Stress is an unavoidable fact of life. It’s also a necessary part, serving to protect us from harmful situations (like when we swerve to miss an oncoming car). The problem with stress arises when it becomes both unavoidable and unnecessary, keeping us in a chronic state of preparedness with no chance for release in sight. Teens are particularly vulnerable to the effects of stress because they are unaccustomed and often unequipped to handle it. Here’s why and how you can help:
But First, What is Stress?
Stress is the body’s “fight or flight” response to possible danger. When we encounter a threat, our brain (specifically the part called the amygdala) sends out a signal that prompts the hypothalamus to initiate a series of responses. Our adrenal glands begin pumping out adrenaline, causing our hearts to beat faster, our lungs to expand and our senses to sharpen; adrenaline also triggers the release of glucose (i.e., energy). The result: our bodies are able to physically respond to the threat we’re facing almost instantaneously. It’s a brilliant system, especially when our ancestors were staring down a woolly mammoth. The problem today, however, is that humans have fewer physical threats and more psychological and emotional ones, which are harder to recognize and often have less definite resolutions. Our bodies are initiating the “fight or flight” response, but don’t know when to turn it off.
Why Stress is Harder for Teens to Manage
For teens, stress can be especially troublesome because they have little experience with it and few tools to combat it. The physical development that occurs during puberty alters their brain development, causing structural and hormonal changes that often result in erratic emotions, as well as an inability to manage them. Indeed, their inability to effectively control their emotions is further compounded by the fact that most teenagers are sleep-deprived; their bodies just aren’t functioning at an optimal level, making it harder for them to face and defeat stressful effects. Add these issues to kids used to having their problems ignored with digital media or solved by overprotective parents, and it’s easy to see why stress can be hard for kids to manage as they enter their teenage years; they simply don’t know how.
How You Can Help
Managing stress is a lifelong skill best taught at a young age. Help prepare your teen by introducing them to healthy habits now. Here are a few ideas:
- Offer Opportunities for Exercise
One of the best ways to combat stress is to exercise. Research shows physical movement not only conditions the body, it conditions the mind, releasing chemicals that strengthen cognitive function and improve sleep. Help your child find a way to get moving!
- Get Your Teen Off Digital Devices
There are times when your teen will legitimately need to be on an electronic device — like when he’s researching “eb1 requirements” for an assignment in an American government class or studying for the ACT — but recreational use of digital media should be limited. Put restrictions on when and where your teen can access the Internet, play video games and use a cellular phone. Being perpetually plugged in to electronic devices keeps teens from real social interaction, allowing them to avoid normal emotions like boredom and loneliness and preventing them from developing normal responses to them. By reducing the time your teen can spend on digital devices, you help them learn tangible skills that can be applied when combating stress.
- Teach Your Teen to Recognize Stress
It’s much easier to tackle a problem that is evident. Teach your teen to recognize the symptoms of stress and to identify its source. If she is conscious of the ways she expresses stress, she can establish a personal system for handling it over the course of her life!