Last month, the American Psychological Association announced the results of a study on stress in America. They asked the question: Are teens adopting the stress habits of adults?
Teens actually reported that their stress level was higher than adults, 5.8 for teens versus 5.1 for adults on a 10-point scale. About a third also said they felt overwhelmed or sad or depressed because of stress. A third said they felt tired, and a fourth said they sometimes skip meals because of stress.
So why are our teens just as stressed out as we are?
“Kids learn from their parents, how their parents deal with stress,” says Dr. Bradley Berg, medical director of pediatrics at Scott & White Hospital-Round Rock, near Austin, Texas. “If parents don’t handle stress well, kids don’t handle it, either.”
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Dr. Caron Farrell, a pediatrician and pediatric psychiatrist at the Seton Mind Institute, sees the same thing.
She suggests kids, and probably their parents, explore some relaxation techniques like meditation. It will serve them later in life if they learn how to relax now. Parents and kids can do things together like schedule in homework breaks, schedule physical activity such as a walk around the block, eat a healthy snack right after school and schedule in downtime that is not related at all to school or after-school activities.
One of the things Farrell sees kids experiencing is this lack of downtime, even when they are at home. Social media has created a situation where kids are always “on.” They are always having to navigate how to fit in with their peers and they no longer get a break from that. They also are not socializing away from home, away from school, with face-to-face, fun interactions.
Parents need to help kids manage their schedules and be more realistic about expectations. The message we should be sending, says Farrell, is that no one is perfect and kids should try to do their best, not someone else’s best.
Some kids might handle four extracurricular activities and school well, but many will not, and that should be monitored. It’s OK not to do everything.
When you see that your child is one of these stressed-out kids, you might want to make radical changes to their daily structure, but this is also the age that kids push back. Farrell recommends making gradual changes and modeling good behavior, like taking a walk yourself or putting down your own cellphone at night or during dinner.
And for kids who feel like school homework is overwhelming, tackle the little things first, rather than the big project. The brain, Berg says, tends to work in numbers, not levels, so if you can cross five little things off the list, the stress level will go down more than if you finish one big project.