Our teens are stressed. In a study conducted by Columbia University, nearly half of teens reported experiencing high levels of stress—6 or higher on a scale of 1 to 10.1
The teens cited several causes for their worries: academic pressure (56 percent), problems with family or at home (13 percent), drama with friends (4 percent), bullying (2 percent), and popularity/fitting in (2 percent).
Stress often presents with symptoms like irritability and frequent headaches. A particularly alarming factor is that many teens turn to alcohol and other substances to manage their anxiety. In the same Columbia University study, compared to teens who say their stress levels are low, the teens who self-reported feeling highly stressed are
- twice as likely to have used alcohol (36 percent vs. 18 percent)
- nearly three times likelier to have used marijuana (22 percent vs. 8 percent)
Knowing what we do about the risks of underage drinking, it’s important to help our children properly manage their stress levels so they don’t use alcohol or drugs as a crutch.
Help your teen incorporate these stress-management techniques into their regular routines.
Exercise. Regular exercise makes teens less reactive to stress and allows them to refocus their attention, release frustrations, and have fun with peers.2 As a parent, you can help your child find a sports team, sign them up for a class, or even go with them on a short walk a few times a week.
Practice good sleep hygiene. Lack of sleep makes teens feel more stressed, and stress hormones make it harder to fall asleep—creating a cycle of sleep debt.3 Teens should get about nine hours of sleep nightly4 but, since that’s rarely possible, try to have them stick to a routine that will help them fall asleep more quickly when they finally do hit the hay: no exercise within a few hours of bedtime, put all screens away at least one hour before bed, and help the brain relax by reading or listening to quiet music.
Limit caffeine. Caffeine can cause nervousness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and insomnia. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends teens’ caffeine consumption be limited to no more than 100 mg. of caffeine per day.5
Learn practical coping skills. Help your teen distill a large, overwhelming task into a group of smaller, more manageable ones. Encourage them to keep a tidy workspace, prioritize with a to-do list, and put down the phone during study time.
Don’t strive for perfection. If your child feels overwhelmed, stress that they don’t have to do everything (do they really need to take all AP classes?) or do everything perfectly all the time. Encourage them to apply the right level of effort to each task. For instance, is it worth it to stay up past midnight revising an essay when a less-perfect work product might be fine in this particular instance?
Practice relaxation exercises. Focusing on one’s breathing for even just a few minutes can help the body relax immediately. Meditation provides short-term benefits like boosting a teen’s mood and builds resilience to stress, which helps in the long-term.2 Even five minutes a day can help!
Replace negative self-talk with neutral or positive thoughts. If a teen’s self-talk is negative, they may perceive life events to be more stressful than they actually are and create unnecessary anxiety for themselves.6 For instance, instead of saying, “My life sucks,” they could repeat, “I’m overwhelmed now but my life will get better if I work at it and ask for help.”
Take a break from stressful situations. Activities like listening to music, talking to a friend, drawing, writing, or spending time with a pet can reduce stress.
1. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens, August 2012
2. Elizabeth Scott, MS, “Stress Management Techniques,” verywellmind.com, updated November 20183. Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, “School Stress: Why Your Teen Needs a Good Night’s Sleep,” drugfree.org
4. “Sleep Tips,” Cleveland Clinic, clevelandclinic.org
5. Amy Morin, LCSW, “The Effects of Caffeine on Teenagers,” verywellmind.com, updated January 20196. Elizabeth Scott, MS, “Reduce Stress and Improve Your Life With Positive Self Talk,” verywellmind.com, updated November 20187. Amy Morin, LCSW, “10 Signs Your Teen Is Stressed Out,” verywellmind.com, updated November 2018