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Dig into why teens are stressed all the time

Ever wonder why your teen always seems stressed? It might be easy to assume it’s because they are handling it poorly, but stress actually affects teenagers differently than adults.

Stress affects all of us, including (and perhaps especially) teenagers. A survey from the American Psychological Association shows that “teen stress rivals that of adults.” Stress manifests itself in teens through overwhelming feelings of fatigue and sadness. Across academic, peer, and parental pressures, teens face many unique sources of stress in today’s modern age.

Before we jump in to explore how stress affects teens, it’s important to point out that stress is not inherently bad. In essence, it is a demand exerted upon the body in physical, mental or emotional forms. People may have negative and harmful stress responses when overwhelmed by stress known as distress, or positive and advantageous stress responses, known as eustress. Eustress occurs when one’s coping skills in response to the stressor are perceived as adequate. For example, when one rises to the challenge of a hard academic problem, they may have been stressed out, but they ultimately grow and learn from the experience. In fact, mild to moderate amounts of eustress during adolescence may actually prepare your teens to become more resilient. So, parents who shield their children from any and all stressors are actually impeding their child’s growth and preventing them from developing robust coping mechanisms -- which is invaluable throughout life.

While some stress may help build your child’s character, overwhelming amounts of stress may turn toxic and lead to miscoping. Chronic toxic stress increases the risk of negative health outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, and diabetes. Therefore, while stress is ubiquitous, chronic stress should not be normalized in society.

So, how does stress uniquely affect teenagers?

The adolescent brain is especially vulnerable to stress because the brain regions that are most sensitive to stress (hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, amygdala) are not yet fully developed in teens. Further, the teenage brain tends to be more responsive to glucocorticoids (a category of stress hormones) than mature adult brains. This means stress effects can linger longer in teens than in adults. So if your teen seems perpetually frustrated and stressed, have compassion for their developing brain.

Now, let’s dig a little deeper into three unique sources of teen stress:

1. Shifting social structures

A study found that the most common problems adolescents face are related to school, parents, friends, and partners. These people make up the bulk of a teen’s social network, and conflicts with these groups prompts stress. This is exacerbated by the fact that teens’ social networks are constantly shifting.

Think about the number of teachers your teen has this school year, and teachers usually change every year! That would be like having seven different managers at work, each supervising 1/7th of your workday. And instead of building relationships with your manager year after year, new ones are rotated in every September.

Moreover, friendships during this period come and go as teens find divergent interests and are exposed to different peers in their class rotations. Navigating these changes require adaptability, and this is a skill that teenagers are still developing.

Don’t underestimate the stress impact these events can have on your teen. Adults who are nestled in the stability of their careers and support systems sometimes forget that adolescence is a tumultuous time dense with change and uncertainty. You can support your teen by getting to know who they spend time with. By paying close attention to how they interact with each other, you likely would know when your teen is about to break up with a best friend and when to step in for a heart-to-heart.

2. Digital reality

Why do some teens care so much about how many people liked their Instagram photo, or why they fume when their best friend broke their snap streak on Snapchat? While social media contributes to anxiety and other negative feelings, people often forget the flipside. 81% of teens report feeling more connected to their friends thanks to social media. And it would seem for a majority of teens, this is simply where their social life lives are; in 2018, 95% of teenagers had access to a smartphone, and 45% said that they are almost always online. Unlike past generations, today’s population of adolescents are constantly figuring out how to balance their digital life with their “real life.”

While Snapchat helps ensure that your teen’s best friend is a mere snap away, online “social comparison and feedback-seeking” from others (e.g., soliciting likes on a Facebook post) is linked to depressive symptoms. In a study with college students, those who are on Facebook more often are more likely to think that others are happier and having better lives than themselves. While it may not make sense to you why your teen would subject themself to such comparisons, have empathy, since they are basically living in an endless digital pageant. If you notice your teen often mentioning who has the most likes, comments, and reposts, it may be worth checking in and having a conversation about social comparison. It’s important to emphasize that social media is not an accurate representation of real life and everyone is just curating the best version of themselves. So when your teen is comparing themselves to others on social media, they’re comparing themselves to the curated version of others. Take the chance to model self-compassion by recognizing no one is perfect, including you; everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and we should cherish each other for that.

3. Sleep

When it comes to getting adequate sleep, teens face an almost insurmountable challenge. Unlike college or the workplace, teens start school as early as 7:30 AM. This start time would require teens to go to bed at an unrealistic time in order to get their 9 hours of sleep -- the minimum amount of time for optimal alertness. Teens naturally have a later circadian rhythm that makes it hard for them to fall asleep early. And when this is compounded with after-school extracurriculars and other social activities, it’s structurally tough for teens to get a good night’s rest. And during COVID, the lack of structured days also results in decreased sleep quality due to pandemic-related stress.

Therefore, unsurprisingly, many teens suffer sleep deprivation and slog through daytime sleepiness. As poor sleep impedes their performance, mood, and memory, their ability to adequately respond to stress is also undermined. During COVID, parents can help improve their teens’ sleep quality by encouraging exercise outside and keeping a regular (teen circadian rhythm-aligned) bed time.

These are just a few examples of how teen stress is unique. In the next installation of Cherish’s stress series, we’ll talk about the roles that parents play in teen stress. Stay tuned!

We’d also love to hear from you if you would like us to cover any specific topics. Cherish is offering free resources (from coaching to curated parent community groups) for parents with teens throughout COVID-19. If you're interested in a personal parenting coach, sign up here!

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