Lately I’ve found myself needing to step back from newsfeeds and social media sites. Even though it’s part of my job to keep up with these things, reading article after article about the world’s problems can become overwhelming and affect my mental health.
If the stresses of daily life can affect an adult with a higher-than-average understanding of mental health, how is it affecting young people?
Stress in America, According to Teens
While some tend to dismiss the worries of adolescence or chalk teenage stress off to hormones, the science proves it’s much more sinister.
For example, the APA’s Stress in America survey found that teens and children as young as ten reported even higher levels of stress than adults. More than 80% reported emotional or physical symptoms associated with prolonged exposure to stress.
Perhaps even more concerning than the dangerous levels of stress is that teenagers are likely to underestimate the impact this stress is having on their physical and mental health.
Seventy-five percent of teens report being more stressed than adults about gun violence, rising suicide rates, immigration issues, climate change, and sexual harassment and assault. They reported feeling stress about work and money, as well as more age-specific issues like gender identity, bullying, and peer conflict.
COVID-19 has added the stress of worrying about themselves or those they love getting sick, and stress caused by social isolation.
Adolescents are asked to navigate a world of ever-increasing expectations, while simultaneously managing their identity exploration, with limited autonomy. With so much to navigate while undergoing serious development in the brain and endocrine system, is it any surprise that we see such alarming rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide?
While reducing stress is certainly going to need to be tailored to each struggling teen, here are five helpful stress management tools suggested by the APA:
Don’t Ignore the Basics
Good nutrition, sleep, and exercise. Simple, but effective.
The research on the benefits of aerobic exercise, as well as relaxation and meditation techniques, could fill libraries. Frequent exercise is like a drug that prevents and treats disease, increases energy, calms anxiety, and boosts mood. Combining exercise with getting outdoors is anti-stress nirvana.
Inadequate sleep is a huge stressor. Sleep benefits many areas of physical and mental health—better mood regulation; improved academic performance; and fewer incidents of conflicts, aggression, bullying, and accidents. Help teens optimize their sleep environment, stick to a media curfew, and never view going to bed early as a punishment.
Limit News and Social Media
Many teens cope with stress by using social media. During covid isolation, it’s been a lifeline. But the increased dependence on technology and social media has come with a high price.
One study found that greater social media use, nighttime social media use and emotional investment in social media (such as feeling upset when prevented from logging on) were each linked with higher levels of anxiety and depression. In the Stress in America report, up to one-half of teen respondents reported that social media made them feel judged or bad about themselves.
The key is balance. When teens do us social media, encourage they to engage with content that is uplifting, inspiring, and fosters connection.
Do Things Purely for Pleasure
Teens (and teen boys in particular) don’t usually talk about “self care.” But it’s no less important for them as for us.
For teens who are struggling, both ends of the spectrum they can fall into—constantly being busy or being sedentary—are harmful to mental health. They don’t have to be doing something productive 100% of the time. Neither should they be sleeping or staring at their phone 24-7. It’s important to take time regularly to proactively do things just for the fun of it.
Talk Through It
As we’ve discussed here before, it can be a challenge to get teen boys to talk. But, try anyway. Whether late at night or driving in the car; if they know you’re a listening ear, they’ll come around.
Regardless of any advice or actions taken, simply labeling and expressing negative emotions can lessen the power they have. Along with having an empathetic listener, keeping a diary can also be effective. One study found that participants who wrote down their worries about an upcoming exam did better on the exam than those who were not assigned to write down their concerns.
Support But Don’t Smother
You can’t protect teens from experiencing stress, nor should you try to.
Rather, give them the skills they need to process and withstand stress.
Building “grit” aka emotional intelligence skills is crucial. Every teen will benefit from 1) the ability to be aware of their feelings as they’re happening, and 2) having constructive strategies for emotional regulation.
This is a challenge, as boys are at risk for severing friendships when they are under stress. The isolation of the past year has also cost us a lot of connectedness.
Nevertheless, it’s important to know that good relationships are essential to mental health and well-being. The presence of a caring person can buffer the cortisol response, and has shown to help navigate emotionally stressful times.
As the nation comes out of lockdown, encourage your teen to get back out there. A warm, supportive home environment is also essential, and can fill a void left by lost social connections.
While stress may be a normal part of life, sometimes stress becomes unhealthy and needs to be addressed by a professional. Just as we wouldn’t hesitate to visit the doctor for a cold that turns into pneumonia, we shouldn’t hesitate to seek help for teens when every day stress gets to be too much.
Understanding the stressors facing adolescents, helping them manage stress through healthy stress management techniques, and reaching out for help when needed will provide the best chance for successfully navigating the turbulent teen years.
By Natalie Walker Whitlock, for The Forge School
If your child is having a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.
This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice.
The suggestions herein should be adapted to local and state laws and mandates, and your own individual and family circumstances.