Let’s do something about teen stress

Adults are the ones who are supposed to be stressed, not kids. Childhood is supposed to be the stress-free part of life, right?

Well, maybe not. At least not for teens.

According to a recently released survey from the American Psychological Association, teens are actually more stressed than their parents.

Researchers surveyed 1950 adults and 1,018 teens last summer and asked them a whole bunch of questions about the stress in their lives, and how it affects them. The answers were really interesting — and worrisome. They found that:

  • Teens report being more stressed than they think is healthy — more during the school year, but also during the summer, when theoretically, they should be relaxing.
  • The teens reported more stress than the adults.
  • 31 percent of the teens reported feeling overwhelmed because of stress, 30 percent felt sad because of it, 36 percent felt tired because of it and 23 percent reported that stress caused them to skip meals.
  • Teens reported that stress interfered with their relationships, interactions with others, and their schoolwork.

In general, teens don’t get enough sleep (the average was 7.4 hours on school nights) and many don’t exercise enough — both of which can make stress worse.

Despite this, teens didn’t think that stress impacted their mental or physical health. And that’s what worried me most about the report. Because stress does impact mental and physical health, and it’s our job as grown-ups to keep youth healthy. Also because if teens are more stressed than we are, and don’t realize the impact, well, that’s a recipe for current and future disaster.

What are they stressed about? The top three sources of stress that teens reported were:

  • school (83 percent)
  • getting into a good college/deciding what to do after high school (69 percent)
  • financial concerns for their family (65 percent)

There were also differences between boys and girls; in general, girls were more stressed than boys, and reported more social stress (as well as stress about their physical appearance).

Parents really need to pay attention to this report — and talk to their teens. It can be tempting to say, “they are just kids, it’s nothing” –but stress isn’t nothing. Even more, it’s often very preventable.

Yes, we want kids to do well in school. Of course we do; it gives them more opportunities and choices, and opportunities and choices are good. But it can’t be at the expense of their mental or physical health. If kids are stressed because their grades are poor, then we should be doing everything we can to get them the help and support they need. If they are stressed because they want their grades to be perfect, we need to help them see that they are more than their grades, and that life is bigger and more complicated and more interesting than that.

Same goes for the college stress. I’ve gone through it twice so far (three more to go), and it is indeed incredibly stressful. But what I’ve learned from going through it, and watching others go through it, is that things have a way of working out if you give it your best effort. They may not work out in the way you expected, but they work out.

That’s the message we need to help youth see. We need to be talking to them, a lot. We need to understand as much as we can about their daily lives and what impacts and worries them. We need to work with them to prevent and manage stress.

Which means, of course, that we need to set a good example ourselves. It’s interesting that so many teens are stressed about their family’s finances; I can’t help wondering if they are reflecting their parents’ stress. Not that finances aren’t stressful; money is the top stressor for adults, and for good reason. But our children watch us. How we talk about and react to stress is important, because they learn from us. If we get enough sleep, eat right, exercise and otherwise find healthy ways to deal with the stress in our lives, they will too. If we don’t, well, it’s less likely that they will.

So think about it — and talk to your kids. Being a teen shouldn’t be so stressful. Let’s do something about it.

Claire McCarthy is a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital. She blogs regularly at Thriving, the health and parenting blog of the hospital, the Huffington Post and Boston.com as MD Mama.

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