“When my teen stresses out, I stress out.”
We all deal with stress every day, but adults have a lot of experience managing our anxiety and keeping cool. Teen stress, on the other hand, can feel overwhelming. The effects of stress hormones on the teen brain are just as toxic as on the adult brain, but teens lack the coping mechanisms to get through tough times. For this reason, teen stress can actually be even more debilitating than adult stress.
It’s not teens’ fault that they’re so stressed out today. Teens’ lives are more complex now than ever before. They’re under more academic pressure, they have more competitive and demanding extracurriculars, and now they also have social media to deal with too—all while figuring out who they are and gaining independence. Teen stress is real.
Thankfully, a lot of research has been done and there are many proven things parents can do to help with teen stress. In this article, I’ll walk you through what the science reveals are the top stressors for teens along with the best ways to combat teen stress.
Top Teen Stressors (And How to Help)
What are the biggest causes of teen stress and what can parents do about them? I’ve compiled data from multiple teen surveys to identify the top stressors for teens across the board. For each one, I’ve also scoured the literature to find tried-and-true remedies that you can put into practice right away.
Pressure to Succeed
The top thing teens say stresses them out is high expectations. Many teens report feeling constant pressure to do their best. Performing well in school, sports, drama, music, and on Snapchat too might be unrealistic, but many teens get the message they are supposed to be able to do it all. This can cause huge amounts of teen stress. If teens feel overworked and experience failure constantly, they might never hit their stride.
If your teen seems stressed about success, help reduce their workload. One useful exercise is to sit down with your teen and identify the activities that are most important to them so they can discard or postpone the rest.
Another tip is to remind your teenager that there are more important values than getting the highest score, and that you love them no matter what their grades are. Most teens will actually perform better in their classes if they are more relaxed and focused on learning, rather than trying to avoid mistakes to keep their grades up. So mitigate teen stress and let your teen off the hook a little.
You could try telling your teen,
“I don’t care about the rankings. I love you no matter what grade you got. I’m proud that you never gave up, even when it was challenging. I have nothing but respect for that.”
Another thing that causes a lot of teen stress is social pressure. Your teen is barraged by a constant stream of opinions telling them what to like, how to dress, and how they should spend their free time. Constant social pressures can make teens feel uncool and unpopular if they don’t get enough Likes on social media. Stress about fitting in is especially bad for some teens, but all teens feel it to some extent.
Help your teen understand and feel proud about their choices with a simple exercise. Have your teen write down what makes them special, what their key values are, and their top goals for the next 1, 3, and 5 years. This type of affirmation exercise might sound basic, but it’s scientifically proven to help your teen focus on their strengths so they’re less likely to succumb to peer pressure later on in order to feel validated.
Another useful exercise is to roleplay a challenging social situation with your teen so they can practice how to react. Ask your teen for examples of social situations that would be difficult or awkward and then act them out, allowing your teenager to use the stress-free environment to get used to handling hard moments.
Blues About the News
Current events are another significant source of teen stress. A recent survey from the American Psychological Association finds teenagers today are more concerned about the news than past generations. Topics like school shootings, high suicide rates, deportation, and climate change are all highly ranked causes of teen stress.
In some ways, it’s good to see a teen stress about the news because it means they care and are worried about the future. But chronic stress is unhealthy and an over-fixation on the news can be toxic. If your teen’s stress about what’s happening in the world starts to interfere with your teen’s ability to enjoy everyday life, it’s a problem.
Introduce your teen to ways they can make a difference, so they won’t feel so powerless against teen stress. For example, if your teen is worried about school shootings, show them how to write a letter to their congressperson about gun laws. If your teen is up all night thinking about the environment, suggest they start a school club to raise awareness about pollution. It’s also important to make sure teens aren’t overreacting to sensationalism in the media. Teach your teenager media literacy skills, like how to read the news carefully and analyze different sources to get a better idea of what’s really happening.
Teens across America report that family stress severely affects their wellbeing. Common sources of teen stress in the household include financial problems, marital problems, poor sibling relationships, and the pressure to live up to expectations. If your teen doesn’t feel at ease in their home, they could have trouble internalizing and externalizing their problems, leading to a variety of problems such as anxiety, loss of sleep, and risky behaviors.
It might be best to identify the problems in your household by writing them down and speaking with a counselor to come up with healthy solutions. If your family is under a lot of stress, we think it’s your responsibility as a parent to manage that stress, so it doesn’t pass onto your kids and have an unhealthy effect. You might need to work with a counselor to reduce household fights, conflicts, and arguments to a minimum. Have a family meeting and let everyone know you want to work on bringing down the collective stress level.
Thinking about a job and its time commitment can add more pressure to a teen struggling to balance work, school, and friends. Even if your teen doesn’t have a job, the thought of settling on a future career stresses out a lot of teenagers.
Remind your teen that finding the right job takes a lot of trial and error and that focusing on a career path should not be a high priority for a teenager. It’s important for a young person to try many jobs in order to discover what they like best. To reduce stress, your teen may be able to work full-time during school breaks or summer vacation so they don’t need to work during the school year. You can also try teaching your teen about budgeting and investing so they can make their money go further and ultimately end up working less hours.
Teen Stress Hacks
Now that you’re familiar with some of the major sources of teen stress, let’s walk through some health and lifestyle factors that can dial those stress levels higher or lower.
Managing teen stress is hard work, and teens who regularly get a good night’s sleep (9.25 hours is recommended) have more energy to deal with their emotions than their sleep-deprived peers. Yet, a majority of teens report they aren’t getting enough sleep. To complicate this, teen stress might cause a teen to toss and turn, further reducing sleep quality. It’s a vicious cycle.
Here are the three most scientifically proven ways to build new sleeping patterns and reduce teen stress
1. No Screens Before Bed
Late-night screen time is terrible for teen sleep for two major reasons. First, the bright blue light simulates daylight, confusing the brain and interfering with the release of melatonin, the sleep molecule. Second, visual stimulation makes it harder for the brain to unwind and enter a restful state. Suggest your family start giving up screens one hour before bed as a good habit.
2. Create Routines
Following a sleep schedule and a predictable bedtime ritual are two essential techniques for getting better sleep. If you encourage your teen to wake up and get into bed at the same times every day, even on weekends, your teen will start to fall asleep more easily and feel more rested when they wake up. This can significantly reduce teen stress.
3. Ditch the Caffeine
When teens are running short on sleep, some turn to coffee or tea as a pick-me-up. However, these beverages can make teen stress considerably worse. Caffeine stimulates the brain, increases heart rate, and causes anxiety symptoms such as stress to appear more intense. The drug also interferes with sleep quality, leading teens to compensate with more caffeine. If your teen is feeling particularly stressed out, suggest they switch to decaf for a while.
4. Take Care of the Body
When teens are stressed, taking good care of their health can be one of the first things to go out the window. They might stop flossing, brushing their teeth, and seeing a dentist regularly. Beyond exercise and diet, there are plenty of other changes going on in the body that teens need to be knowledgeable about. From maintaining proper oral hygiene to remembering to wear deodorant, teens need to be encouraged to engage in self care when they are stressed out.
Nutrition has a big impact on teen stress as well. Teens get cranky when they don’t eat enough. To make matters worse, an unhealthy diet can lead teens to develop an unhealthy gut biome or a deficiency of crucial nutrients. An unhappy stomach leads to an unhappy mind, cranking up stress levels even higher.
On the flip side, a healthy diet (even one great meal) can boost mood. Instead of singling out your teen as needing to change, consider revamping the entire family’s food choices. It can be fun to come up with healthy recipes together and challenge each other to hit daily nutritional goals.
Exercise can also have positive effects on teen stress. Studies show teens who regularly work out gain a natural mood boost, whereas sedentary teens are at a greater risk of experiencing anxiety, depression, and stress. Learn more about what research is saying about exercise and depression in this article from BetterHelp.
Here are three proven tips for getting your teen increase their activity level.
1. Be A Good Role Model
Your teen’s not going to listen to you if you don’t demonstrate good exercise habits yourself. Create your own workout plan and encourage your teen to do it with you. You can keep each other on track and motivated to exercise even on days when you’d rather stay on the couch.
Help your teen see how exercise will help them accomplish a goal they have. For example, if your teen is under a lot of pressure and wants to relax, you can teach them how a workout can help reduce teen stress so they can get relief. This way, you are helping your teen with something they’re already motivated to do, which is usually easier than getting people motivated about something new.
3. Start Slow
No one is going to climb Everest on Day 1. Start with something small that your teen will feel good accomplishing, maybe just a walk around the park. Then after a week, hike a few miles. Then move up to a jog. Jumping into anything too quickly can actually cause more teen stress. Take it easy at first before ramping up the intensity.
Drugs and Alcohol
It’s not uncommon for teens to resort to drugs and alcohol to cope with the effects of teen stress. While substances can feel like an easy way to turn down the stress dial in the short term, they can also have disastrous effects in the long run.
Here’s how some of the most prevalent teenage drugs can affect teen stress.
Underage drinking is a short-term fix for teen stress, and alcohol is infamous for interrupting sleep, inhibiting good decisions, and exacerbating depression. Alcohol relaxes the teenage body and brain without addressing the underlying causes of anxiety. It can start to serve as an unhealthy crutch for managing teen stress.
Many teens turn to smoking pot for its relaxing effects, although it can do the opposite. Smoking pot increases anxiety and paranoia, which can push a stressed teen into a panic. The fear of getting caught can add a lot of stress as well.
Teen nicotine usage is on the rise as vaping is becoming increasingly popular. Nicotine releases dopamine to reduce teen stress, but it is highly addictive, especially to a teenager. As soon as an addicted teen can’t take another hit, they will experience feelings of frustration, anxiety, and stress.
In general, teenagers should not use substances to solve their stress issues because substances end up making the problem worse in the long term. Becoming dependent on alcohol, pot, nicotine, or any substance can create serious withdrawal symptoms, leading to heightened teen stress.
Cures for Chronic Teen Stress
If you’ve tried everything but your teen still feels significant stress throughout the day, you might be dealing with a case of chronic teen stress. When stress is interfering with your teen’s ability to function regularly, something more serious is necessary. In these cases, there are two types of solutions: natural remedies and pharmaceutical solutions. It’s usually recommended to try the natural stuff first and then add the pharmaceuticals later, only as a last resort.
The great thing about natural remedies for teen stress is that your teen can use them at any time and rely on them throughout their life. These can be practiced anywhere and everywhere for relief. However, the effects can be short-lived and typically won’t stand up to intense episodes such as panic attacks.
Some of the most popular remedies for teen stress are aromatherapy, drinking herbal tea, and listening to calm music.
More involved options include exercising, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation. Teens with physical symptoms of chronic teen stress, like tight muscles, might benefit more from these practices. For example, if your teen uses progressive muscle relaxation, they will flex and contract different muscle groups to determine where they hold stress. Voluntarily relaxing each muscle teaches the body to let go of stress.
Another pharma-free way of reducing chronic teen stress is to introduce your teenager to counseling. Professional therapists can recommend personalized therapies and exercises to manage teen stress that do not involve medication.
For many teens, chronic stress cannot be overcome simply with healthy habits and natural cures. In these cases, medicinal solutions can be a godsend. Two of the most common types of medication for teen stress are antidepressants and benzodiazepines.
Antidepressants are typically taken once or twice per day and can treat a wide range of mental health problems like eating disorders, depression, and teen stress. They work by increasing levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin. Serotonin helps manage stress because it is a primarily involved in mood-regulating functions.
This class of pharmaceutical drug works around the clock to manage chronic stress, but comes with a host of potential side effects. Plus, it doesn’t start working right away. Antidepressants take a few weeks before your teen will notice the full effects.
Benzodiazepines are a type of medication that rapidly relieve even the highest levels of teen stress. They function by flooding the body with a neurotransmitter called GABA, which has a tranquilizing effect and slows down activity in our nervous system.
This medication is extremely effective, but it has a higher potential for recreation abuse. It’s best suited for acute moments of intense anxiety and should be regulated by parents, not passed out to kids. Frequent use of benzodiazepines can cause dependence, and lead to withdrawal, depression, and memory loss.
Which Cure is the Best?
Teens respond differently to chronic stress treatments, so it’s best to speak with a therapist or counselor when coming up with a long-term solution. There is good evidence that antidepressants and counseling are very effective long-term solutions. Benzodiazepines and aromatherapy, by comparison, aren’t shown to have lasting effects.
Say Goodbye to Teen Stress
Stress is a normal part of any teen’s life, but it can be managed and controlled with some simple tactics. Work with your teen to identify key stressors and help your teen make a plan to reduce teen stress. When your teen is struggling, you can offer valuable coping skills. Also, try to focus on dialing down stress modifiers and living a healthier lifestyle. If all else fails, there are friends, family members, and professionals standing by to help your teen let go of teen stress.
If you have more questions about teen stress you can email me anytime or enroll in our coaching program for 24/7 resources and a personal coach to help you out.