Anxiety is something that affects all ages in our society, but it is especially prevalent in the high school years. While high school has always been marked by increasing independence and preparing for adulthood, they are arguably more challenging now than ever before due to the busyness of our culture, the pressures and prevalence of after-school activities and the often-consuming use of technology.
Why is my teen stressed?
For teens entering or continuing in high school, there are a number of common causes of stress, including:
- Academics: becoming familiar with a new school building, completing longer homework assignments than they’ve ever had, and studying more complex classroom material are all academic factors that can stress teens out. There is also the added pressure of earning enough credits to graduate, earning high enough grades to have a college-worthy GPA, and scoring high enough on college-entrance exams that can overwhelm high schoolers.
- Co-curriculars: School sports become increasingly competitive in high school. The time and mental/physical/emotional energy involved in after-school commitments is a lot for teens to cope with.
- The social scene: social interactions are a vital part of the high school years. Being accepted, being part of the “in crowd,” and social media interactions are all common concerns of teens.
- Risky behaviors: even if your teen isn’t tempted to experiment with risky behaviors, their peers may be and that alone is enough to cause your teen stress.
- College: being concerned about college isn’t just for seniors. Even underclassmen must consider what they are good at, what they want to do when they “grow up,” and whether or not they want to go to college and where.
How can I tell if my teen is stressed?
A teen’s temperament plays a critical role in how they respond to and deal with school-related stressors. Some high schoolers seem to take everything in stride and are relatively unbothered, while others can be very sensitive to what is going on around them and how it affects them internally.
The effects of stress and anxiety on a high schooler also widely vary. It is so important to really know your child and pay attention to them in order to sense when they may be feeling overwhelmed. Teen stress can manifest in eating changes (eating more, eating less, opting for “comfort food”), lack of sleep, irritability, pulling away from friends and family, increased screen time, panic attacks, resisting encouragement to help resolve situations, self-harm or even using substances to cope. Another very common way that students in high school begin to deal with stress is through pursuing perfectionism (taking the hardest classes, getting the best grades, getting into the best college, etc).
How can I help?
There will likely come a time when you realize that your high schooler is in a season of anxiety and stress. There are a few practical ways that you can address their stress and help them navigate it:
- Ask open-ended questions and listen, listen, listen. As parents we have a tendency to see or hear a problem in our teen and want to tell them what to do and how to fix it, but this hinders them from freely sharing and developing the coping skills they’ll need later on as they face bigger difficulties. Many times, as our teens mature and settle into friend groups, much of their energy and focus shift from us parents to their friends, coaches, and teachers. It is sometimes difficult to keep the lines of communication open with parents. We tend to parent the way we like to give and receive information or based on patterns we have formed through the years as we have raised our children. I have found that the more I listened and didn’t react, the more my kids were willing to share. Asking open-ended questions, being willing to talk and listen no matter what time of day, and investing in their friend groups is one way to connect well and also learn about what is going on.
- Discuss expectations. Our teens sometimes perceive that we as parents expect perfect grades, the best sports performance, and the highest test scores...when we haven’t actually spoken those words. It's worthwhile to discuss expectations as well as learn to balance what you expect as a parent with your teen's capability and capacity.
- Allow for and encourage self-care. Teens are old enough to begin practicing self-care through healthy hobbies or other activities that help them decompress and regroup. Encourage your teen to identify what helps them do that.
- Sleep. Current research asserts that tweens and teens need 8-10 hours of sleep per night, and a very small percentage of students are actually getting adequate sleep on weeknights. Work with your teen to establish a good sleep schedule that meets their needs.
- Be aware of what motivates you as a parent and remember that your child is different than you.
- Know what your teen does on their phones and during screen time.
- Allow them to fail under your roof. Everyone falls short and makes mistakes, but not everyone knows how to navigate the process of failure and come out of stronger. Helping your teen learn how to deal with failure while they are still in your home is vital to their success as an adult.
- Do things together as a family. Even if it seems like your teen doesn’t want to have anything to do with you or family time, it’s important for their health and well-being.
- Encourage. Send scripture, memes, or GIFS to them individually and in family group texts. Pray with your teens, hug and love them, and use kind words even when they are giving you every reason that they don’t want or need it.
- Talk with friends, family, a pastor or a therapist if you are having a hard time with the high school years so that you do not project your stress onto your teen.
- Pray. A lot.
One last thing to keep in mind is that some amount of stress is healthy for students and causes them to work harder and push themselves in a healthy manner. However, if it seems like your teen is consistently feeling anxious to the point of it affecting how they function on a day-to-day basis, be open to providing support through counseling or a doctor’s visit if they ask or you notice negative changes.