Reasons Your Teen Might Be Stressed Out (And What You Can Do About It)

Stressed teenager at school

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Complaining that life is too hard. Losing sleep worrying about tests or schoolwork. Declining to hang out with friends. These are all signs that your teen could be stressed out.

In the short term, stress can be a good thing for your teen. It can motivate them to practice their sport in preparation for tryouts or inspire them to join a study group to prepare for a challenging class. But stress can also have a negative impact, especially if it is ongoing or not dealt with in a healthy way.

Aside from the fact that their body is constantly "on," stress that is left unaddressed can cause a number of physical and mental health issues. For instance, ongoing stress can have an impact on heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other disorders, including depression and anxiety.

"For kids who are experiencing stress, all day, every day, that changes their nervous system and brain—they respond to everything with a fight or flight response," explains Parker Huston, PhD, a pediatric psychologist and clinical director of the On Our Sleeves program, a national movement for children's mental health. "This can create health problems because teens are not supposed to have adrenaline pumping through their veins all the time."

How Common Is Stress Among Teens?

Stress on a daily basis is actually pretty common, explains Dr. Huston. It helps teens achieve things and stay motivated. "For teens, stress is really a response to their environment," he says. "It is usually related to what they are going through in the moment and how they process what they are going through."

Normally, teens might be stressed about their schoolwork, a disagreement with a friend, or an upcoming athletic event. They also might be stressed about filling out college applications or getting to their after-school job on time. These are all normal stressors and usually do not cause a lot of issues.

That said, stress among teens has grown exponentially in recent years. In fact, the American Psychological Association's (APA) 2020 Stress in America Survey found that Gen Z teens—those ages 13 to 17—are experiencing elevated levels of stress and facing unprecedented uncertainty.

A lot of this growing stress is directly related to the pandemic. But, it is not the only thing causing teens stress. Social media, hyper-awareness of feelings, and overscheduling also are contributing factors.

"As a parent of two Gen Z kids, [these rising stress levels] do not surprise me," says Lorie Kaufman Rees, MFCS, PCCS, a professional clinical counselor and transformational coach with RE/formation Coaching in central Ohio. "The word 'stress' is uttered in nearly every other sentence by almost all of the teens and young adults I know and have interacted with. It seems to be all they can talk about."

Signs and Symptoms of Stress

Many parents know the obvious signs of stress like fluctuations in mood, sleep, energy, and appetite. When you see a sudden and marked change in any of these areas, that's always a sign to start paying more attention, says Kaufman Rees.

"One of my children withdraws—pulling away and trying to solve every little problem themselves, coming back to me in tears when they fail even in the slightest ways, convinced that their entire world is ending," she says. "When [a teen's] coping mechanisms start going to extremes like this, that's a pretty clear sign [that they are stressed]."

It's these drastic changes or reactions that are your cue that your teen's stress levels may be reaching unhealthy limits. "For instance, if your teen is overly responsive to what, on the outside, might be a minor stressor, this is usually an indication that their cup is already full and they cannot tolerate anymore," says Dr. Huston.

Signs of Stress in Teens

Dr. Huston indicates that parents should take notice if their teen displays the following changes in behavior.

  • Acting unusual for them
  • Experiencing changes in grades
  • Withdrawing from friends and activities
  • Refusing to participate in activities they used to enjoy
  • Complaining of physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Eating more or less than usual

Why Teens Today Are Stressed

It's normal for teens to experience some amount of stress. After all, stress can be a good thing if it leads a teen to take action or make changes. But stress also can be unhealthy, especially if it reaches high levels or is ongoing. Here are some possible triggers for stress among today's teens.

Social Media

Social media is an integral part of teen lives. It is how they interact with their friends and stay connected.

And while there are a number of benefits to social media, it also can lead to increasing stress levels, especially if teens are cyberbullied or struggle with fear of missing out (FOMO). Plus, scrolling through social media can cause stress levels to rise if they come across upsetting news stories or disagreements online.

Hyper-Awareness

Parents have done a great job teaching their kids to be emotionally intelligent, compassionate, and empathetic. But being in touch with their feelings—and the feelings of others—can create stress in a teen's life as well.

"Unfortunately, teens don't [always know] what is normal," says Kaufman Rees. "They now have meta-cognition—or the ability to think about what they're thinking—and they start doing this thing where they freak out about freaking out."

Not being able to put feelings into perspective can lead to a great deal of stress and uncertainty.

Packed Schedules

Activities like sports, music, dance, and the arts should relieve stress, not add to it. These days, the focus on music or sports specialization has kids putting in more and more hours to become the best at their activities. This drive can make activities that are meant to be outlets sources of stress, intsead.

In addition to lessons, training, and competitions, many teens have every spare moment of their time spoken for or committed in some way. When this happens, stress levels can begin to skyrocket.

Over-Involved Parenting

Although it seems natural that a parent would want to spare their child from experiencing pain or difficulties, too much involvement can actually create more issues.

In fact, helicopter parents and lawnmower parents actually cause more harm than good. This style of parenting robs kids of experiencing natural consequences and takes away their ability to learn from their mistakes.

"When teens never learn to self-soothe, they never learn how to regulate their own emotions, thus relying on us to do it for them," says Kaufman Rees.

They also may struggle with autonomy and do not develop the independence they need. Over-involvement can also undermine resilience and self-esteem—all of which can be underlying factors in a teen's stress response.

Inability to Manage Their Thoughts

When it comes to their thoughts, most teens do not know how to effectively manage them. So, they may engage in negative self-talk where they think negative things about themselves. Or, they may dwell on something that happened. Both situations can increase stress levels.

"Along with self-regulating their emotions, most teens have also not learned to manage their thoughts," says Kaufman Rees. "Stress largely comes from how we talk to ourselves (and what we then come to believe) about the things that are happening in our lives."

The Pandemic

There is no denying that COVID-19 has turned many teens' lives upside down. There is a great deal of uncertainty in their lives as a result. Everything from attending school to socializing with their friends has been impacted—and this is bound to create a great deal of stress.

"These are kids who already felt like life was uncertain," says Kaufman Rees. "Now they don't know what the next three months will hold, let alone the next grade. Things like graduation, going to college, starting a career—these all seem incomprehensible to kids."

Other Sources of Teen Stress

  • Academic pressures
  • Negative thoughts or feelings
  • Problems with peers such as bullying
  • Moving or changing schools
  • Family financial issues
  • Changes in their bodies
  • Separation or divorce of parents
  • Chronic illness in the family
  • Unsafe neighborhoods
  • Death of a loved one

What You Can Do

Even though it is not uncommon for teens to be stressed, it is also not something that you want your teen to live with day after day. After all, chronic stress can be detrimental to your teen's health and wellbeing.

"Stress that is not dealt with appropriately or in a healthy manner can transform into an anxiety disorder," explains Kaufman Rees. "[Stress creates] neuropathways in the brain on which unhealthy thoughts continue to run. [It also creates] a state in which [their] fight/flight/freeze response is effectively switched 'on' indefinitely."

If your teen is struggling with stress, it is important that you guide them on how to reduce their stress levels. Here are five things you can do to not only help alleviate their stress but also to help them put things in perspective.

Remove the Pressure

Academic pressure, athletic pressure, or something else can all increase a teen's stress levels increase. For this reason, finding ways to reduce the pressure they're feeling is a good first step.

"Some kids put a great deal of pressure on themselves," says Dr. Huston. "Parents need to become the release valve and help them let go of some of that. They also need to make sure they are not adding to the pressure."

Too many times, parents push their kids to excel in school or sports to the point that it elevates their teen's stress to an unhealthy level. "It is important to encourage them to have a healthy sense of what success means," says Dr. Huston. "Help them set realistic goals and expectations. Sometimes it's helpful to step back and ask 'what was your goal' or 'what were you expecting' and then helping them to readjust."

Refuse to Over-Schedule

Teens today often have packed calendars and move from one activity to the next with very little downtime. Although keeping a full schedule seems like the norm, it's not healthy especially when it comes to stress levels. Remind your teen that they need a break from time to time.

"Even though teens want their college applications to be super impressive and show that they have done everything under the sun, it's important that they also leave time for things that refill their batteries," says Dr. Huston.

Make Time for Fun

Teens need time to do the things that bring them joy. Whether that is hanging out with friends, reading a great book, or practicing their cooking skills, help your teen find time to do the things they love.

Some kids really enjoy having a busy calendar and going from one activity to the next. Others relish those times when they can have a few hours to themselves. Remind your teen that taking time to decompress is a part of taking care of themselves and that having this unstructured time will help relieve some of their stress.

Combat Negative Thinking

It's easy for teens to fall into the trap of negative thinking or negative self-talk. They might assume that they are terrible at math or that they will never make the dance team. Instead of simply disagreeing with your teen about what they are thinking, ask them to really think about what they are saying and whether or not it is true.

Then help them reframe what they are thinking to something more positive. Doing so will help build their self-esteem while helping to reduce stress levels. It is much harder to be stressed when you are focused on positive thinking.

When to Call a Healthcare Provider

Some teens are unable to verbalize why they are stressed or recognize that they need help. Instead, you will need to watch for changes in their behavior in order to determine if they need assistance beyond what you can provide.

Generally, if symptoms last two weeks or longer that could be a sign that your teen needs professional assistance or has an underlying mental health issue. Talk to a healthcare provider about your concerns. They can offer a treatment plan and refer you to a mental health professional.

A Word From Verywell

Although stress and feeling overwhelmed are common experiences for many individuals, teens do not have to keep pushing through to the point of exhaustion. It is important for them to receive support, healthy models, and permission to take a break while practice saying "I need a break." When they can see the adults in their lives practicing healthy stress management, they will be more likely to do the same.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Institute of Mental Health. 5 things you should know about stress.

  2. American Psychological Association. Stress in America 2020: A national mental health crisis.

  3. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Stress management and teens.