The Agony of Adolescence: Coping with Teen Stress

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Every generation has probably made this claim, but – it’s tough being a teen these days. 

From academic pressures to the complexities of living in a social media world, teens face challenges that previous generations could not have imagined. 

If you’re a teen who’s experiencing a lot of stress, you’ll manage it better if you understand the causes, know the signs and develop some good coping skills. 

“Being anxious is not necessarily bad, and you can learn how to get through that anxiety,” says Mark Casdorph, DO, Upper Valley Outpatient Behavioral Health.  

Dr. Casdorph talks about stress and teens. Click play to watch the video.

Causes of Teen Stress 

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that, in a 2013 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), teens reported their number-one source of stress is school, followed by the pressure of getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school. 

Other things that cause teen stress include: 

  • Body changes  
  • Negative self-perception 
  • Taking on too many activities or having too high expectations 
  • Problems with friends and/or peers at school  
  • Social media, with its perceived pressures and expectations 
  • Unsafe living environment/neighborhood  
  • Separation or divorce of parents  
  • Chronic illness or severe health problems in the family  
  • The death of a loved one  
  • Moving or changing schools  
  • Family financial problems 

Signs You’re Stressed 

“In teenagers, you look particularly for decreased sleep, more irritability, sadness, things that would make you think they’re not enjoying themselves,” says Dr. Casdorph. 

If you’re stressed out, you might also experience: 

  • Anger  
  • Excessive worry 
  • Persistent negative thinking 
  • Overeating or eating too little 
  • Drug and alcohol use 
  • Withdrawal from friends and family 
  • Headaches or stomachaches 
  • Neglecting responsibilities at school, work or home 
“Being anxious is not necessarily bad, and you can learn how to get through that anxiety,” says Mark Casdorph, DO.

How to Cope

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The key to calm is to recognize the signs of stress, and to learn skills that will help you manage stress, says Dr. Casdorph. Those skills include: 

Improving Physical Well-Being

The body and mind are connected. Just as stress can affect the body (lost sleep, weight gain or loss, headaches, etc.), taking care of the body can lessen the impact of stress. Make sure you: 

  • Exercise regularly 
  • Get plenty of sleep 
  • Eat well-balanced meals regularly  
  • Limit caffeine, which can increase feelings of anxiety and agitation 
  • Avoid illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco  
  • Learn relaxation exercises

Developing Coping Skills 

In order to beat stress, you must learn some key skills. These may include:

  • Learning to assert your feelings in a polite, firm, and non-accusatory way. (For example, instead of “It’s your fault because you yelled at me,” try saying, “I feel angry when you yell at me.”)  
  • Rehearsing and practicing situations that cause stress. For example, if talking in front of people gives you anxiety, take a public speaking class.  
  • Improving time management and planning skills. For example, make lists, create timelines and break large tasks into smaller, more attainable tasks. 
  • Challenging negative thoughts with neutral or positive thoughts. "My life will never get better” can be turned into "I may feel hopeless now, but my life will probably get better if I work at it and get some help.”  
  • Learning to feel good about doing a "good enough” job rather than demanding perfection from yourself and others  
  • Taking a break from stressful situations. Listen to music, talk to a friend, draw, write, or spend time with a pet.
  • Building a network of friends who can help you cope with stress in a positive, healthy manner 

When Should You Be Concerned?

Generally, stress is a normal part of life, and it’s not always a bad thing. For example, stress spurs us on to study harder for an exam, or work harder to make the football team.

But, there are times when stress can cause great harm. Dr. Casdorph recommends that if you are feeling depressed, and/or that things are hopeless for you, this is a sign that you need to get help from a medical professional, like your family doctor. “There are a lot of resources that can help parents and children, and we certainly want to use those if you are showing signs of depression,” he explains. 

Small Steps: Be the Change
Help your child learn healthy stress-proofing habits by living them yourself. Eat right, exercise and communicate positively and openly.