About stress in pre-teens and teenagers
Stress is a response to external challenges, pressures or events. These might include things like looming deadlines, difficult decisions or health scares.
If your child is feeling stressed in these situations, their body will let them know. For example, your child’s heart rate might go up, their breathing might get faster and their muscles might tense up.
Stress is part of life. Everyone experiences stress, and some stress is OK. It can get your child ready for action and give them the motivation to get things done. For example, feeling stressed about an upcoming test can motivate your child to study. Or knowing they have to get to the bus on time can help your child get ready in the morning.
Signs of too much stress in pre-teens and teenagers
Although some stress is OK, too much stress can be overwhelming. It can interfere with sleep, thinking and learning, and it can get in the way of your child enjoying life.
When pre-teens and teenagers have too much stress, they might have:
- tense muscles, headaches, a tight jaw, teeth-grinding, a racing heart and sweaty palms
- trouble sleeping
- low energy, tiredness or exhaustion
- the feeling of being on edge and irritable
- difficulty concentrating
- loss of motivation
- the feeling of being overwhelmed.
When your child has too much stress for a long time, this can be bad for your child’s physical and mental health. It can also lead to anxiety, anxiety disorders and depression.
Stress can look and feel similar to anxiety. Anxiety is the worry, apprehension or dread that something bad is going to happen or that you can’t cope with a situation. Anxiety can happen even if there isn’t a challenging situation or event. When you understand the difference between stress and anxiety, it can help you work out what your child is feeling and how to help.
Causes of stress for pre-teens and teenagers
Many situations can cause stress for pre-teens and teenagers. These include:
- schoolwork, decisions about subjects, exams and pressure to do well
- relationships with friends and romantic relationships
- life changes like leaving school, moving house, going to university or getting a job
- too many things to do, and feeling unprepared or overwhelmed by tasks
- exciting things, like trying a new sport
- family conflict
- big decisions, like deciding whether to talk about something sensitive or important
- lack of sleep.
Stress management for pre-teens and teenagers
Stress management is important for pre-teen and teenage mental health and wellbeing. You can help your child learn to manage their stress.
Acknowledge your child’s stress
If you notice that your child is stressed, let them know that you’ve noticed and that you’re there to support them. Responding to your child with warmth and compassion can help your child be kinder to themselves. If your child treats themselves with self-compassion, it can reduce the effects of stress and help your child ‘bounce back’ during or after difficult times.
Work out what’s causing the stress
If your child knows what’s causing the stress, it can be easier for them to deal with it. You can help by getting your child to write down all the things they’re doing. Then they can think about how they feel about these things. For example, do some of them make your child feel tense or stop them from sleeping?
Remember that good things can be stressful too, and stress can also come from having too much to do.
Work out how to handle stressful things
You could start by helping your child prioritise. For example, if your child is feeling stressed by homework, you might help them plan their week to spread out the work.
Then you could look at whether your child can change any of the stressful things in their life. For example, if your child gets stressed because they’re always running late in the morning, they might be able to reduce the stress by getting ready the night before or waking up earlier.
Next look at any stressful things your child can prepare for. For example, if your child is very concerned about an upcoming exam, you can help them prepare by working out a study timetable together.
Last, some stressful things can’t be changed, but they can be talked about. For example, if your child is troubled about your family’s financial situation, listening and talking about their concerns might help to reduce the stress they feel.
Encourage a healthy lifestyle
Healthy lifestyle choices can often help your child handle stress or reduce its effects. Here are some ideas for your child:
- Be physically active. Physical activity and exercise improve mood and can give your child a sense of achievement, as well as boosting their physical health. Exercise also burns off the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol and can help the body relax.
- Eat good food. Eating well can help your child feel good, strong, energetic, alert and able to concentrate.
- Relax and unwind, especially before bed. This might be going for a walk, reading a book, having a relaxing bath, listening to some music or doing breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises or mindfulness exercises.
- Sleep well. Pre-teens need 9-11 hours of sleep and teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep a night. Getting enough good-quality sleep can help your child feel more alert, positive and energetic. Not getting enough sleep is one of the biggest causes of stress in teenagers.
- Avoid alcohol and other drugs, including caffeine. Although older teenagers and adults often use alcohol and other substances to cope with stress, these substances make the symptoms of stress worse and can lead to other problems.
You probably feel stressed sometimes too. You can be a stress management role model for your child by being kind to yourself, trying to deal with the causes of your stress, and making healthy lifestyle choices.
If stress gets too much: getting help
If your child is often overwhelmed by stress and is finding it difficult to cope with everyday things, they might benefit from extra support.
Your child could start by:
- talking to their GP
- seeing the school counsellor or a psychologist with training in child and adolescent mental health
- talking to a spiritual leader or elder
- talking to a youth worker if your child goes to a local youth centre
- calling Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 or visiting eheadspace.