How to Help Your Teen Cope with New-School-Year Stress

This post is written by Jennifer Dyl, PhD (Rhode Island Family Guide).

Seventeen-year-old Marissa is juggling many roles. She has a demanding part-time job, plays two varsity sports, is studying for the SAT’s and trying to decide where to go to college. She also has a term paper and an internet project due this week, needs to find a date and a dress for the prom, is worried that she has gained five pounds and is afraid that her best friend is mad at her. While Marissa used to feel confident and excited by life’s challenges, she has recently been feeling overwhelmed, out of control and “stressed out.” Marissa’s story is typical of the daily pressures teens face.

“Stress” is defined as the way our bodies and minds react to life changes. Since adolescence is a period of significant change, including physical, emotional, social, and academic changes, many teens are under more stress than at any other time of life.

Teenage Stress Factors

  • Academic pressure and career decisions
  • Pressure to wear certain types of clothing or hairstyles
  • Pressure to try drugs, alcohol, or sex
  • Pressure to fit in with peer groups and measure up to others
  • Adaptation to bodily changes
  • Family and peer conflicts
  • Taking on too many activities at one time

It is very important for teens to learn to handle stress, as long-term build-up of stress which is not handled effectively may lead to problems including physical illness, anxiety or depression, which call for professional help.

Teenage “Stress Overload” Signs

  • Increased physical illness (headaches, stomachaches, muscle pains, chronic fatigue)
  • “Shutting down” and withdrawal from people and activities
  • Increased anger or irritable lashing out at others
  • Increased tearfulness and feelings of hopelessness
  • Chronic feelings of worry and nervousness
  • Difficulty sleeping and eating
  • Difficulty concentrating

Our body’s natural reaction to life events we perceive as overwhelming entails the “fight or flight” response, which may produce a faster heart rate, increased blood flow, shallow breathing, a sense of dread, and a desire to escape. However, teens can teach themselves to perceive life challenges as within their control and can even change their body’s reactions to such events, promoting a lower heart rate, deeper breathing, clearer thinking, and feelings of calmness and control. There are many stress management skills that promote the relaxation response.

Stress Management Skills for Teens

  • Taking deep breaths, accompanied by thoughts of being in control (“I can handle this”)
  • Progressive muscle relaxation, (repeatedly tensing and relaxing large muscles of the body)
  • Setting small goals and breaking tasks into smaller manageable “chunks”
  • Exercising and eating regular meals; avoiding excessive caffeine
  • Rehearsing and practicing feared situations (i.e., practicing public speaking, asking someone out on a date ahead of time
  • Talking about problems with others, including parents, other adults, and friends
  • Lowering unrealistic expectations.
  • Focusing on things you can control and letting go of things you cannot control.
  • Scheduling breaks and enjoyable activities, such as music, art, sports, socializing
  • Accepting yourself as you are. Identifying unique strengths and building on them, but realizing no one is perfect!

To read more about how to help your teen cope with stress, visit the Rhode Island Family Guide.