How should parents help teenagers manage stress?

Teens are stressed, and during the school year, even more stressed than adults. That’s the finding of a new American Psychological Association survey of nearly 2,000 adults and more than 1,000 teens, and—as a parent of three teenagers—I’m not surprised to hear the news.

My daughter survived the rigors of high school by taking up running 20 miles a week. Frequent melt-downs are the norm for my 15-year-old son during midterms. I won’t even go into the stress of their social relationships, which bring back my own memories of adolescent slights and backstabbing by so-called friends. (Okay, sometimes I was the backstabber.)


Teens reported that their stress level during the school year—which they ranked as 5.8, on average, with 10 being the worst—was beyond what they perceived to be a healthy range. (Adults ranked their stress level at 5.1.)

Nearly one in three teens reported feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or sad as a result of stress. More than one-third of teens felt tired from stress, and some frequently skipped meals because they were too anxious to eat.

Oddly, though, more than half of teens didn’t think their stress could have a negative impact on their health.

“The implications of stress being this high starting this early in life are quite significant,’’ said Norman Anderson, executive vice president of the American Psychological Association, during a Tuesday press briefing. Teens who are chronically stressed into adulthood, he added, may face an earlier onset of heart disease and be at higher risk of depression, which can be triggered by too much stress.

Perhaps most troubling: Nearly half of stressed teens know they’re not doing enough to manage their stress, but they’re not really sure what to do to bring some relief. They turn to video games or social media to chill out instead of shooting hoops, popping in a workout DVD, or talking it through with their parents or friends.


They also skimp on sleep and eat poorly—snacking on junk food instead of sitting down to a balanced meal with their family—which also makes their troubles that much tougher to manage.

So, how can parents help, especially when their teens say they don’t have time to exercise, get adequate sleep, or eat properly? I asked during the phone briefing, partly, I admit, for my own knowledge.

“One of the things parents can do is recognize that stress can be a chronic problem, not just a phase they should ignore,’’ Anderson said. Asking teens directly about their anxieties should certainly be a priority since many parents don’t pick up on stress, especially if their adolescents are normally moody.

Interestingly, adolescents are very tuned into their parents’ stress, especially about finances, and may feel anxious when a parent loses a job or talks about missing a mortgage payment. That means we should be addressing our own difficulties with our kids to reassure them that things are being handled.

Anderson also advised parents to model healthy stress management strategies. “Children should see us eating a healthy diet, taking time to exercise, or engaging in meditation when we’re stressed,’’ he said. “It shouldn’t be a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ type of approach.’’

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