Growing up has never been easy. Teens have been experiencing stress for generations, but these days, we have data that gives us a clearer picture of what’s going on among today’s teens, in part thanks to a recent study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, Canada.
The study offered some interesting observations. To begin with, despite the apparent “kids today” consensus that being young is worse nowadays than ever, reports of bullying have been in steady decline for some years now, as have reports of teen gambling and opioid use. Social media has not created an apocalypse in the realm of teen psychology.
There is one area, however, in which conditions are very serious: teen stress. According to the CAMH study, 34% of teens report experiencing moderate or severe stress -- an increase of ten percent over 2013.
Put another way, one in three teens experiences enough stress that those around them should feel concerned. The question is what to do about it.
A big part of growing up is learning how to grasp our own feelings. For some of us, knowing what’s going on is second nature, but there are plenty of folks for whom it’s a struggle. This is especially true of teens, whose feelings can seem feel powerful, even overwhelming, and difficult to master. The subtle feelings can be tricky too, sitting in the background and altering perceptions. It’s important, therefore, to learn to recognize the signs of stress when they appear. Look for physical symptoms and behavioral changes. This should not be limited to the parents either -- teens themselves need to understand stress and how it works, and spot the warning signs of stress within themselves in order to respond with the appropriate self-care. Trying to power through it, or maintain a positive facade, does not help anything.
Failure happens in life
A high schooler might feel like a failed exam is traumatic, but in the grand panoply of a life’s experience, it’s barely a pothole on Main Street. That’s not to say it’s nothing -- feelings are feelings and they’re entirely valid -- but honestly, a test is just a test. Grades are important, as are assignments and presentations and all the other steps on the journey to graduation, but students should understand that failure is a part of life, and a crucial life skill is being able to pick oneself up off the floor, brush off the dust and get on with life.
Feelings are responses to reality, they’re not reality itself
Stress is a thing that occurs in our lives from time to time, at all ages. Stress, however, is a response to one’s interactions with the world, it’s not the world itself. In other words being a teenager applying to university, preparing for the SAT or ACT, waiting for responses to applications -- well, it’s perfectly natural to feel stress in response to all these things. But that stress, however justified, is still just a feeling. It shouldn’t be allowed to alter one’s perception of life itself. If it is allowed to do so, then life can seem mighty dark and unhappy indeed. In practical terms, this can have many negative effects on health and happiness, as well as making it harder to succeed in life. Acknowledge feeling as feelings and don’t let them take over.
Do some good, it might help
One of the worst things about stress and anxiety is the feeling of being out of control, of an absence of independence, even of agency. But some studies point to an unusual way to tackle that feeling: helping others. According to Michael Ungar, director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, helping other people can be an empowering experience. “One of the best things you can do with kids if they are anxious,” he says, “is not just ask them to do things for themselves, but ask them to do things for others.” A bit of volunteering, mentoring or coaching might help a stressed teen.
Get some sleep!
Seriously, sleep is a crucial component not only of mental development, but of mental health. Getting a good night’s sleep as often as possible is one of the most important things anyone, of any age, can do for themselves. Sleep. Really!
Get more exercise
No, this isn’t about being thin. It’s about getting the heart pumping and working the old muscles a bit. Playing a sport, going for walks, swim, climb -- it doesn’t matter. Exercise works wonder for stress and always has. It doesn’t need to be intense; even a moderate, gentle workout can really help in relaxation. Be careful, of course -- don’t risk injury. But try moving around, it’s likely to help.
The key to handling stress is to be open about it, acknowledge it, and be methodical about tackling it. No one should feel any shame or embarrassment in being stressed. Indeed if left alone it can be very harmful, both physically and mentally. Learning healthy ways of dealing with it while still young can be a fantastic, empowering skill that will reap great rewards for decades to come.