October 3, 2022
Stress is Crippling Our Teens – What Can Parents Do?
By: Kari Kampakis, Writer
I was saddened to hear it – yet not surprised.
According to the American Psychological Association, today’s teens are the first generation of teenagers to feel more stressed than their parents, at least during the school year.
We saw it coming. We’ve read the heartbreaking stories. We’re seeing the dire consequences, how young people today are lonelier than senior citizens and report poorer health. How rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011, when smart phones became ubiquitous, and the suicide rate among teen girls is the highest it’s been in forty years. How iGen is on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.
What is provoking so much stress? I believe it’s a perfect storm of many factors.
- Academic pressures
- Parental pressures
- Societal pressures
- A burning – yet unmet – desire for real and deep friendships
- A highly competitive culture with moral ambiguity
- Social media
- Loneliness and isolation
- A crippling fear of failure
- Low coping skills
- Emptiness and a lack of purpose
For parents, it’s easy to feel helpless, disheartened, and panicked. The bleak realities are overwhelming; the fear and worry are real. Yet one thing I know is that God wants us to parent with a spirit of strength, not defeat. Our teenagers need us, and we need Him to lead them well.
If you are parenting teenagers, here are 12 ways to help them navigate a culture of stress.
1. Be their gatekeeper. As parents, we protect our kids’ health. Whether we’re their first line of defense or their last one, we help them make decisions that are right for them.
Your teenager may get recommended for every advanced and AP class, but keep in mind that teachers only see the hard-working, attentive student. You see the behind-the-scenes truth. How they stay up until 2 a.m. doing homework. How they’re chronically tired and stressed. How they have little downtime because school and sports or activities consume their lives. How they’ve lost their spark, joy, or typical zest.
Some students can handle a maxed-out load and thrive on it (I know parents who try to get their child to decrease their load, yet their kids insist they can handle it), but for many teenagers, doing it all stretches them thin. In our home, my girls do the advanced classes they like most and the ones with exceptionally strong teachers. They’re smart but they aren’t prodigies, so we have ongoing talks about balance and managing loads.
One day, they’ll make these decisions alone, and my hope is that they’ll feel equipped to think for themselves, set boundaries, and protect their own health by prioritizing what’s most important and letting go of unnecessary stress.
2. Destigmatize failure. Failure isn’t fatal, yet our world treats it like it is. Consequently, many teenagers view failure as the end of their story, not part of their story.
“The optimism of youth,” says Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard in his book Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, “has been warped into a crippling fear of failure.”
Karlgaard notes that just when we should be encouraging kids to dream big, take risks, and learn from life’s inevitable failures, we’re teaching them to live in fear of making the slightest mistake. We idolize wunderkids and overcelebrate early achievement as the best kind of achievement – or the only kind.
A mom I know asks her kids 3 questions every night at the dinner table: “What did you do kind today? What did you do brave today? How did you fail today?” By making failure a normal part of conversation (I failed to be a good friend…I failed to catch the bus on time…I failed to control my temper) in a safe setting, failure loses its sting and leads to self-reflective growth.
3. Encourage real friendships. Friends make bad days and hard seasons bearable. They cushion the blows of a tough world. They protect your emotional health and provoke laughter that releases feel-good endorphins. The longest study on happiness, conducted by Harvard researchers, found that what keeps people happy throughout their lives – more than money or fame – is close relationships.
Unfortunately, many relationships today are shallow or superficial. There may be a bond, like having fun together, but there’s no deep heart connection or loyalty. Relationships like this fade or fizzle. Rather than being a source of comfort, they become a source of stress.
Teenagers often seek friends by trying to get into a group, but it’s better to start small: Looking for one person at a time who they like and click with, someone kind and compassionate. Over time, this approach can create a strong and genuine network, one that allows your teenager to add new friends each season who they trust and can count on.
4. Explain the mental & physical health connection. In Greece, there is an island called Ikaria that’s known as “the island of long life.”
For years researchers have studied this place (a blue zone) where 1/3 of the population lives more than 90 years, and where rates of cancer, heart disease, depression and dementia are remarkably low.
What’s their secret? Ikarians eat healthy (a Mediterranean diet), take naps, stay physically active into their 90’s, avoid unnecessary anxiety, and nurture close family ties and community solidarity. After a day’s work, they get together in groups to share their joys and sorrows rather than spending the evening at home.
As one Ikarian says, “Sadness is more manageable when you share it. It’s no life when you close yourself off and the echo of your own voice is the only sound you hear.”
I haven’t visited Ikaria, but I have spent a month in Greece, and I can attest how their simple lifestyles – far different than the elaborate trends in America – allow time for rich, meaningful connections. In the U.S., we may go weeks or even months without seeing neighbors because everyone is busy living independent lives. While we can’t all pick up and move to a Greek island, we can adopt their healthy habits and learn from a culture where people live long, rewarding, and enjoyable lives.
5. Talk about purpose and impact. God can use anyone, in any season, to help or encourage the people around them.
Years ago, I was at dinner with three girls in AA when one mentioned a fellow AA friend she’d helped the night before. He was having suicidal thoughts, and she talked him off the ledge. All I could think was, “Wow. She saved someone’s life last night, and what did I do with my day? How often have I judged an alcoholic for wasting their life, when God was actually using them in profound way?”
It brought to mind this Christine Caine quote: “God uses rescued people to rescue people.”
Many teens have no sense of purpose or self-worth. They compare themselves to their accomplished peers and feel inadequate or unneeded. It’s important for your teenager to know that God created them for a purpose, to serve their generation like nobody has ever served before. As they respond to the needs in front of them, doing what they were born to do, they’ll build a life of meaning that leads to peace and inner joy.
7. Encourage hobbies and downtime. Nobody is meant to live with their foot on the pedal, with no space for their soul to breathe or their mind to wander.
And yet, our society is so wired to produce and achieve that trying to relax, be creative, or try something for pleasure (rather than an end goal) feels foreign.
An ACT coach tells his students, “Every young adult needs two things: a job and a hobby. If your hobby becomes your job, then you need a new hobby.” I love how he gives teenagers permission to carve out and enjoy unpressured blocks of time. Often, it’s in these moments when the best ideas come, souls awaken, gifts are discovered, and hearts get restored. Downtime allows teenagers to tap into their inner child and remember the optimism of youth that often get jaded in an overworked society.
8. Prioritize sleep. Most teenagers are sleep-deprived. They need nine hours, yet few get that. Sometimes homework is the culprit (or the blue light emitted from digital screens and TVs) yet teenagers also have a body clock that makes them night owls. Unlike adults, who start producing the sleep hormone melatonin around 10 p.m., a teenager’s melatonin may not kick in until midnight – which makes early school mornings painful. Some high schools have implemented later start times and seen grades improve because a later start better suits a teenager’s body clock.
“Sending kids to school at 7 a.m.,” says Stanford University professor William Dement, “is the equivalent of sending an adult to work at 4 in the morning.”
Fighting stress is easier when your teen is in fighting condition. While 9 hours of sleep may be unrealistic, you can teach them to treat rest as something sacred and encourage naps. Even if more sleep means accomplishing less in a day, it’s worth the health benefit.
9. Understand there are many paths to success. Did you know there are 7 kinds of intelligence, and only a few get measured in school? Or that many students today will end up in jobs that haven’t even been invented yet?
Our world’s narrow idea of success puts students on a conveyor belt and spits them out on the beaten path. The best minds, however, get off the beaten (and very crowded) path. They create a new lane and focus on what they’re exceptionally good at doing. They often have entrepreneurial mindsets and hidden gifts – like people skills – that help them thrive in their lane.
Nobody can predict, map out, or control the future. There isn’t one right “track” to a goal. It’s impossible to know what’s in store for your teenager, but one way they can prepare for the future is getting to know themselves, building strong relationship skills, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, developing their talents and passions, and being ready when opportunity knocks.
10. Monitor screen time. Nobody gets off social media feeling better about their life. Social media has now existed long enough for many teens to discover how relieved they feel being technology-free at summer camp or during temporary breaks.
Sadly, social media speaks directly to the anxieties of young adults and older ones too, says Rich Karlgaard, and he adds that it’s become “our most toxic cultural mirror.”
I know many moms who’d like to get rid of their teenagers’ phones forever. They see the toll it takes on their psyche and the hours it steals from their family. Since total abstinence is an unlikely an option, it’s important to have an ongoing conversation about the emotional and mental impact and the need to set personal boundaries. For any age, this is a hard skill to master, yet one we all need.
11. Teach mental resiliency. Some stress is healthy and will help your teenager rise to the occasion. It’s a sign they care and want to do well. Some stress will make your teenager more resilient and better equipped to handle bigger adversities later. It may be a legitimate trigger to their fight-or-flight instinct.
Some stress is a normal part of a productive, meaningful life, and by helping your teenager understand it, reframe it, and talk themselves through it, they’ll gain a valuable life skill. After all, stress gets bigger as teenagers get older and the stakes get higher. It’s one thing to worry about failing a test – quite another to worry about losing a job.
A recent TIME magazine article titled “Why Do Presidents Live So Long?” discusses the phenomenon of U.S. presidents outliving the rest of us. While these men have better nutrition, health care, and living conditions than most people, they’ve also faced pressure that few can imagine, and stress is a proven toxin. Authors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy explain that for many presidents, stress acts as a force multiplier. Research shows the toll of stress depends on how it’s viewed.
“What is harmful becomes helpful when it is treated as a fact of life or a chance to learn,” they write. “The more powerful a person is, the more in control, the better the odds that he has learned to use stress to his advantage. For people with that kind of resilience – sometimes called adaptive competence – stress can correlate with a longer life.”
Helping our teenagers navigate stress and anxiety may require professional help. There is no shame in this; the best parents quickly admit when they feel out of their league. I know great counselors and constantly hear success stories from parents whose teenagers benefited from even a few sessions. From teaching teenagers how to “sit with anxiety” and develop coping skills to speaking truth, acting as a sounding board, and giving words to tricky feelings, counselors are playing a major role in battling America’s mental health crisis.
12. Lean on faith and meditation. I am Type A by nature, prone to stress and anxiety, and if I had to name one thing that’s propelled my faith, forced me to depend on God and look to Him for inner calm and strength, it is stress.
That, I believe, is the upside of stress: It sends us on a journey, a search for answers and help.
Whatever your beliefs, practicing meditation or mindfulness can relieve stress. Why? The brain is composed of 2 parts, the amygdala (primitive, the center of emotions and the fight-or-flight instinct) and the prefrontal cortex (highly developed, rational, associated with concentration, awareness, and decision making). Since the amygdala senses potential threats and respond to emergencies – and is the starting point for anxiety, fear, and stress – it needs the reasonable thinking of the prefrontal cortex to talk it down. Otherwise, every stressor can become a full-blown emergency.
Teenagers have a highly active amygdala yet a still-developing prefrontal cortex. This incongruence helps explain their highly emotional, rash reactions. Through meditation minds can shift from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex, from reactions to rational thoughts. While Christian meditation is centered around God’s goodness and the hope of Jesus, pulling back to see the big-picture, taking deep breaths and concentrating on positive thoughts can help a person feel mentally clear and emotionally calm.
Let me conclude by saying that when I was in college, I looked a lot like today’s stressed-out teens. (Just ask my dad about the time I had a breakdown over a B). I was an overachiever with laser focus, willing to work hard and play hard, and I appeared to have my act together in a fragile facade.
My parents took the pressure off me. They were my saving grace. They loved me fiercely and unconditionally and had just one expectation: That I do my best and leave the results to God.
This expectation gave me peace. It helped me focus on what I could control. It gave me a life motto I still live by today. I would have cracked if my parents added more pressure, if they’d micromanaged every detail of my life, yet their priority was my health and well-being. I had nothing to prove to them.
As a parent, I hope to pass this gift on. I want my children to be challenged and to aim high, to surprise themselves by doing more than they believe they’re capable or, but never at the expense of their soul, their future, or their relationship with God. I want them to rely on God’s strength, not their own, to do what they were born to do.
Today’s teenagers have a lifetime of stress still ahead. They’re early in their race, yet many are burning out fast. The culture that provoked this mess won’t help them out of it, so it’s up to us, their parents, to monitor their health and fight for slow and steady progress over a fast and furious pace. It’s up to us to show alternatives that can lead to healthy, happy, meaningful lives.
Pulling back a little and making room to breathe may not produce wunderkids, but it can add years to their lives. It can inspire joy and stronger friendships. And if that’s the payoff – more years, more joy, and better relationships for our teens – then it’s worth it. Life is too short to feel more stressed out than your parents, and if we can help our teenagers embrace this mindset, maybe, just maybe, we can embrace it too.