What to Do About a Stressed-Out Teen


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A new report was just released, unveiling a study of adolescents and stress. It’s eye-opening. I realize I’ve written on this topic already, but I continue to be stunned by the number of high school and college students I meet who are paralyzed by stress. I asked myself, Is it just me? Am I the only one meeting kids full of angst?

Turns out, I’m not.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, one in eight children suffers from an anxiety disorder. The problem is so severe for 10 percent of teens that it disrupts their lives. By the time they reach college, almost half say their anxiety makes it difficult to function. Life is not supposed to be this way for kids.

What teens say

I just interviewed Dr. Jean Twenge, author and psychology professor at San Diego State University, and she said teens are now demonstrating more psychosomatic symptoms of anxiety and depression, such as trouble sleeping or remembering, than ever before. High school students at the Newport Academy, a behavioral treatment center, revealed what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by the stress from parents, friends and school:

“I didn’t see any other people in my life struggling with anxiety, so I constantly felt like there was something wrong with me,” one teen said.

Another student admitted, “I feel so far behind everyone else, and I can’t keep up. So I start thinking about how it would be better if I wasn’t even here.”

Some teens complain that social media has complicated their lives, forcing them to pretend they’re outgoing and having fun when the reality is much different. One report states that 33 percent admitted to doing something just so they could brag about it on Facebook. Many said their parents added to their anxiety by constantly hovering, arranging after-school activities and pressuring them to do well in class.

Two big causes

I have observed two gigantic realities that have led to this “stress” dilemma:

  1. Teens have never been more pressured by adults to make the grade, make the team, make the cut and make a difference. They feel like losers if they’re not the best.
  2. Teens have never been more devoid of coping skills to handle adversity. This is due to adults over-connecting, over-protecting, over-serving and overwhelming them.

Consider this: The very same adult (perhaps parent) who shelters a student from any failure may also be the one who’s pressuring them to push forward in tough times. It’s very hard to face hardships if you’ve never been introduced to it — and in fact, have been sheltered from it — your whole life.

In a recent focus group, I was appalled by the kinds of challenges that paralyzed students. By the way, the participants in the focus group were great students: smart, savvy, good-looking, and many of them quite popular. But they were challenged by relatively minor difficulties, like a C- on a paper or a breakup with a boyfriend. I remained silent and listened, but inside, I was thinking: Wow. Count your blessings. In ten years, these will be the least of your worries!

A balanced approach

It’s importance to stay balanced on this issue. It’s easy for us, as adults, to forget the angst of being a teenager. We forget the stress we felt over relatively small problems in the midst of raging hormones, peer bullies and tough teachers. Here are some keys to responding to and equipping a stressed-filled student:

  1. Perception: Keep your antennas up. Look for signs of angst, including extreme silence and withdrawal, hiding their habits, or covering things up as a coping mechanism.
  2. Origins: Help them discover the source of their anxiety. Trace their feelings to specific situations or experiences they’ve had. Understanding origins informs action.
  3. Outlook: Help them understand these feelings are a natural part of adolescence. Their body and brain are changing. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed in this season.
  4. Responsibility: Enable them to see what is in their control, what is out of their control, and what is within their influence. These three require different responses.
  5. Priorities: Stress can arise from attempting to please too many people or do too many things. Help them choose what’s most important and what can be discarded.

Our young people are far too valuable — and their future is far too important — to allow stress to dictate these years they spend preparing for adulthood.

Do you have any stories of moments you helped your students or kids effectively manage stress?

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What to Do About a Stressed-Out Teen