedule and works a part-time job nearly every day. He's been having problems with his stomach lately, but the doctor hasn't been able to figure out what's wrong.

Teen stress runs across all socioeconomic backgrounds. Some of the common causes include

  • Pressure to do well at school
  • Problems in the family, such as illness or divorce
  • Problems with friends
  • Dissatisfaction with their bodies
  • Lack of self confidence
  • Feeling the need to be perfect
  • Changing schools

Teenagers who are under a lot of stress may exhibit the following kinds of behavior

  • Anxiety
  • Isolating themselves from friends and family
  • Being aggressive
  • Having physical symptoms (such as stomach problems, sweaty palms, tense muscles)
  • Illegal drug or alcohol use

Parents of teenagers can play a large role in helping to manage their children's stress levels. A big part of that includes keeping a close watch on children to see whether they are taking on too much, expecting too much of themselves, feeling overwhelmed, etc. Gently guiding teens to de-stress—to relax with friends, take part in enjoyable activities, reduce a hectic schedule—is something that parents need to do if they see their kids becoming too stressed.

It's also important for parents to be good role models for their teens. If you're constantly running from one thing to the next, working late, taking on more than you can handle, it will be no surprise if your child adopts that kind of behavior too. Make sure your teen sees you taking time to relax and enjoy yourself.

Teenagers who are too stressed out need to slow down, period. They need to eat healthy meals on a regular basis, get exercise routinely, spend time with friends who are positive influences and learn to have a positive way of looking at the world. For instance, instead of telling themselves, "I'm so stupid, I'll never pass this test," they need to say to themselves, "I don't know anything about this material, but I know that if I study it and ask my teacher for help, I will do fine on the test."

It is easy to say how stressed out teens should make changes, but it is not always easy to make the changes happen. Sometimes, you need the advice of a professional.

When to get professional advice

Rough patches now and then are to be expected, but sometimes, stress gets the better of teens and parents. It is time to see a mental health professional if you are noticing the following kinds of behavior in your child:

  • Big changes in academic performance
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Aggressive behavior that lasts longer than six months
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Physical symptoms, such as stomach upset, diarrhea, tense muscles
  • Negative moods
  • Illegal drug and alcohol use
  • Threatening to harm themselves or others
  • Temper tantrums
  • Disrespect for authority figures

First, be sure to try to talk with your child to uncover the causes of the worrisome behavior. It could be that your child is ready to tell you what is going on. You can say something like, "It really seems like you are worried about something. Will you tell me what is on your mind?"

Many times, talking with parents about their concerns can help get kids back on track. Sometimes, a teacher might call you to discuss a problem your child is having, and that can be productive too. You can work closely with the teacher and your child to determine what is going on and what steps you can take to address it.

If things do not seem to get better, there are a number of ways you can seek help from a mental health professional. Your child's teacher may have a recommendation. Other parents may as well. The counselor at school may be a good place to start. Your child's pediatrician is likely to have someone to recommend as well.

What Can College Kids do about Stress?

It might seem like kids who are in college should finally be able to relax. They have been accepted, they are in—it is time for the parties! But that is not always the case.

Pressure to get good grades, to work part-time or to get the most desirable internship can get the best of high-achieving students who think they can handle anything.

Symptoms of stress

It is simply not possible to go full throttle all the time. If you keep going under intense pressure without much of a letup, you will feel emotionally and physically tired and drained, and you could also develop physical symptoms as well. It is not uncommon for stressed out people to experience

  • Problems with digestion
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Sweaty palms
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Muscle tension
  • You may also experience mental symptoms such as

    • Feeling distracted
    • Having a hard time concentrating
    • Feeling irritable
    • Feeling overwhelmed

    One of the first things you need to do to help yourself deal with the stress is to admit that stress is getting to you. That alone can be difficult for people. You want to believe that you can handle anything that comes your way.

    Then you need to figure out ways to make changes so that you will be able to relax more and simply enjoy life. For example:

    • Ask yourself how much time you dedicate to pursuing non-academic activities you enjoy. If you have always loved to dance, for example, do you ever do it now? If you like to go to museums, do you ever go to them now? Do you ever read a book just for pleasure? You get the idea.
    • What about support from friends and family? Do you make it a point to set aside time on a regular basis for people you enjoy?
    • What about caffeine and alcohol? Do you consume too much of these? Do you get regular exercise, which can help relieve stress?

    These are some of the basic ways you can help yourself relieve stress. It can sometimes mean changing your schedule, such as easing up on your course load, even if that means it might take you longer to accomplish a specific goal. Making decisions like this takes maturity, but that is a major part of becoming an adult and being responsible for your own health.

    If you feel as though the stress is getting to you no matter what you try, it is a good idea to see a counselor at your school's health center. An objective person can give you insight and help you set priorities and make a plan to manage the stress in your life.

    One thing you should know is that, according to a study conducted by the Kansas State University counseling center, more and more college students are experiencing problems that are related to stress and anxiety. Being stressed out is a pretty normal thing, in other words. So then the question is—how well are you going to deal with it? Making a plan and getting help if you need it are the best ways to start.

    American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; American Academy of Pediatrics; American College Health Association; National Institute of Mental Health
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