November 18, 2016
While many adults may look back and wish they could be teenagers again, the reality is that the adolescent years can be highly stressful. What’s more, research consistently reveals that teens are especially vulnerable to the impact of stress, and those effects can reverberate well into the adult years. Thus, while we might think stress is normative – and that teens need to learn how to handle stress as a way of preparing for adulthood – it is critical to recognize that this does not mean that high levels of stress are acceptable.
First, it is important to recognize that “stress” comes in various forms. Dialing back many decades to seminal research, a fundamental distinction is made between “eustress” and “distress.” Eustress is positive in the sense of a challenge that we can take on and which pushes ourselves in acceptable ways. Distress is negative in that it is something that goes beyond our capacity to cope. Encouraging a teen to work a bit harder at something (academics, extracurricular activities) in a productive way to shoot for realistic goals is an example of eustress. Piling on excessive workloads and unreasonable expectations and pressure is an example of distress. There’s a big difference, and researchers, clinicians, educators, and policy makers worry that teens today have too much distress rather than eustress.
Distress is not only bad – more of it is worse than less of it. Stress researchers often use the construct of “allostatic load” to recognize that the cumulative effects of stress, particularly chronic stress, takes a toll on the body over time. A number of physiological systems can become compromised, including those that regulate mood, thinking, sleep, and immune system functioning. It may not be readily apparent, but the reality is that teens are at heightened risk for chronic stress because they have many constant sources that can exhaust their coping mechanisms. For example, academic stress can be worse than we think because taking six classes is like juggling six jobs, each of which is unaware of the demands of the others. Add onto that extracurricular activities and social stresses and we can see how a teen can become overloaded, both physically and mentally.
Allostatic load can result in compromised functioning at any age, but teens are at especially high risk. Adolescence is a vulnerable time in development, as many biological systems are maturing at the same time (such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which controls stress hormones; genetic systems which regulate emotions; brain areas involved in decision-making capacity). It is not a coincidence that adolescence is a peak age of onset for psychiatric disorders including depression – it is a perfect storm of environment and biology coming together to create increased stress along with heightened vulnerability to stressors
What do we do with all this information? Consider the following takeaways:
Keep the lines of communication open: Teens should learn about the environmental and biological factors that can compromise their well-being, as this information can help illuminate why they feel overwhelmed at times. In addition, they should have a sympathetic ear at home and feel like they can talk to family members about their stressors and possible stress reduction strategies.
Reduce pressure and load: Teens get pushed very hard these days. There is constant pressure to succeed and build resumes for college. This is where the “eustress vs. distress” distinction becomes important. Pushing too hard is distress and is not warranted. Teens should work hard but not be held responsible for managing high expectations especially when there are many factors out of their control (like the somewhat absurd acceptance rates at “selective” universities). It is a time for them to develop and grow with age-appropriate challenges cast within a supportive net.
Focus on getting enough sleep: There is a sleep deprivation epidemic among youth these days, which is extremely relevant because a lack of appropriate sleep certainly compromises coping abilities and exacerbates the effects of stress. Teen’s biological rhythms push them to want to stay up later and also wake up later. While parents cannot control school start times, they should at least work with their kids to prioritize sleep. This goes hand in hand with the prior suggestion to reduce pressure and load. Teen’s schedules can be out of hand, and sleep is last on the list of priorities. Making sure a teen gets sufficient sleep should be first on the list.
There are of course other things parents can add to this list, including offering opportunities for stress reducing activities (such as yoga), and when necessary seeking out professional consultation for extreme stress and signs of depression or anxiety.
Excessive or chronic stress may sometimes be a part of life, but it shouldn’t be assumed to be a given in the life of a teen. Helping your child reduce undue stress and find effective coping mechanisms will pay off in both the short and the long term of development.