Helping Teenagers Deal With Their Stress
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Today’s teenager is more stressed than ever. The demand for them to succeed, get into a good school, and find a career has become akin to a contact sport. With new public school initiatives that promote “college and career readiness” starting in kindergarten, it is no surprise that by senior year, their level of anxiety has led an unhealthy perspective. We’ve created a society that demands their full attention on succeeding, at everything. Have we set them up to fail?
In an attempt to build a spotless resume, teens are panicking over grades, over-committing themselves to multiple extracurricular activities, and spending a ridiculous amount of time on homework. When children emerge into adolescence, they feel as if a spotlight is on them. The ego is at the center of everything. As if this developmental milestone weren’t stressful enough, but now they are under increasing pressure to be perfect at everything they do, while trying to figure out what they want to be when they “grow up”. They lose sleep, suffer from physical ailments related to stress, and miss their opportunity at doing what teenagers do best—explore themselves.
A Rising Culture of Stress
Each year, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) conducts a study of college freshmen to gather information about the overall climate surrounding this age group. Administered by the Higher Educational Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA, the 2014 CIRP Freshman Survey has identified some concerning trends.
· 9.5 percent regularly felt depressive symptoms, which is up 3.4 percent from 2009
· Self-reported emotional health decreased to 50.7 percent, which is the lowest since the survey began in 1987
· 35 percent felt frequently overwhelmed, compared to 13.5 percent in 1987
On top of this troubling data, high school students are applying to more colleges than ever (this number has tripled in the last decade), yet fewer are graduating. Of those that do complete their programs, fewer report satisfaction with their education or subsequent career choices. On a positive note, fewer teenagers are consuming alcohol and tobacco products. While this is a good sign, it points to yet another worrisome behavior—less socialization. What researchers have discovered is that students are limiting their social interactions for the sake of academic resumes.
Why These Findings are Important
While we do not want to promote teenage drinking and smoking, we should pay heed to the fact that teenagers are spending less time socializing outside of school. In adolescence, the main task of personal development is to discover individual values, while nurturing interests in the pursuit of becoming an adult. They do this by experimenting, socializing, and learning from their experiences. If teenagers are so consumed with being good at everything, then how can they allocate time to their talents and interests? Humans are unique from each other; they are not supposed to be good at everything. Yet the college admissions process (at least from a high school standpoint) requires them to be “well-rounded”, expecting more of themselves than is possible. This situation results in their feeling poorly about themselves, possibly leading to depression and anxiety disorders.
Where Do We Go from Here?
It’s difficult to fight against the status quo, and many of you may feel that college admission is one of the single-most important aspects of high school success. I’m not here to belittle your concerns. However, we do need to address an important issue about the culture of stress we are creating: What will happen when these teenagers, with impossible expectations and poor emotional health, become adults? What happens to the 35-year-old, the 50-year-old, who never learned the valuable lessons provided through adversity and cultivating self-worth?
When we constantly expect perfection of ourselves, we don’t take chances, and we don’t embrace our mistakes. We also don’t forgive ourselves, and the lack of compassion we feel spreads to other aspects of life. While it may seem impossible to combat societal pressures to constantly succeed, you can learn to cope better, acquire realistic expectations, and commit to individual development.
Recommendations for Teenagers:
The best thing you can do for yourself is pursue your interests. Yes, you have to put forth effort in your studies, regardless of your passions, but identifying your talents and doing what makes you happy will benefit you greatly. Here are some other ways to maintain physical, emotional, and mental well-being:
· Limit your involvement in extracurricular activities. Only involve yourself in activities that you enjoy, and don’t worry about your resume. Yes, it is important to demonstrate your ability to be a well-rounded person, but don’t waste your passion and time.
· Exercise. Physicians recommend that you get at least 60 minutes of vigorous activity every day. Fresh air is also good for you. Not only will exercising help you create healthy habits, but it will help you release stress.
· Sleep. Get 9 hours each night. I know this is difficult to do, especially because your biological clock wants you to stay up later, and you have that huge English paper to complete, but getting to bed early will pay off. Set a bed time and get as much done as you can before that time. If you’re not finishing your assignments, think about how your non-homework time is spent and reassess your commitments.
· Communicate. If you are feeling anxious or blue, talk to an adult. Parents, teachers, counselors, and other family members can be great sources of wisdom. Also, stay open to your emotions through journaling or other creative outlets.
· Balance: Commit to doing your best, but don’t expect perfection. Work hard in school, go through the process of pursuing your post-secondary goals, but also dedicate time to your well-being and the activities that make you happy.
Suggestions for Parents (and other caring adults):
We create the expectations for young people. We need to set expectations that cultivate character, compassion, and acceptance.
· Focus on the right things: Instead of constantly asking how are your grades, ask how are you? Defining them by their grades sets them up to be anxious. Also, highlight why they were successful (or failed) at something. “You got a good grade, because you studied so hard. I’m proud of you for the time you spent working toward that grade,” is much better than “You are so smart!”
· Monitor stress: Keep an open dialogue with teens. If they seem overwhelmed, help them to assess their level of activities and make a plan to improve the situation.
· Be their biggest fan: Loving them unconditionally is the best thing you can do. Show them how to love themselves and others in the same way. Help them cope, forgive, and gain a sense of self.
- Melissa Lavery, M.S.
Ginsberg, K. (n.d.). The 7 Cs: The Essential Building Blocks of Resilience. Retrieved March 4, 2015, from http://www.fosteringresilience.com/7cs.php
Moss-Coane, M. (2015, February 17). [Radio broadcast]. Delaware Valley: Marty Moss-Coane.
Teens and Stress: How to Keep Stress in Check. (2015). Retrieved March 4, 2015, from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-teens.aspx
Wyer, K. (2015, February 5). HERI's Freshman Survey: Annual Report Reveals Attitudes Toward Cost of Education, Student Life. Retrieved March 4, 2015, from http://ampersand.gseis.ucla.edu/heris-freshman-survey-annual-report-reveals-attitudes-toward-cost-of-education-student-life/