Have you ever seen this story play out? A teenager, (we’ll name him Joey), comes home from school looking exhausted. He sits on the couch and gasps, “I’m so overwhelmed with school right now I just want to sit here and do nothing.” Dad looks at him with a loving, but confused smile and says, “well, if you want to know what being overwhelmed feels like consider when I was you age and every day I had to walk 12 blocks to school, then work at the mill after school, then go home and clean the kitchen, and watch my sisters.” Dad’s trying to make Joey feel better by reminding him that things aren’t so hard, and he’s got a good point about his own life being very difficult. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help Joey feel any better. In fact, now Joey can add guilt to the list of emotions he already has piling up in his head.
Are teenagers today really that stressed. Let’s look at a couple of the stressors in their lives. In the book, Stress Free Kids, Lori Lite says it perfectly; “With an unprecedented amount of pressure to give your children the best education, it’s easy to forget that your kids are incredible emotional, spiritual, social, and physical beings. Childhood should not be a stress-filled race to see who can read the most books, write the longest paper, and count to 100 in seven different languages.”
The strongest stressor in our teenagers’ lives is a culture of perfectionism. Many great historians and business leaders have tried to teach us the importance of failure. Examples include Abe Lincoln, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, and even the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Eloise Ristad said “When we give ourselves the permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.” Yet, if we look at the criteria set forth by universities in the United States, we find requirements driving the exact opposite behavior. The expectation on students is perfection in the form of grade point averages and standardized tests. These requirements have since permeated through our high schools, middle schools, and into homes. In fact, a number of recent studies have pointed to academics as the highest source of stress for teens. Well-meaning parents try to help, but often by helping they are only validating the need for perfection. While high achievement is a worthy goal, it is critical for teens to know that their achievements do NOT equate to their self-worth. Every child (and adult) on this earth is worthy of love and joy. Period.
Then, the stress of school is compounded by the social pressures kids deal with social media. Remember telling your kids this advice? “Don’t say anything you might regret in social media because once it’s out there, it’s out there forever.” While this is still sound advice (and I give it to my kids all the time), it has gotten more difficult to follow because digital communication has become the norm. It’s literally how people communicate. While adults keep relationships with people on Facebook, teenagers are communicating via their own social sites, text, and apps. This means that private conversations aren’t really private anymore. The pressure to have a positive social image is tremendous and too often, our kids are equating social image to their self-worth. Just look at Instagram streaks! Kids (like adults) have fewer close relationships today and tend to rely more heavily on quantity vs quality. Generally speaking, a stressed teenager with close friends has a healthy outlet to vent and share (and many don’t).
If you’re a parent of a teen and your reading this, you’re probably asking “well, what can I do?” There’s an interesting paradox when it comes to helping people that are anxious or depressed. Simply put, the more you try to help, the less effective you are at actually helping. Strange, huh? When a person feels really bad, they need one thing before they will feel better. I’ll give you a hint… it’s not a solution to their problem. It’s someone that cares enough to listen and understand how they feel. It’s someone to validate their feelings so that they know that they are not alone.
When a teenager walks in the door from school feeling overwhelmed with everything being thrown at them like; grades, sports, friends, college, work, social media, and (of course) parents, the patent’s job is to listen. I mean really listen. Put yourself in your child’s shoes and ask questions so that you really understand how he or she feels. Hear the truth in what your child is saying instead of discounting what you think is inaccurate. Don’t dismiss your child’s feelings as being dramatic or complaining. Validate how (s)he feels and give assurance that you understand. Maybe say how brave (s)he is for working so hard despite everything being thrown their way. Don’t jump into problem solving until your child wants your help.
If you are struggling with your relationship, the best thing you can do is to spend time together (even if they push back). According to a recent Gallup poll about half of US families eat dinner together most week nights. Be one of those families.
Lastly, let your children know that is is OK to make mistakes (and mean it). Striving for high achievement is important, but it becomes unhealthy when a child equates their self-worth based on achievements.
So, are teens really more stressed than they were fifty years ago? Let’s just agree that they have stress in different forms, and it’s as real as it was fifty years ago.
Licensed Professional Counselor Intern
Under Supervision of Tiffany Smith LPC-S, LMFT-S, NCC