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Back to School, Back to Anxiety: The Hidden Cause of Your Teen’s Stress

Dr. Michele Pole | September 25, 2018

Back to School, Back to Anxiety

It’s the end of September, the initial excitement of the new school year has faded into the stress and anxiety-inducing realities of homework and testing, practices and games. It’s no surprise that a recent survey by The Harris Poll, commissioned by Caron, shows both parents and teens feel they are under intense pressure to perform. What is surprising, though, is that parents may be pressuring their kids more than they know.

Parents want to blame peers and social media for this anxiety, but the reality is those are not really the top sources of stress for teens. Though the pressure teens put on themselves to succeed is the top-ranked source of stress (27%), pressure from their parents ranks a close second (22%). Pressure from peers is fourth (11%).

Top parent-perceived sources of most pressure in teens: Top teen-reported sources of most pressure:
Themselves (28%) Myself (27%)
Their friends (21%) Parent(s)/Guardian(s) (22%)
Their teachers/school (13%) Teachers/School (19%)
Their parents(s)/guardian(s) (10%) My friends (11%)

The Harm Anxiety Causes
There’s another and more insidious story lurking behind those numbers. Compared to parents, the survey shows teens are much more likely to feel negatively when under pressure (82% vs 74%), including feeling overwhelmed (60% vs 52%) and anxious (58% vs 54%). While a little pressure might help teens perform better, teens are far less likely than their parents to receive any positive boost from being under pressure (26% vs 37%). There comes a point when a teen is under too much stress.

To me, it makes sense that teens are more susceptible to the negative effects of stress than their parents. Adults have had their whole lives to learn how to manage stress. Sometimes we adults manage the stress in healthy ways, and sometimes we don’t, but we still manage it. Teens are approaching one of the most stressful parts of life, the transition into college - yet they haven’t had the experience in managing stress. It’s all new to them.

The Slippery Slope Between Anxiety and Substance Abuse
People use substances to manage emotional distress, anxiety being one of the most difficult and uncomfortable of emotions. If teens are experiencing high levels of anxiety, and especially if they see people in their lives modeling the behavior of using alcohol to manage stress, it makes it more likely that they themselves will use alcohol or other substances.

Again, the survey shows a real disconnect between what parents think and how they relate to their teens. While only 8% of parents say that teen use of alcohol and other substances are an acceptable way to manage pressure, they are three times more likely (25%) to tolerate their own substance use (alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, benzodiazepines, stimulants, and opioids).

Here is the problem: Children are heavily influenced by the behavior they see modeled by the adults in their lives. Teens observe this unhealthy behavior, and the survey shows in excess of 1 in 10 teens think alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs are acceptable to alleviate pressure (14%) and may even be necessary to relax or succeed. Four in ten teens (44%) report that most of their peer group sometimes uses alcohol or drugs to cope with pressure.

Ways Parents Can Create a Family Culture to Properly Cope with Stress
Parents need to take responsibility for their role in causing teen anxiety. The good news is that 8 in 10 teenagers (82%) believe that their parents have a deep influence on how they ultimately choose to deal with pressure. Parents’ can’t control a lot in the world, but they can control how they behave, especially when under stress, and set a good example for your teens.

But we need to go beyond modeling good behavior to creating a family culture that encourages children to develop their own ways of dealing with stress. And, by that, I don’t mean playing video games, which 43% of teens in the survey say is a reasonable way of decompressing.

Communication is the foundation of this effort. What I see in this survey is a lack of communication between parents and children. Families need to be able to talk openly about stress, and parents looking to engage their teens might consider setting aside a specific time during the day to just check in: How’s your day going? What’s your stress level like? This sets the stage for adolescents to monitor themselves. When checking their stress level becomes a routine part of their day, over time, they’re going to do that on their own.

The second part of this effort is engaging in family activities that are stress reducers. Go out for a walk or a bike ride together. Have dinner together, where everybody’s sharing one way they managed stress appropriately today. Maybe your family is too busy for dinner, so have a dessert or milk-and-cookie break before bed. The idea here is to use that family peer pressure in a positive way, demonstrating that everybody deals with stress in their lives and there are healthy ways to deal with it. We’re in it together, as a family, and we’re going to get through it together.

Teens need to learn coping skills, but, more importantly, they need practice using them. I see that with patients here at Caron. “Oh, I have coping skills, I know what to do.” Yes, they know what to do, but they’re not doing it. There’s a big difference between knowing a coping skill and using it. It sounds like that’s where kids get stuck in this survey; that they just don’t feel like they have enough tools for whatever reason. Probably their high level of stress and their constant busyness puts coping on the back burner. They feel like they don’t have time to stop and meditate or go exercise.

Coping skills can help expand our window for tolerating stress, so that it remains motivating rather than anxiety-producing. A well-known theory in psychology tells us that we reach an optimal point in being motivated by stress and anxiety, and, once we pass that, we start to see their detrimental effects. Everyone has a different threshold for stress, but the good news is that whatever yours is, you can build up your window of tolerance for stress.

Recognizing the Signs of Too Much Stress
I think it’s important for us to learn the signs of too much stress, so we can recognize when we are approaching our window of tolerance and about to flip over to the detrimental side of anxiety. Extreme examples of that would be panic attacks or feeling so overwhelmed that we can’t accomplish anything. But the smaller signs are really the ones to look out for, such as:

  • anxious thoughts
  • becoming easily distracted
  • inability to focus
  • worrying more

The smaller signs are the perfect opportunity to slow it down. When I find myself close to that threshold of tolerance, I’ll take a few minutes and do some deep breathing. Others might do five minutes of meditation, or take a brief walk, or even just go outside for a few minutes.

About the “Pressure to Perform” Study
The “Pressure to Perform” study was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Caron Treatment Centers. Interviews were conducted among parents and teens who met the following criteria and during the time periods listed below:

  • Parent: Among 1,009 adults ages 19+ who are the parent or guardian of children 13-18 years old. Fielded between July 11 and 23, 2018.
  • Teen: Among 1,009 teens ages 13-18. Fielded between July 11 and 20, 2018.

Results for the parent study were weighted for age within gender, region, race/ethnicity, income, region, household size, marital status, employment and education where necessary to align them with their actual proportions in the population. Results for the teen study were weighted for age within gender, region, race/ethnicity, household size, parents’ highest level of education and school location. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

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