Teenage stress: what is it?

Stress in teenagers – and anyone – can be unpleasant, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Stress is the way your body responds to challenges and gets you ready to face them with attention, energy and strength. When you feel you can cope with these challenges, stress gets you ready for action and gives you the motivation to get things done.

Everyone experiences stress. There’s nothing wrong with your teenage child if he’s stressed. But stress can cause problems when it goes on for too long, or your child has more stress than he can cope with.

Signs of teenage stress

Signs of stress in teenagers can show up in their behaviour, emotions, body and thinking.

Behaviour signs
If your child is stressed, you might see some changes in your child’s behaviour. For example, your child might:

  • not want to take part in activities she usually enjoys, refuse to go to school, or not do as well at school
  • seem nervous or anxious
  • sleep too little or too much
  • eat more ‘comfort food’ than usual, or eat less
  • drink more caffeine products, or take over-the-counter painkillers, use alcohol or other drugs, or gamble
  • behave aggressively.

Emotional signs
If your child is stressed, you might see changes in your child’s emotions. For example, your child might:

  • be cranky, moody, cry or feel sad, down or hopeless, feel that ‘nothing is going right’, or have emotional ‘ups and downs’ for no obvious reason
  • worry about missing out on what his peers are up to
  • find it hard to relax or switch off, especially from social media.

Physical signs
Sometimes you might see physical signs of stress. Your child might:

  • feel sick – for example, she might have headaches, shoulder pain, stomach aches or jaw pain
  • get frequent colds or infections
  • lose or gain weight
  • have panic attacks, dizzy spells, fast breathing or pins and needles
  • have changes in her period.

Thinking signs
Stress can affect your child’s thinking. You might notice that your child is:

  • finding it hard to concentrate and stay focused
  • having trouble remembering things, organising, planning or making decisions
  • making snap decisions or errors in judgment.

Causes of teenage stress

Lots of things cause stress in teenagers, but the top five causes are:

  • school, especially homework, exams and pressure to do well
  • relationships with friends, boyfriends and girlfriends
  • life changes like leaving school, getting into university or getting a job
  • too many things to do, and feeling unprepared or overwhelmed by tasks
  • lack of sleep.

It’s important to be aware of the things that cause stress for your child. If you can reduce these things and respond early to signs of stress, you might be able to prevent stress tipping over into anxiety and depression.

How to reduce stress in teenagers

In general, you can help your child with stress by

  • listening
  • spending time connecting with your child
  • doing things that make your child feel good.

You can also help your child reduce stress by working together on two key areas – healthy lifestyle and helpful thinking.

Healthy lifestyle changes to reduce teenage stress

Here are some healthy family lifestyle changes that you and your child can make to reduce stress:

  • Do some physical activity: exercise burns off the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol, so exercise can help the body relax.
  • Stay connected to family and friends : plan some special time with your child when you know she’s feeling stressed. Positive relationships are the building blocks of mental health.
  • Get enough sleep: one of the biggest causes of stress in teenagers is not getting enough sleep. Your child still needs about 8-10 hours of sleep a night.
  • Eat good food: aim for a family diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegies, lean meat, dairy foods and wholegrains.
  • Relax and unwind: this might be going for a walk, reading a book, having a relaxing bath or listening to some music.

Helpful thinking to reduce teenage stress

How you think about things affects how stressed you get by them. Like adults, teenagers can develop unhelpful thinking that makes it harder to deal with stress. Unhelpful thinking can get out of control, particularly if it becomes the normal way you think about things.

Some common unhelpful thinking patterns are:

  • mind-reading, or expecting other people to have a bad opinion of you – for example, ‘They think I’m stupid’, ‘She thinks I’m no good at anything’
  • thinking things will always go wrong – for example, ‘Things never work out for me’, ‘Everyone is always against me’, ‘I’ll never be able to …’
  • labelling yourself – for example, ‘I’m no good’, ‘I’m stupid’, ‘I’m hopeless’
  • absolute thinking – for example, ‘I have to do it this way – I have no choice’, ‘This will never work’
  • fortune-telling or expecting the worst – for example, ‘I’m sure to mess this up’, ‘It’s not going to work out anyway’, ‘I’m going to feel awful when it doesn’t happen’
  • all-or-nothing thinking – for example, ‘He does everything right, and I always get it wrong’, ‘It has to be perfect’, ‘If only I had done it that way, it would be OK’.

How to change unhelpful thinking patterns
Speaking to you or someone else can help your child to see that there are other ways of thinking about a situation. You and your child could try these steps:

  1. With your child, work out what’s causing the stress. For example, your child gets a last-minute text from a friend to cancel an outing.
  2. Encourage your child to identify the thoughts connected to this situation or event. For example, ‘He doesn’t really like me’, ‘She should have told me sooner’, ‘My day’s ruined’.
  3. Gently help your child think differently about the situation. For example, how does your child know his friend doesn’t like him? Is it possible the friend couldn’t have told him sooner? Are there other good things your child could do with the day?
  4. Encourage your child to suggest some other explanations for the situation. For example, ‘I don’t really know why he cancelled – there could be an emergency’, ‘Life has its ups and downs’, ‘I can go out anyway’, ‘This gives me time to do other things’, ‘I’m disappointed but I can cope’, or ‘We can go out together another day’.
  5. Help your child notice that when he challenges his thinking, his feelings can also change, usually for the better.

When to get help for stress in teenagers

If your child’s stress won’t go away, it’s a good idea to see a professional.

Your child could start by:

  • talking to your GP
  • seeing the school counsellor – school counsellors have specialist 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 Lifeline on 131 114
  • calling Kids Helpline for teens on 1800 551 800.