Teenage stress: what is it?

Stress in teenagers – and anyone – isn’t 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. Stress gets you ready for action. When you feel you can cope with these challenges, stress gives you the motivation to get things done.

But there can be problems when your stress is greater than your ability to cope.

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 see friends or take part in activities she usually enjoys, or she might want to be by herself more than usual
  • seem nervous or anxious
  • sleep too little or too much
  • eat more ‘comfort food’ than usual, or eat less
  • refuse to go to school, or not do as well at school
  • drink more caffeine products, or take over-the-counter painkillers, use alcohol or other drugs, or gamble
  • behave aggressively
  • not care about her appearance
  • behave differently in her relationship with you – for example, suddenly stop wanting to talk to you.

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

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

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
  • not feel hungry
  • say she feels more tired than usual, even if she’s getting enough sleep
  • lose or gain weight
  • get frequent colds or infections
  • 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
  • losing the thread of thoughts or conversations
  • having trouble remembering things
  • making snap decisions or errors in judgment
  • having trouble organising, planning or making decisions
  • getting confused or irrational.

Causes of teenage stress

Some of the things that cause stress in teenagers include study worries, social media, caring for other family members, friendships, family conflict, body image, work, bullying, discrimination, alcohol and other drug use, tension between cultural worlds, high personal expectations or high expectations from parents, teachers and friends.

If you can keep an eye on things that could cause stress for your child, try to reduce those things and also respond early to signs of stress in teenagers, 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 together and doing things that make your child feel good.

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

Helpful thinking to reduce stress in teenagers
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’, ‘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’.

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 to change unhelpful thinking patterns:

  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 list 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. Help your child decide if the thoughts are helpful – 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 thoughts – 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 changes his unhelpful thinking, his feelings also change – usually for the better.

Healthy lifestyle changes to reduce stress in teenagers
When your child feels stressed, it’s easy to forget to do everyday healthy things. 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 9¼ 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.

When to get help for stress in teenagers

If your child’s stress won’t go away, your child’s worries have got worse over time, or your child’s stress is getting in the way of sleep, appetite, energy levels, enjoyment or socialising, 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.
If your child is having thoughts about harming himself or others, or feels that life isn’t worth living, he needs professional help. If your child is talking about killing himself, get him to your nearest hospital emergency department or call an ambulance on 000.

Stress and your body

When you feel threatened, your body automatically gets you ready for a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. The problem is your brain doesn’t choose between real or imagined threats and responds automatically the same way to both.

Two powerful hormones – adrenaline and noradrenaline – get working.

These hormones act to:

  • speed up your reflexes so you can react quickly to threats
  • raise your heart rate and blood pressure
  • raise your blood sugar and body functioning to increase the performance of your big muscle groups and lungs
  • burn energy quickly for fast physical activity
  • shut down the digestive system
  • divert blood away from your skin – this is why people under deep stress can have pale skin
  • produce high-oxygenated blood – this can lead to blackouts and an irregular heartbeat
  • thicken your blood, making your heart work harder.

Cortisol is also released. Cortisol puts your body on extra alert. Although it’s a natural body chemical, regular release of cortisol over a long time can weaken your immune system.

Increased release of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol as a reaction to hard-to-manage stress puts strain on your body and mind. Over time it damages overall health and wellbeing.