April is National Stress Awareness month; it’s a month dedicated to thinking what stresses us out and how to make changes to reduce feelings of stress. In small doses, stress can be a great motivator, helping us get things done. The problems set in when we experience high levels of stress over extended periods of time. That can be damaging, both to mental and physical health. It’s a bit like pulling out all the stops and working at full pelt – all of the time. Put simply, it’s unsustainable.
What could be making my child stressed?
Lots of things can cause us stress, and they’re different person to person. Some people adore being the centre of attention, so a public speaking gig wouldn’t make them stressed at all, but for others who don’t like being in the limelight, even the thought of presenting to an audience could release a wave of stress hormones, worse still having to do it for real. Because stress is subjective, it can be overlooked. Sometimes we miss that other people could get stressed about things we find easy to cope with. Stress can also be hidden: some people worry that admitting to being stressed will make them seem weak or incapable.
There’s plenty of reasons for teens to get stressed, and they will vary based on what’s happening at home and their personality. Things that might be stressing them include:
Not fitting in;
Not being good enough - comparing themselves unfavourably to others, especially friends and siblings;
Body issues – too fat, too thin, too unfashionable, too unattractive;
Not keeping up – feeling others are achieving more / doing better than they are;
Living up to your expectations and not letting you down;
How can I tell if they’re overly stressed?
We know that the advice about resolving problems is to keep the lines of communication open and talk things through. Often this isn’t possible when it comes to teenagers, who can be uncommunicative, especially with their parents. Mum or Dad pressing them for information could make the situation worse. However, there’s no need to push your teen to talk if they’re not comfortable with it; look out for signs they’re experiencing too much stress if they show long-term symptoms, such as:
Losing interest in things they’ve previously enjoyed;
Behaving in the opposite way to usual – quiet children can become very chatty, chatty children can get withdrawn;
Being grumpy and irritable;
Lots of headaches and digestive problems (stomach aches, diarrhoea, constipation, vomiting etc);
Worrying all the time, this can show itself in only picturing negative outcomes (what if I fail, I’m going to fail, I can’t do this);
Concern and being unable to either stop thinking about something or to find relief from it;
Physical symptoms (sweaty palms, shaking, fast heartbeat, aching muscles);
Restlessness and being unable to stay still;
Inability to concentrate (such as taking in what’s happening in a TV programme);
What’s the most effective way to help?
Left unchecked, stress can have very serious outcomes and is a contributory factor towards high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and substance abuse, not to mention the negative impact on mental wellbeing. If you’re worried your teen is suffering from too much stress, don’t hesitate to get professional help. This could be through teachers, counsellors, peer support networks, charities or your GP.
There are lots of ways that you can help your child cope with stress by teaching them healthy habits that are proven to be effective in building mental resilience. These cover two bases: one in reducing physical symptoms of stress and the other in managing how they think to avoid getting stressed in the first place. It is interesting that a stress response can occur by thinking about something stressful as well as physically experiencing it. Replaying stressful thoughts, like a video on loop in the mind, only increases stress levels. That is why it is a lifelong gift to learn how to control our thoughts and adjust instinctive thinking patterns from a series of negative connectors to positive ones. It just takes a little practise.
Key ways to increase resilience include:
Getting enough sleep – number one factor in health;
Eating well, with a balanced varied and regular diet;
Sensible consumptions of alcohol, fat and sugar;
Being active and doing some sort of physical activity every day;
Staying connected – spending quality time with family and friends;
Taking time away from the screen and when possible spending some time outdoors;
Making time to relax and be calm;
Practising breathing techniques, positive thinking meditation and mindfulness;
Not wasting time worrying about things you can’t influence of change;
Creating and sticking to a regular routine.
The key takeaway
It’s important to remember that the aim is not for you to eliminate stress from your teen’s life, that’s impossible! It is to help them manage stress and become more resilient. This means they will be more able to control how they experience stress, reduce any symptoms they get, minimise bouts of prolonged stress and be able to bounce back more quickly from life’s challenges.
In short, providing the tools so they can identify and manage stress will help them be healthier, happier and more able to cope – not just through their teens, but throughout adulthood too.
There’s plenty more about what you can do at home to help your teen create lifelong healthy habits and help them study in: The Parents' Guide to Study and Exam revision - GCSEs and The Parents' Guide to Study and Exam revision - sixth form