If you have a teenager, you’ve probably heard the words, “I’m stressed out!” on a regular basis. I don’t remember ever saying this as a teen, but I’m sure there must have been some version of that saying in the air, although stress wasn’t much of an issue when I was growing up.
Our society, as a whole, is much more stressful – I think both real and perceived – today, and parents often utter the same words. But while the teenage years are sometimes difficult, and may be stressful at times, they should also be filled with friends, fun and downtime. There should be “lazy” days to fill up with “whatever.”
But when I talk to my adolescent patients, most tell me quite the contrary. They’re always worried about grades, and start discussing SAT and ACT tests long before high school. Most have nearly every waking hour filled with school commitments (and crazy competitive class schedules), extracurricular activities, homework, private lessons and part-time jobs.
Many teens are getting too little sleep – do yours get the recommended 8 hours per night? – have poor nutrition, and spend too much time on the Internet.
Stressed teens report difficulty falling or staying asleep, which may lead to further problems with concentration and mood. I see many high school students who are convinced they have ADHD, even though they’ve never had such issues before. Suddenly, they say they can’t focus, which may be exacerbated by lack of sleep.
Trying to get them to believe what I tell them is not always easy! For example, a teen may not always see “eating junk food” as poor nutrition. Their brains need protein, vegetables and fruits to keep functioning at warp speed, yet skipping meals is quite common.
Stress can often be reduced by parental involvement in setting a teen’s daily schedule. I don’t mean you should tell your teen what to do all the time. But the security that comes from knowing that breakfast will be served every day, that dinner will be a family meal, and that there’s a set “bedtime” when the computer and phone must go dark can ease the tension in a teen’s life.
Having parents willing to sit down and help a teenager see their way through a stressful event or provide wisdom or perspective also helps control anxiety. And try to strike a balance between “not being involved” but “being available.” Of course, that’s sometimes easier said than done!
Stress will always be part of life, but teenagers should not perceive that their life is filled with constant tension. They have plenty of time for that once they become parents, right?
Dr. Sue Hubbard is a pediatrician, medical editor and media host. Submit questions at kidsdr.com.