Teen Stress: Causes, Management Tips And Activities

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A survey by the American Psychological Association in 2014 revealed that teenagers are more stressed than adults (1), which is quite alarming for parents. Teen stress is not uncommon. But it can and should be dealt with before it worsens. Even though there may be many causes of stress in adolescence, they can be handled with a little patience from parents. Here, MomJunction discusses everything that you need to know about stress among teenagers.

Teen Stress – What Is It?

Imagine this.

Your daughter/son has an important exam in which he or she has to score nothing less than an A. They have exactly a week to prepare for it. Through the week, your teen, and maybe you, are likely to experience anxiety, worry, increased heart rate, irritability, anger and more. Just before the exam, your kid may even have this ‘butterflies in the stomach’ feeling. She is so scared she’ll fail that she wants to run away and hide – anything but take that test!

That is an example of stress.

Stress is how the body responds to demanding or threatening experiences. You feel stressed when you are under pressure to do something or when you have to deal with an adverse situation. Stress also activates the ‘fight or flight’ response.

Flight or Fight Response And Teens

When a person is facing a perceived or imminent threat or is extremely stressed, the automatic ‘flight or fight’ response is triggered. This response plays a vital role in how we deal with stress: it prepares the body to either fight the threat or flee from it.

When the flight or fight mode is activated, the amygdala (neurons in the brain) sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which is the communication center of the brain. The hypothalamus sends a response to the adrenal glands through the automatic nervous system, activating the sympathetic nervous system (2).

The adrenal glands suddenly release adrenaline into the blood, which, in turn, releases blood sugar, sending energy to all parts of the body. When this happens, the individual’s heart rate increases, pupils dilate, the body starts to shake, and the skin is flushed or becomes pale. The person stays in this state for 20 to 60 minutes, before coming back to a normal, relaxed state.

Teenagers experience this response to stress as adults do, and it is normal as long as the response doesn’t extend to long periods. Small doses of the ‘flight-and-fight’ response are essential and helpful. That response is what helps you duck in time from getting hit by a ball or move out of the way of an oncoming vehicle just in time!

Keep reading to know how to identify if the teenager is stressed.

[ Read: Teenage Depression ]

Signs Of Teen Stress

Stress can manifest itself in different ways, mostly emotional and physical. You can also tell that someone is stressed by the way they are behaving. The effects of stress on teens can be many; some of them are listed below.

1. Emotional signs

People who are stressed aren’t the most excited lot. They are unhappy and may seem depressed. Stressed teens may also seem agitated, anxious, aloof, and irritable. They get angry and overwhelmed easily by simple things, and may also feel helpless and hopeless about the situation. The next time your teenager snaps at you for no reason, you could know that he is stressed.

2. Physical signs

Physical signs of stress in teens include tiredness or fatigue, headaches, constipation, nausea and dizziness, palpitations, and loss of appetite. Your teen may lose interest in sports and other physical activities as well. Some teens may lose or gain weight, while girls may experience a change in their period cycle.

3. Behavioral changes

Your teen may also seem fidgety and display nervous habits like nail biting, restless pacing, moving around constantly and so on. Crying, isolating self from friends and family, being moody or easily irritable, not bothered about their appearance, and not showing as much interest in activities that give them pleasure could also indicate stress.

[ Read: Common Behavior Problems In Teenagers ]

4. Cognitive symptoms

Stress in teens can also impact their cognitive abilities like memory. You may think that your teen is neglecting his chores or being careless, but for all you know, he may have been stressed and forgot about it. Other cognitive symptoms include being irrational, the inability to focus, negative perspective, and poor judgment.

Sometimes, you may not be able to identify if your teenager is stressed or is just being a ‘teen’. In such cases, a teen stress test could be a good option. You could get them to take an online test or take one at school. Do not force them to take such tests and do not single them out. Instead, make it a fun activity that everyone in the family participates in.

Unlike what you may think, stress is good if it motivates you to perform better (3). It can also help you identify an underlying problem. Mental stress or tension that your teen is going through can be managed easily, only if you know what is causing it.

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11 Causes Of Teen Stress

More often than not, it is the everyday things that can be stressful. If your teenageris stressed, it could be because of one or more stressors listed below.

1. Academic stress

The pressure to perform better academically is one of the most common causes of high school stress. Teenagers often worry about a lot of things like completing school work, projects, and reports, studying for an exam, and about which colleges they should apply. This kind of pressure is good when it encourages your teenager to get better grades at school. But if it is affecting their cognitive abilities and taking a toll on their health, it is a concern.

2. Physical stress

Physical changes can also be a cause of stress among teenagers. Adolescents go through some emotional and physical changes which can leave them confused and stressed. Not knowing what is happening to their body and why they feel a certain way during pubertycan be a cause of such tension. Also, excessive strain on the body can leave your teen tired and mentally stressed.

[ Read: Physical Changes During Puberty ]

3. Social stress

Social life is paramount for teenagers, and they could have a persistent need to be accepted by their peers by being in the popular ‘groups’, attending parties and hanging out with their friends. They could give more importance to friends than family.

Peer pressure is a social stressor, where teenagers have a need to be accepted by their peers and are motivated to try new things such as drinking, smoking, and doing drugs. They are under constant pressure to dress in a certain way, speak the teen lingo and be ‘cool’. More often than not, all this implies that teenagers have to put aside their true selves and pretend to be someone they are not, which can be a very stressful experience.

In that process, they create an accepted social image and are under constant pressure to maintain it. Trying to strike a balance between their image and a created one is not an easy task and can be stressful.

In addition to the above, problems with friends, being bullied, and romantic relationships can also be a cause of stress among teenagers.

[ Read: Teen Peer Pressure ]

4. Stress due to family problems

Anything that affects the family impacts the teenager directly. Unreasonable expectations by parents, marital discord between parents, sickness of a family member, or strained relationship between siblings are all the factors that can affect a teenager.

Sibling rivalry is yet another family problem that can stress the teenager. Differences between siblings are normal, but if it goes up a few notches and turns into war, it can be stressful for both the parties involved. Teenagers may develop feelings of jealousy and hatred for their younger siblings who get more attention from the parents. Avoid taking sides with the kids to prevent such a situation.

5. Financial stress

Money isn’t something that worries only the adults. Teenagers are more stressed about finances because they cannot do much about it. Studies show that kids from low-income families deal with poverty-related stress almost all the time and become troubled teens and adults (4).

If your family is going through financial problems, that can also be a stressor for your teenager. Teenagers may worry about college tuition and scholarships, which can be very stressful. While it is okay to let your teen know if you are trying to make both ends meet, do not burden them with too many details.

6. Traumatic events

Dealing with traumatic events like accidents, sickness or death of a loved one, physical or mental abuse can have a very severe impact on a teenager. Death can create a sense of loss and fear of losing everyone and everything, adding stress to the pain. Sometimes, breaking up with a romantic partner can also be traumatic for young adults. It is always a good idea to keep an eye on your teenager in the wake of any such events.

7. Drastic changes in life

Adolescents may not embrace change as quickly as adults do. Drastic changes like moving to a new school or city, the addition of new members to the family such as a step-parent, step-siblings, etc., can make the teenager uncomfortable. Not knowing how to deal with changes and the way to meet the expectations of parents or teachers can make life very stressful for the teenager.

8. Romantic relationships

Boys and girls in high school often worry about not having a boyfriend or girlfriend, when all their friends do. Expectations from the partner, getting too little or too much attention from the partner and the confusion caused due to budding sexual feelings are just a few things about romantic relationships that can get them stressed.

9. Poor self-esteem

Teenagers have a lot of questions and doubts about the different emotions and physical changes they go through. Self-doubt or poor self-esteem is the worst among them. How you treat your teen can also give rise to self-doubt and poor perception of self.

10. Unhealthy competition

Competition among peers in school is common. Students usually indulge in healthy competition in academics, sports, and extracurricular activities. Competition is good and healthy as long as it only encourages them to perform better and improve their grades. But if it gives rise to negative feelings like jealousy and resentment, it just adds to the current academic stress.

11. Poor time management

A common complaint that your teens make is that they “don’t have time” for anything. There is never enough time for breakfast, for school work, or household chores. Poor time management is yet another cause of stress among teens. They get easily distracted by technology and media, which eats up most of their time. Before they realize, they are left with little time to finish what needs to be done. The result – a stressed-out teenager.

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7 Tips For Teens To Deal With Stress

There is no point in stressing about the “stress” that your teenager undergoes. Help your teendeal with stress with these simple solutions.

1. Sleep

Between schoolwork, social life, and home, adolescents have little time to get proper sleep. They tend to stay up late at night and get out of the house very early. Relaxation is necessary to de-stress. When the body is relaxed, the mind also relaxes and rejuvenates. A full night’s sleep can help your teenager deal with stress better. Short naps in between tasks can also reduce stress.

2. Physical activity

Physical activity is one of the best stress relievers in teenagers. Nothing beats stress like a run. When you are stressed, go for a walk or just hit the gym – you’ll feel better afterward. Encourage your teenagers to exercise or take up a sport to keep their body and the mind healthy to beat stress.

[ Read: Physical Activities For Teens ]

3. Healthy diet

A healthy diet is necessary to alleviate the tension that the body accumulates. A balanced diet that includes a good intake of fruits, vegetables, and dairy and protein foods keeps your teen healthy. When your teen is stressed, they tend to eat junk foods such as pizza, burgers, hot dogs, and ice cream. Replace such food with healthy options like avocados, berries, dark chocolate, milk, and turkey.

4. Support from parents

Dealing with a teenager can be challenging as it is. They become worse when they are stressed out. Getting angry with them and punishing them for their behavior when they are stressed is not going to help. If you want to help your teenager deal better with stress, you need to be there for them and support them through it, and not make it more difficult for them.

5. Focus on positives

When we are stressed out, it is easy to focus on what is going wrong. We tend to worry about what we don’t have and what we cannot do. Stress can worsen when the teenager develops a pattern of negative thinking and focuses on all that is wrong. It may not be easy to stay positive in the midst of what feels like a crisis, but you can help your teen by reminding them about their strengths and how they can put them to use to deal with the situation better.

6. Talk about it

Encourage your teenagers to talk about what is worrying them. Talk is therapeutic and one of the most effective stress relievers too. Also, talking about a problem or discussing will also help you find a solution for it sooner. The most important thing you should do as a parent is to listen to your teen’s feelings and see what you can do to make it easier for him.

7. Do what makes you happy

What makes you happy cannot stress you out. Let your teenage do what she or he likes to relieve stress. It could be something as simple as listening to music, playing a game, or watching a movie.

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Stress Management Activities For Youth

Teenagers and adolescents can also use the help of these activities to deal better with stress.

  • Breathing Exercises: Deep breathing exercises (belly breathing) relax the body and mind. Breathing exercises can help bring the balance back to the nervous system, and also promote mindfulness.

[ Read: Regular Exercise For Teenagers ]

  • Mindfulness: It is the art of focusing on the present moment. When you are overwhelmed by your thoughts and emotions, take a deep breath and take a look around you. Try to think nothing – focus on what you see. You can also practice mindfulness by focusing on your breath, the body sensations, or what you hear. This simple activity gives you a break from your thoughts and relaxes your mind.
  • Creative visualization: Visual imagery is a powerful tool that can be used to get out of negative thinking that creates stress. Sit in a quiet place in your room. Close your eyes and listen to the sounds around. Try to become mindful. Now picture how the ideal situation would be like. Think about how you would feel and what you would say. Hold that thought for a minute or two – experience it in your mind. Once you open your eyes, you’ll be back in the real world, but with a fresh perspective.
  • Co-sharing: When you and your friends are stressed, you can try this activity. Co-sharing lets you share your feelings and thoughts in a structured way. It also helps you develop your listening skills.
  • Silent ball: This is a game your teens can play in a group. Take a lightweight ball, such as a Nerf ball that can be thrown easily. The objective of the game is to stay silent when you throw or receive the ball. The person who makes a sound or misses a catch is out. The activity forces them to focus on catching the ball and keeps them from thinking about whatever is bothering them.
  • Freeze dance: This is a fun activity that a group of teenagers can play to de-stress themselves. Gather the teenagers in a room and play some music. The participants have to dance to the tunes and freeze in whatever position or posture they are in when the music stops.

Teenagers should also be encouraged to use stress management worksheets – that can help.

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Teenage Stress Statistics And Facts

Did you know that more than 25% of adolescents experience “extreme stress” during the school year? A study by the American Psychological Association (APA) found out that over 31% of teenagers feel depressed or sad because of stress.

  • 59% of teens said that time management was a significant stressor.
  • 40% of teens reported feeling irritable and angry because of stress.
  • 35% of them could not sleep at night, while 23% had lost their appetite because of stress.
  • Many teenagers also experienced physical changes – 36% felt tired or fatigues, while 32% had headaches, and 21% had an upset stomach or indigestion.
  • For girls, appearance was a significant source of stress, with 68%of girls feeling that way. Only 55% of boys surveyed thought their appearance was a stressor.
  • Video games (48%) was the number one activity for beating stress, and browsing the internet (43%) was the second.
  • 28% of teens played sports, and 37% exercised to manage stress better.

While these numbers may seem like teens are under a lot of pressure, some experts disagree. Michael Bradley, a Pennsylvania psychologist, says that teenagers get stressed when someone demands them to do something they do not want to do (5).

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Keep in mind that nothing can eliminate stress. You can only manage it better to prevent it from taking over your life. The sooner your teenagers learn how to deal with stress, the better they will become at handling it in their adult life.

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Sagari Gongala

Sagari was a math graduate and studied counseling psychology in postgraduate college, which she used to understand people better. Her interest in reading about people made her take up articles on kids and their behavior. She was meticulous in her research and gave information that could be of help to parents in times of need. An animal lover, vegan, and coffee addict, Sagari put her mind and soul into whatever she did. She strived for animal well-being, was vocal about women's rights, and stood for what she believed in.

Dan Martin

Dan Martin is a Registered Psychologist (AU), Licensed Professional Counselor (USA), and a Nationally Certified Counselor (USA). He is also a member of the Australian Psychological Society, the Singapore Association for Counselling, and the Singapore Psychological Society. Martin holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and a Master of Science Degree in Psychology (Clinical). He specializes in couples counseling,... more