Teen stress is an important health issue. The early teen years are marked by rapid changes — physical, cognitive, and emotional. Young people may also face other challenges, including changing relationships with peers, new demands at school, family tensions, or safety issues in their communities. The ways in which teens cope with these stressors can have significant short-and long-term consequences on their physical and emotional health.

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s reaction to a challenge, which could be anything from outright physical danger to asking someone for a date or trying out for a sports team. The human body responds to stressors by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. A part of the brain called the hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and release them into the bloodstream.

The hormones speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. Blood vessels open wider to let more blood flow to large muscle groups, pupils dilate to improve vision, and the liver releases stored glucose to increase the body’s energy.

This physical response to stress kicks in much more quickly in teens than in adults because the part of the brain that can calmly assess danger and call off the stress response, the pre-frontal cortex, is not fully developed in adolescence.

The stress response prepares a person to react quickly and perform well under pressure. It can help teens be on their toes and ready to rise to a challenge.

However, the stress response can cause problems when it overreacts or goes on for too long. Long-term stressful situations, like coping with a parent’s divorce or being bullied at school, can produce a lasting, low-level stress that can wear out the body’s reserves, weaken the immune system, and make an adolescent feel depleted or beleaguered.

Good stress versus bad stress

We all experience both “good stress” and “bad stress.”

Good stress is that optimal amount of stress that results in our feeling energized and motivated to do our best work. Good stress encourages us to develop effective coping strategies to deal with our challenges, which ultimately contributes to our resilience.

Bad stress occurs when our coping mechanisms are overwhelmed by the stress and we do not function at our best. The same event can affect children and adults in very individual ways—one person may see a carnival ride as thrilling and another may see it as a major stressor. Stress can become distress when we are unable to cope or when we believe that we do not have the ability to meet the challenge. The solution is to adapt, change, and find methods to turn that bad stress into good stress.

Causes of teen stress

There are many sources of stress for teens and adolescents, including:

  • school pressure and career decisions
  • after-school or summer jobs
  • dating and friendships
  • pressure to wear certain types of clothing, jewelry or hairstyles
  • pressure to experiment with drugs, alcohol or sex
  • pressure to be a particular size or body shape (with girls, the focus is often weight; with boys, it is usually a certain muscular or athletic physique)
  • dealing with the physical and cognitive changes of puberty
  • family and peer conflicts
  • being bullied or exposed to violence or sexual harassment
  • crammed schedules, juggling school, sports, after-school activities, social life and family obligations

Signs of stress

While some stress is good, if your teen begins to display these signs, the stress may be too much for them and they may need help addressing it. Signs include:

  • increased complaints of headache, stomachache, muscle pain and/or tiredness
  • shutting down and withdrawing from people and activities
  • increased anger or irritability (i.e., lashing out at people and situations)
  • crying more often and appearing teary-eyed
  • feelings of hopelessness
  • chronic anxiety and nervousness
  • changes in sleeping and eating habits, such as insomnia, nightmares, or being “too busy” to eat
  • difficulty concentrating
  • experimentation with drugs or alcohol

Strategies for coping with stress

The good news is that there are ways you can help your adolescent and teen cope with stress and learn how to manage it better. Encourage your teen to try some of the following strategies that can reduce their stress level.

  • Talk about problems with others.
  • Take deep breaths, accompanied by thinking or saying aloud, “I can handle this.”
  • Perform progressive muscle relaxation, which involves repeatedly tensing and relaxing large muscles of the body.
  • Set small goals and break tasks into smaller, manageable chunks.
  • Exercise and eat regular meals.
  • Get proper sleep.
  • Practice consistent, positive discipline.
  • Visualize and practice feared situations.
  • Focus on what you can control (your reactions, your actions) and let go of what you cannot (other people’s opinions and expectations).
  • Work through worst-case scenarios until they seem amusing or absurd.
  • Lower unrealistic expectations.
  • Schedule breaks and enjoyable activities.
  • Accept yourself as you are; identify your unique strengths and build on them.
  • Give up on the idea of perfection, both in yourself and in others. Give yourself permission and cultivate the ability to learn from mistakes.

What can parents do

As parents, we all want to do what's best for our children. There are so many things we can do to help reduce a child's anxiety while building a better parent-child relationship.

  • Be aware of your child’s behaviors and emotions.
  • Build trust with your child.
  • Be available and open to talk with your child when he or she is ready.
  • Encourage the expression of feelings.
  • Teach and model good emotional responses.
  • Encourage your child to tell you if he or she feels overwhelmed.
  • Encourage healthy and diverse friendships.
  • Encourage physical activity, good nutrition, and rest.
  • Teach your child to problem solve.
  • Remind your child of his or her ability to get through tough times, particularly with the love and support of family and friends.
  • Keep your child aware of anticipated family changes.
  • Monitor television programs that could worry your child and pay attention to the use of computer games, movies, and the Internet.
  • Use encouragement and natural consequences when poor decisions are made.
  • Help your child select appropriate extracurricular activities and limit overscheduling.
  • Make your child aware of the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol before experimentation begins.
  • Monitor your own stress level. Take care of yourself.
  • Contact your child’s teacher with any concerns and make him or her part of the team available to assist your child.
  • Seek the assistance of a physician, school psychologist, school counselor, or school social worker if stress continues to be a concern.
Sources: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Center for Adolescent Health; National Association of School Psychologists.

This article first appeared in the April 2014 Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter supplement.

Margaret R. Paccione-Dyszlewski, PhD

Dr. Margaret Paccione-Dyszlewski is the director of clinical innovation at Bradley Hospital. She has more than 35 years of experience in supervisory and administrative positions as well as extensive experience with trauma patients and managing trauma-related service environments.