By Josefina Alvarez and Kari Peterson

Our children are dealing with more stress than adults. A 2013 survey of over 1,000 U.S. 13-17 year olds by the American Psychological Association1 found that:

  • 31% feel overwhelmed, 30% feel depressed and 36% feel tired as a result of stress.
  • 42% believe their stress level will increase in the coming year.
  • 42% of the teens say they are not doing enough to manage stress.

In response to our 2013 High School Essay and Poster Contest, over half of 200 students from Chicago’s northern suburbs named school as their major source of stress. Other stressors included family problems, mentioned by just over 1/3 of students and peer relationships, mentioned by approximately 1/3 of contestants. North suburban high school students dealt with stress by engaging in hobbies and recreational activities, seeking family and peer support, maintaining a positive outlook, time management and seeking mental health care. Twenty five percent reported no strategies to manage stress.

The American Psychological Association survey found that many parents are not aware of how much stress their children face. Many see stress reactions as a “phase”, but this is not the case.  For example, according to Challenge Success2, a survey of 31,500 first year students at 114 different universities found that 41.2% reported frequently feeling overwhelmed. Stressed high school students become stressed college students and they become adults without effective ways to manage stress.

Both the American Psychological Association3 and the American Academy of Child and Teen StressAdolescent Psychiatry 4, have suggestions for parents to help their teens deal with stress, including:

  • Paying attention to signs of overload and helping teens take action to reduce stress
  • Communicating with teens and spending time with them
  • Learning and modeling good stress management
  • Seeking professional help, when needed

Stress management strategies for teens and parents are a good idea and will likely benefit many families, but an individual approach is not the only answer. In their recent book “Overloaded and Underprepared”, Denise Pope and her colleagues tackle the problem of school stress and recommend changes in scheduling, homework and testing policies in middle and high schools. They also call for greater attention to mental health in schools through social emotional programs, more intentional student advising and mentoring, and wellness education (such as yoga and mindfulness). These ideas are evidence-based and consistent with what we know about adolescent development.

Let’s tackle stress among our youth by paying attention to mental health in schools, families and communities. This will require collaboration from policy-makers, education and mental health professionals, parents and youth.  Join Mental Health America of the North Shore in raising awareness about the consequences of high stress for our youth and advocating for support for our teens and changes in our schools, our families and our communities!

Helpful Links:

1American Psychological Association> Stress in America

2 American Psychological Association> Talking to Teens about Stress 

3 American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry> Helping Teenagers with Stress

4 Challenge Success

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