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Navigating the Teen Years Stress-Free (Or How Not to Freak Out)

Ronda Smith, Special to The Informer | 12/11/2013, 2 p.m.
While some stress is most often associated with major life upheavals such as deaths in the family, for teenagers, the ...

Stress is a normal part of life that often begins to impact our lives as young adults. While some stress is most often associated with major life upheavals such as deaths in the family, for teenagers, the pressures of fitting in, managing home and school life, and coping with their changing bodies, often become overwhelming.

Long-term stressful situations can produce a lasting, low-level stress that is particularly difficult for teens to navigate. The nervous system senses continued pressure and may remain slightly elevated and continue to produce extra stress hormones over an extended period. This can wear out the body's reserves, leave a person feeling depleted or overwhelmed, weaken the body's immune system, and cause other problems.

Carl E. Pickhardt, a Texas-based psychologist who authored "The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child" and "Stop Screaming," writes that parents should take note of their teens’ behaviors to determine if they are managing stress well or overwhelmed by it.

“I suggest to parents that they treat “stress education” as importantly as they do financial education, employment education, relationship education, substance use education, and the sex education they are responsible for providing their adolescents. Young people who leave home without this education have a lot to learn from hard experience,” Pickhardt said.

According to a recent survey, 43 percent of 13- to 14-year-olds say they feel stressed every single day; by ages 15 to 17, the number rises to 59 percent. The day-to-day pressures experienced by teens, such as the pressure to fit in and to be successful, can lead to stress. Jobs and family economics can also prove stressful for teens, as nearly two-thirds of them say they are “somewhat” or "very concerned" about their personal finances.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) represents over 8,500 child and adolescent psychiatrists who are physicians. They offer the following techniques for decreasing teen stress:

Exercise and eat regularly

Avoid excess caffeine intake which can increase feelings of anxiety and agitation

Avoid illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco

Learn relaxation exercises (abdominal breathing and muscle relaxation techniques)

Develop assertiveness training skills. For example, state feelings in polite firm and not overly aggressive or passive ways: ("I feel angry when you yell at me” “Please stop yelling.”)

Rehearse and practice situations which cause stress. One example is taking a speech class if talking in front of a class makes you anxious

Learn practical coping skills. For example, break a large task into smaller, more attainable tasks

Decrease negative self-talk: challenge negative thoughts about yourself with alternative neutral or positive thoughts. "My life will never get better” can be transformed into "I may feel hopeless now, but my life will probably get better if I work at it and get some help”

Learn to feel good about doing a competent or "good enough” job rather than demanding perfection from yourself and others

Take a break from stressful situations. Activities like listening to music, talking to a friend, drawing, writing, or spending time with a pet can reduce stress

Build a network of friends who help you cope in a positive way

By using these and other techniques, teenagers can begin to manage stress. If a teen talks about or shows signs of being overly stressed, a consultation with a child and adolescent psychiatrist or qualified mental health professional may be helpful.