Last month, the American Psychological Association announced the results of a study on stress in America. They asked the question: Are teens adopting the stress habits of adults?
Teens actually reported that their stress level was higher than adults, 5.8 for teens versus 5.1 for adults on a 10-point schedule. About a third also said they felt overwhelmed or sad or depressed because of stress. A third said they felt tired, and a fourth said they sometimes skip meals because of stress. Only 16 percent said they felt their stress level was on the decline compared with last year.
So, why are our teens just as stressed out as we are? Well, it’s kind of our fault. Parents are modeling our own stress, and we aren’t showing our teens how to manage it.
“Kids learn from their parents, how their parents deal with stress,” says Dr. Bradley Berg, medical director of pediatrics at Scott & White Hospital-Round Rock. “If parents don’t handle stress well, kids don’t handle it, either.”
Dr. Caron Farrell, a pediatrician and pediatric psychiatrist at the Seton Mind Institute, sees the same thing. “They are not seeing how to regulate stress,” she says. “They are feeling stress oozing from their parents.”
Farrell suggests kids, and probably their parents, explore some relaxation techniques like meditation. It will serve them later in life if they learn how to relax now. Parents and kids can do things together like schedule in homework breaks, schedule physical activity such as a walk around the block, eat a healthy snack right after school and schedule in downtime that is not related at all to school or after-school activities.
One of the things Farrell sees kids experiencing is this lack of downtime, even when they are at home. Social media has created a situation where kids are always “on.” They are always having to navigate how to fit in with their peers and they no longer get a break from that. They also are not socializing away from home, away from school, with face-to-face, fun interactions.
Both doctors are seeing the level of stress amping up starting in the middle school years, though some kids are experiencing it much earlier. Middle school is when the peer pressure increases and the level of school and outside activities increase.
“Kids are pushed to excel,” Berg says. “There’s so much coming at them in every direction. … Everything is more complicated. They are almost leading adult lives.”
Hormones also play into how kids handle the stress.
“Teen problems seem trivial to adults, but they are very important to them,” Farrell says. “They are trying to figure out: What am I going to be?”
Teens also are chronically sleep deprived. This is the time when they need 10 hours of sleep and their bodies are physically wired to stay up late and sleep in, yet we make them get up early for school. It’s very typical for teens to sleep the weekend away to try to make up for a lack of sleep during the week.
Parents need to help kids manage their schedules and be more realistic about expectations. The message we should be sending, says Farrell, is that no one is perfect and kids should try to do their best, not someone else’s best.
Some kids might handle four extracurricular activities and school fine, but many will not, and that should be monitored. It’s OK not to do everything.
Parents should be looking for warning signs such as changes in sleep and eating patterns, emotional reactivity, statements about feeling overwhelmed or depressed, being withdrawn, grades slipping, lack of motivation, stomachaches and headaches.
These signs also could mean that there is something physically wrong, so Berg suggests starting with the pediatrician to rule out those causes and then seeking help from a psychologist or psychiatrist. The warning signs also could be indicative of drug use. “They are trying to find escape,” Farrell says of these stressed-out kids with little downtime.
When you see that your child is one of these stressed-out kids, you might want to make radical changes to their daily structure, but this is also the age that kids push back. Farrell recommends making gradual changes and modeling good behavior, like taking a walk yourself or putting down your own cellphone at night or during dinner.
And for kids who feel like school homework is overwhelming, tackle the little things first, rather than the big project. The brain, Berg says, tends to work in numbers, not levels, so if you can cross five little things off the list, the stress level will go down more than if you finish one big project.
Stress is “part of growing up now, but it doesn’t have to be,” Berg says.