Adolescent Stress

In my book, Saving our Adolescents (2010), I wrote that I was concerned that today’s adolescents are facing more stressors and risk than any previous generation. In 2020, the Mission Australia Youth Survey of 15-19-year olds found the four main areas of personal concern were:

  • Coping with stress (43%)
  • Mental health (34%)
  • Body image (33%)
  • School or study problems (32.4%)

Essentially adolescence has always been a time of confusion, rapid change and uncertainty. Every adult will recall their own cringe-worthy memories of this transition from childhood to adulthood.

What has mostly changed is the technology/media-driven screen world that saturates children with perceptions that are often unhealthy. There is ease of access to millions of sexualised images, ads, YouTube clips, movies and TV programs that normalise ‘risky’, shallow and often narcissistic behaviour whether that be around alcohol, sex, aggression, violence or the pathetic pursuit of fame through a misguided value placed on being a celebrity.

The ease of accessing pornography is distorting healthy sexual maturity and adding to misunderstanding the formation of caring, safe, intimate relationships. There has been an increase in sexually predatory behaviour from both girls and boys with many unwanted consequences – physical and emotional. Additionally, in a survey of Year 10, 11 and 12 students in Australia 19.8% of males and 28.3% of females had had unwanted sex at some point.

The social media monster has created a whole new enemy to many adolescents – the anonymous ‘troll’ – the jilted boyfriend/girlfriend, or the angry, unhappy school acquaintance who makes threats or spreads malicious lies or shares private images and messages just for the fun of it. There is technically nowhere safe for most of today’s adolescents – they can be bullied and attacked in the safety of their bedroom. This creates an enormous sense of threat and stress for many adolescents – a stress many cannot seem to escape.

Pressure to conform

Another area of threat for many fledgling adults is the absurd insidious pressure (often from actors, models, ‘YouTubers’ or trashy celebrities) to look the same. The incidence of self-harming – often as a consequence of feeling overwhelmed by dark ugly feelings of self-loathing – continues to increase at a disturbing rate. The scars created just add to the loathing and the perception of being ugly and unlovable.

I heard a great interview with adolescent counsellor Amie Dryer on ABC North Coast NSW about how access to online porn was placing pressure on girls and that there is an epidemic of self-harm among the young women she works with.

Today’s education system has become even more test-focused in Australia and while that sounds like a good idea to ensure good educational outcomes for students, for adolescents who are not academically strong, this is just another sign that they are ‘not enough’. Many leave high school feeling like a failure and this mindset, when combined with the heightened intensity of emotions that are a normal part of adolescence, adds enormous stress. Then I am hearing that our strong students often feel pressured by both teachers and parents to achieve the highest marks possible – at any cost!!

The main dilemma for adolescents is that many parents step back because the adolescents think they can make great choices. However, the brain ‘pruning’ that occurs in early adolescence means they are actually less able to make sound decisions when at the very same time they want to claim their independence. They need guidance and they need parents to keep a close eye on how they are tracking.

“Research confirms the benefit of parents taking a more active role in their children’s lives, by talking with them about drugs, monitoring their activities, getting to know their friends, understanding their problems and concerns, providing consistent rules and discipline, and being involved in their learning and education. The importance of the parent-child relationship continues through adolescence and beyond.”
– National Institute on Drug Abuse, Preventing Drug Use Among Children and Adolescents: Research-Based Guide for Parents, Educators and Community Leaders, (2nd ed.), [online]

What to look for when there’s too much stress for our adolescents.

Most people, whether they are young or old, get overly stressed sometimes. Unhealthy stress can be caused by a lot of different things, but common causes in young people are to do with school, work, family or relationships. Whatever the cause, the results are usually the same.

Common mental health symptoms include :

  • feeling angry or irritable
  • feeling anxious
  • being moody and easily frustrated
  • feeling like crying regularly
  • having low self-esteem or lacking confidence including giving up or avoiding tests or challenges
  • feeling restless all the time
  • having trouble concentrating
  • feeling an irresistible urge to run away, hide or use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate.

Common physical symptoms include :

  • feeling sick in the stomach (like butterflies)
  • having constipation or diarrhoea
  • having stomach aches and/or headaches
  • having problems sleeping, especially getting to sleep
  • feeling constantly tired
  • sweating a lot
  • having cramps or twitches
  • feeling dizzy or fainting
  • eating too much or too little
  • using drugs or smoking
  • being unable to manage distractions especially social media or gaming online.

Drinking alcohol and taking drugs can also add to stress.

Frequently overlooked symptoms of anxiety

  • Angry outbursts
  • Oppositional and refusal behaviours
  • Temper tantrums
  • Attention-seeking behaviours (can be sexual or through bullying)
  • Hyperactivity and difficulty sitting still
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Scholastic underachievement or excessive resistance to doing work
  • Frequent visits to school nurse
  • High number of missed school days
  • Difficulties with social or peer group.

There is normal stress and then there is unhealthy stress. Adolescents have poorer coping skills than mature adults. If you are worried about your son or daughter, it can be tricky approaching them with your concerns. Such an approach can be seen by our loved one as a sign of criticism or disapproval. Sometimes it’s better to get an older sibling to make the first approach or maybe a trusted friend.

Rather than focus on trying to work out what is creating the stress, focus on building protective factors or things that work:

  • Ensure a healthy diet.
  • Improve sleep – Try an Epsom salts bath, sleep support such as non-chemical teas/vitamins or Chillax, relaxing music, meditations.
  • Increase activity and exercise.
  • Increase warm relationships with family and friends.
  • Reassure adolescents you ‘have their back’ no matter what.
  • Lighten up around home.
  • Enjoy device-free times as a family and ensure everyone’s devices get put away at bedtime.
  • Ask how you can help them reduce their stress
  • At least once a month, one-to-one tell them how much you love them.
  • Write caring messages on their mirror/post-it notes on their bedroom wall.

The main reasons for an overload of stress for adolescents are:

  1. feeling excluded, separated or unloved (e.g. friendship battles especially bullying, rumours, mean or hurtful things being said to them, getting dropped from football team, not getting a part in the school play, having no-one save a seat for them on a bus, not being invited to a party or a school formal, trip to movies, when people ignore them)
  2. feeling ugly, dumb, not good enough (e.g. failing a test, not understanding school work, finding homework too hard, missing a goal, getting sanctioned for a poor choice, having acne, not having cool gear, forgetting to do homework, thinking they are fat)

Remember the brain pruning has skewed the way they see themselves and the world and they often misread the confusing emotional and social tides of adolescence.

When they know and are reminded they are loved unconditionally – and that things do get better when their brain finally matures in their 20s, and that making mistakes is a way of learning how to make better choices – it really helps them cope.

In my e-book for adolescents, Taking the High Road, I explore the stressors in more depth and how to manage to build stress-busting strategies especially how to overcome ANTS – automatic negative thoughts. Included in the book is a calming track called Relax and Escape to help build calming patterns in their brain. This helps improve sleep and also to induce a calm, relaxed alert state before exams. It also gives them a happy place inside to escape the big ugly stressful emotions. I have even more ebooks and calming tracks packaged up together in my Kit Bag for a Bumpy Ride for adolescents too.

Please be mindful that today’s adolescents are struggling with a nastier, scarier and more threatening world than their parents did. They need as much support and guidance as possible and research shows they really value their parents and want to have a warm, connected relationship with each of their parents if possible.

My favourite parenting and teaching tools were practising fairness and kindness – our adolescents need allies, lighthouses and champions who encourage them – no matter how bumpy the ride gets.

Imagine they all have an invisible sign on their chest that says ‘MAKE ME FEEL I MATTER’.

… because every one of them absolutely does.