Look for the signs that your youngster might need help
By Susan Parmelee
As area youth go back to school, they begin the year with great enthusiasm and excitement. However, as the year progresses and students balance academics, extra-curricular activities and a social life, they may have difficulty coping with stress.
Understanding stress and adolescent brain development is important to helping our kids. Stress is a physiological reaction of the body to challenges—physical, emotional and intellectual.
The human body responds to stressors through the nervous system, speeding up heart rate, respiration rate and blood flow. This response helps us to react quickly and rise to a challenge. However, if the stress lasts too long or we overreact, our body uses up to much energy and we experience fatigue, sleeplessness and weakened immune systems.
The still developing teen brain allows stress to kick in more quickly and leaves less time for the nervous system to assess the danger and calm down—causing more energy expenditure to fight the stressor. Since it is the job of the developing teen brain to increase both social and decision making neural pathways, teens feel much more anxious about social situations and academic challenges.
As noted above, teen stress is very different than adult stress – in a recent American Psychological Association survey, 27 percent of U.S. teens reported experiencing extreme stress during the school year with only 13 percent reporting extreme stress during the summer.
The reported stressors were: school demands and frustrations; negative thoughts and feelings about themselves; changes in their bodies and pressure to have a certain body type; social difficulties; taking on too many activities; too high expectations; pressures to experiment with drugs, alcohol or sex; problems at home and bullying.
As a parent, it is important to listen and not minimalize your child’s concerns, even if you believe they are not valid worries.
When a teen is stressed, parents may notice changes in mood including increased irritability, tearfulness, feelings of hopelessness, physical complaints—stomachache, headaches, tiredness—withdrawal from friends and family and difficulty concentrating. Psychologists believe that increased stress levels correlate to rising numbers of adolescents diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
If you are concerned that your child may be experiencing clinical symptoms consult your pediatrician or mental health provider.
The most important tip for parents and those who work with teens is to listen and try to understand what is causing the stress. Help the teen find positive ways to deal with stress—physical activity and taking breaks for enjoyable activities; talking about problems with others; setting small goals and breaking tasks into manageable chunks; focusing on what one can control and letting go of what one cannot control; deep breathing; lowering unrealistic expectations, healthy eating and sleeping.
Finally, as parents and adults involved in teen’s lives, it is important to model appropriate coping strategies for dealing with stress. When you and your kid feel the stress levels rising, head out the door for a walk on the beach trail.
Susan Parmelee is a social worker who works during the week at San Clemente High School in the Wellness & Prevention Center and at Western Youth Services. To subscribe to Wellness and Prevention Center weekly emails email “subscribe” to email@example.com.