January 5, 2016

Breaking News: The Teen Stress Epidemic

In competitive western ideologies, stress is a way of life; long, tedious hours, especially in academic spheres, have become a dangerous norm. Under significant stress, teens risk their well-being to shoulder mounting pressures, endangering their physical and mental health. Even so, few people stress the impact of stress on teens, largely because of their youthful resilience and optimism. But, as more and more children and teens succumb to unhealthy levels of stress, it’s increasingly important to manage the problem at its source: in school and at home.

help buttonAccording to the American Psychological Association (APA), “School is the top source of stress for teens.” Students who worry about grades, have extensive workloads, or experience pressure to ‘pad their resumes’ with afterschool activities can feel stress in a variety of ways. Because the mind and body are connected, “common symptoms [of stress] include feeling nervous or anxious, feeling tired, procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, feeling overwhelmed, having negative thoughts and experiencing changes in sleeping habits.” Some students might also have trouble concentrating or notice changes in their eating habits because of their heightened stress levels.

The APA also notes that, “Getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school is the second-biggest source of tension” for teens, who often view acceptances as symbols of their hard work or future successes. Teens in their junior or senior years of high school have the added responsibility of taking rigorous standardized tests, scheduling college visits, and makingmassive decisions that will affect their future trajectories. Under all of these pressures, it would be unusual not to experience stress.   

Spotting the warning signs can be tricky, especially now that stress has become normalized in America and in other achievement-driven cultures. Teens will say that it’s “no big deal” to stay up all night completing their homework, that all their friends are doing it too. They’ll procrastinate until the eleventh hour, seeing their avoidant, anxious behavior as “just like everyone else.” Underlying their seemingly normal activities lies the trueproblem: Your teen is just like everyone else. Your teen is stressed, and so are her classmates, teammates, friends, and neighbors.

Teen Stress Statistics

In a study conducted by Harris Interactive Inc., researchers found pervasive trends among its teen population, supporting the universality of stress in American schools. Some key takeaways:

  • Nearly all of the 1,018 teens surveyed reported experiencing stress at levels far higher (5.8 avg on a 10 point scale) than what they deemed healthy (3.9 avg on a 10 point scale).
  • Teen stress levels also exceeded reported adult stress levels (5.1 avg on a 10 point scale), raising further concern for student well-being.
  • Study findings concluded that “Fully 83 percent of teens said that school was ‘a somewhat or significant source of stress.’ Twenty-seven percent reported ‘extreme stress’ during the school year…And 10 percent felt that stress had had a negative impact on their grades.”
  • Further, “31 percent of teens report feeling overwhelmed as a result of stress, 30 percent say that they feel sad or depressed as a result of stress, and 36 percent report feeling tired or fatigued because of stress.”
  • Even over summer months, when students are vacationing from school, their reported stress levels are above healthy margins (4.6 avg on a 10 point scale).

Misconceptions about the effect of stress on teen minds and bodies are especially concerning. Over 50% of teens reported that stress has little to no effect on their physical or mental health, compared with 61% of adults who readily recognize stress’ negative consequences.  Despite lacking awareness, a startling 31% of teens reported feeling overwhelmed and 30% reported feeling sad or depressed as a result of their stress levels; 36% admitted that their stress levels do lead to physical symptoms like fatigue and a shocking 23% of students report having skipped meals as a result of stress. An alarming 42% report improper, minimal, or no stress management solutions, giving teens little chance to change or improve their already sky-high levels of discomfort.

Common Responses to Stress

survey of stress in Baltimore school systems suggests that students respond to stress in predictable ways. According to interview data, students either tried to remove or reduce their stress alone, avoided confronting their stress or stressors, tried to distract themselves from stress, or sought help for their stress. Unfortunately, the percentages of students who sought support for their stress were quite low, with only 17% of boys and 22% of girls advocating for assistance. Therefore, of the surveyed students, 83% of boys and 78% of girls try to tackle stress on their own, using stress reduction, avoidance, and distraction techniques that may or may not succeed.

The Executive Function Solution

Because of the characteristic stressors and stress responses exhibited by teen students, executive function coaching can be an excellent resource for stress reduction and schedule management. One of the most frequent challenges facing students today, especially in our technology-focused society, is the temptation to procrastinate or distract with Netflix, social media, online gaming, and more.  Since stress often leads to procrastination, and avoiding responsibility increases stress close to deadlines, teens frequently get caught in a vicious cycle of frantic cramming and all-nighters. That’s where executive function coaching comes in.

Over the last two years, Engaging Minds has worked closely with Newton’s Youth Services Department to run a number of highly successful programs as part of the city’s “Youth Stress Grant” for teens. In our workshops with students and parents, we focus on strengthening executive function skills as a key driver in managing academic stress. For many students, regaining control over their academics has a significant impact on reducing academic stress.

Executive function training boosts students’ ability to initiate tasks, manage their time efficiently, develop attentional and impulse control, and organize their schoolwork.  Executive function coaches focus on the “big picture,” not just on content knowledge, which promotes a student-focused approach to learning. EF coaches tackle both academic and non-academic challenges, like sticking to a schedule or keeping a backpack clean. These skills, while often taken for granted in teens, are crucial when promoting stress-free daily accomplishments. In an executive function program, each student can learn to understand the source of their stress, how they typically respond to stress, and how best to manage their stress, according to their individual needs. For example, an executive function tutor might help a student with test-taking anxiety develop tools to overcome procrastination, which, in turn, allows that student to study effectively and feel in control of their grades.

With the help of an executive function tutor, stressed teens can better track and manage their assignments, budget their time, set appropriate goals, work efficiently, and organize their materials. They can break assignments into small, feasible chunks, then create attainable plans to complete the work, with necessary breaks built in. Small accomplishments, like keeping a binder clean, can translate into larger accomplishments, like turning in every assignment on time for a complete marking period. With the right support, and willingness to explore new strategies, students can turn the tide of stress that threatens not only their health but also their ability to succeed in school and in life.