Nowadays, almost everyone is more than familiar with stress. They're accustomed to it, and it's no surprise to hear young people complaining how much they wish it would go away. I'm no exception. Looking back upon my high school and middle school years, one of the first things I remember is all the academic stress I experienced. Society's pressure for young people to achieve in school increases every year. As a result, students stress out about their educational careers enormously.
Will the stress ever stop? Probably not. But will it ever ease up? Maybe. However, the latter depends on how we deal with and think of it.
When you ask kids what they think of school, they cringe. Then you get the impression that they may not like it. Of course, this goes for me too. But it's not school that bothers me, it's the stress I get from it. Why should school be so stressful? School's supposed to be a place where young people are exposed to new, interesting stuff. And of course, you're supposed to make new friends and hang out with them, having the time of your young life.
Unfortunately, it isn't that simple for most. Where there's fun, there are responsibilities and expectations. The homework piles up on desks, and testing deadlines dreaded. All of this and more (sports, extra-curricular activities, etc.) can put the burgeoning stress on even the smartest, straight-A student.
However, this stress prepares you for life. In college, you'll have the same stress from midterms and probably even greater than before. Then there's your job when you graduate. Whatever your job will be, there'll probably be a boss who'll pester you about deadlines, just like your teacher back in school. Thinking about this doesn't really bring a smile to your face, but that's just how our society works.
I'm not justifying the academic stress students feel right now (and for future generations), because it certainly isn't making them feel happy, as they should be in school. However, it does prepare you for the future. At least you become familiar with it now rather than later. Of course, there'll be tougher times ahead, but at least they'll be expected.
Facts on Teen Stress
Dr. Cohen-Sandler conducted a survey of the attitudes and experiences of 3,000 students (2300 girls and 700 boys) attending middle schools and high schools across the country. Her sample included teens from a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as from public and independent schools, coed and all-girls’ schools, parochial and secular schools, and alternative schools. She also interviewed more than 100 teen girls.
These are some results from her study:
Girls experience stress differently than boys
- In general, girls report far more school-related stress than do boys. They believe that to be successful, they have to be extraordinary in every area of their lives: academic, social, extracurricular, and appearance.
- Compared to girls, boys report being less invested in school. They feel less connected, are less likely to feel successful, and have fewer worries about college.
- Although all teens report being burdened by too much homework and tests, girls are 55% more likely than boys to say they pressure themselves to get good grades and do well in school.
- Girls are also more stressed-out as they go through their school days because of social stress: they constantly monitor their relationships with peers and teachers.
- Heightened worries about appearance—body image, clothing choices, and make-up—further exacerbate the daily stress of teen girls.
- Whereas boys express stress more directly, girls keep their stress hidden.
Girls suffer high levels of stress
- The majority of girls report feeling “too much” or “way too much” pressure to get good grades.
- More than 2/3 of girls in middle school say they “usually” or “always” pressure themselves to succeed. By high school, that number rises to _.
- Almost 2/3 of girls in middle school and 3/4 of girls in high school believe the amount of free time they have is “too little” or “not nearly enough.”
- Nearly 2/3 of girls in middle school and high school report that the amount of homework they get is “too much” or “way too much.”
Stress worsens over time
- Girls entering high school experience a sharp increase in stress, they report, because they are told “everything counts now for college.”
- More than 1/3 of girls in middle school say they “usually” or “always” worry about getting into the “right” college.
- By high school, that number doubles: 2/3 of girls “usually” or “always” worry about getting into the “right” college.
- The cause of concerns about college applications and decisions, the junior and senior years of high school are usually the most stressful
Parents and teachers must recognize and address stress
- Less than half of the most pressured group of girls believes that their parents realize how stress-out they are.
- A large number of highly stressed-out girls think their parents want them to feel even more pressured to excel.
- When asked about the one thing they would change to make school better, the vast majority of girls say, “less stress” and “more sleep.”
- Girls ask for “better relationships,” as well. They want more friends, closer friends, less cliques, or fewer “mean girls.”
- Girls also would like their teachers to be more available, to teach them more effectively, and to be “nicer.” All teens ask that their teachers communicate with each other to avoid having multiple tests and assignments due on the same day.
- In general, girls would like their parents to be more supportive and to put less pressure on them. Specifically, they say they need a break in the afternoon before answering questions about school. They would like to figure out for themselves when, where, and how to study. Girls also believe that if their parents trust them, they will give them “more slack” in handling assignments independently.
Teens Cope with Stress
"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 that 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 that we perceive as overwhelming is 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 being 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, and avoiding excessive caffeine
- Focusing on things you can control and letting go of things you cannot control
- Rehearsing and practicing feared situations (e.g., practicing public speaking or asking someone out on a date)
- Talking about problems with others, including parents, older adults and friends
Lowering unrealistic expectations
- Scheduling breaks and enjoyable activities, such as music, art, sports, socializing
- Accepting yourself as you are and identifying unique strengths and building on them, but realizing no one is perfect!
Too Stressed to Think?: A Teen Guide to Staying Sane When Life Makes You Crazy
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