If he or she is a typical American teen, the answer could well be yes. America’s teens are as stressed out as adults, some even more so. That is the finding of what experts believe to be the most comprehensive national look at stress among teens ever: the American Psychological Association’s first-ever survey of teen stress, published in February. The survey results are alarming.
According to the apa survey, teens believe that a healthy level of stress is 3.9 on a 10-point scale. Low stress levels would be one, two or three points. During the school year, however, teens report that their stress level is way up at a 5.8. That is higher than adults’ average reported stress level, 5.1.
Even more startling, more than one in 10 teens say that they experience stress at extreme levels over the summer: 13 percent rated their summer stress levels as an 8, 9 or 10. And during the school year, that number shoots up to 27 percent—more than one in four.
What is worse, teens believe their stress level is rising. Only 16 percent report that it has declined in the past year, while 31 percent said it increased, and 34 percent believe it will rise in the coming year. As an older friend of mine often said to me, “That’s a good sign of a bad sign.”
Parents: Be Concerned
These statistics should concern all parents and adults who work with teens! Health experts have well-documented proof that chronic stress adversely impacts the mental and physical health of adults. The same is true for teens. However, the majority of the teens surveyed are unaware of the toll stress can take. Stress is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease, depression, exhaustion and weak immune systems that cannot fight off severe viral infections.
If our teens are stressed out in their youth, how will they handle the strain of the sure-to-come adulthood stressors such as jobs, finances, marriage and raising families?
You need to help your teen get a grip on stress. Using excerpts from the survey, here are several things you can do to help your teen better handle stress.
Understand this first of all: Many parents make it their goal to eliminate all stress for their children. This is not good! Stress—the positive, meeting-a-challenge kind of stress, called eustress—is often necessary to make teens stronger, more confident and more capable, as long as it comes in the right amount. Using positive stress to grow is actually therapeutic for a teen. It is the negative (distress) stressors such as delinquency, divorce, drug and alcohol abuse that we need to work to prevent in our children’s lives.
Analyze Your Approach to Education
School is the most commonly mentioned source of stress for teens. In the survey, 83 percent of the teens list school as a “somewhat” or “significant” source of stress.
Without talking to each individual teen surveyed, it is not easy to understand what teens actually mean. “I’m not sure it would be the clinical definition of stress. I think they get stressed because someone puts a demand on them and they don’t want to do it,” Michael Bradley, a psychologist who specializes in teens, told USA Today. In a similar vein, clinical psychologist Jonathan Abramowitz told USA Today, “It is hard to know if all the negative effects teens report are really based on stress. It is hard enough for anyone to really explain why [teens] do certain things, like procrastinating. Give a kid any excuse—it may or may not have anything to do with stress.'’ So a teen stating that school is a significant source of stress may be just an excuse to get out of doing hard schoolwork.
However, child psychologist Kristen Race, whose Mindful Life foundation helps adults, children and teens learn to control stress, believes that teens are honest when responding to confidential surveys. So we should not just gloss over what teens are saying.
Consider this: How do you and your teen’s school administrators approach your child’s education?
“I’m being pressured on all sides to get A’s so I can get into a good college, but I’m a B-average student. The A students get letters from the principals saying how proud they are that they keep such a high standard of excellence. All I get is a ‘you don’t try hard enough’ from my teachers,” writes Matt Leher in the book Pressure, a collection of teen articles about how stress affects them. Matt’s article in the book is titled, “Forced to Face College.”
Matt also gets pressure from his parents. “I know you’ve been working really hard this quarter, but you need to step it up if you expect to get into a good college,” retorts his mother when seeing his report card. It is likely that this type of discussion is repeated often in a majority of homes with teens in high school. This is likely what many teens are referring to when they say that school is somewhat or a significant source of stress.
In his article, Matt discusses his love of music and his desire to be a music journalist. “I get all panicky about getting into a ‘good college’ when I am not even sure that’s the right fit for me. What others might consider a good college might not fit in with my plans for the future,” he writes.
Parents, principals and teachers can put extreme pressure on teens to drive themselves to get into a top college or university. Yet many educators and parents blind themselves to the serious dangers to students lurking on the campuses of the top colleges and universities. Theft, physical and sexual assault, drug and alcohol abuse and mass shootings have become regular occurrences. For recent news on this subject, read “Elliot Rodger and the Recurring Nightmare of Mass Murder.”
Education Should Build Character First
Most educators and parents don’t acknowledge the toxic nature of modern education.
Back in 1955, Herbert W. Armstrong wrote, “The trend in modern education has been a dangerous drift into materialism and collectivism. Colleges and universities have grown so large that regimented assembly-line processes have replaced individualized instruction. The student has lost his identity. Development of personality and initiative is largely sacrificed” (Plain Truth, April 1955). Mr. Armstrong founded Ambassador College, which had two campuses in the United States and one in England, in order to reverse this trend in education.
“This is the mass production machine age. The industrial world today demands highly specialized technological, scientific and professional training along purely materialistic lines,” Mr. Armstrong passionately continued. “Emphasis is upon vocational training for financial rewards in preferred fields. The development of the man himself, his character, right sense of values, knowledge of the real purpose of life, and the spiritual laws that govern it, is neglected. Modern education commits the crime of developing the machine, but failing to develop the man.” These trends have intensified severely in the decades since he wrote those words.
Ambassador College, a relatively small liberal arts college, graduated high-caliber students rich in character, productivity and strong work ethic. Major corporations sought after Ambassador graduates.
The truth is that attending top colleges or universities does not mean that your teen will be a success. It is a fact that many very successful people today never graduated from a top college or university. Examples include Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple; Michael Dell, founder and ceo of Dell computers; and Bill Gates of Microsoft fame. Likewise famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright; Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company; and billionaires John D. Rockefeller and Richard Branson. Even Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson never went to college.
As a parent, it is far better for you to ensure that your child strives to develop the character and discipline of obtaining a well-rounded education. Most major corporations worth their salt are more interested in young people who have proven character and demonstrated know-how to work and accomplish tough things rather than a loaded transcript from a top university.
In a speech titled “The Strenuous Life,” America’s 26th president and widely considered one of our greatest, Theodore Roosevelt, said this: “I am no advocate of senseless and excessive cramming in studies, but a boy [and girl] should work, and should work hard at his lessons—in the first place, for the sake of what he will learn, and in the next place, for the sake of the effect upon his own character of resolutely settling down to learn it. Shiftlessness, slackness, indifference in studying, are almost certain to mean inability to get on in other walks of life.” I can think of no better advice for parents concerning education.
Roosevelt’s autobiography shows that he lived what he taught. Being a frail child, he used positive stress to overcome life-threatening asthma. He worked hard to gain an extensive education, yet he was homeschooled. He became a great leader on the battlefield, and he met the challenges and pressures of not only personal tragedy, but also the extreme strain brought on by political life. It was his sterling character that made Roosevelt the man he was.
Avoid Parental Permissiveness
It is interesting that 13 percent of the teens surveyed rated their summer stress levels as an 8, 9 or 10, even though 83 percent of teens said school was a “somewhat or significant” source of stress. What could cause a teen’s stress level to elevate significantly when not in school? Could it be that during summer break, teens have little or no contact with much-needed authority in their lives?
Here is a paradox worth thinking about. While parents will apply extreme pressure on their teens to do well with academics, few will admonish, correct, discipline, set limits, or even say “no” to their teens. Do you realize that parental permissiveness is actually a negative stress in a teen’s life?
One critical mistake a majority of parents with teens make is assuming that their child’s emotions and ability to reason correctly have grown up with their bodies. This is a grave fallacy. Your dashingly handsome 6-foot, 5-inch 16-year-old son is still a child emotionally and mentally. The same is true of your beautiful 5-foot, 2-inch teenage daughter.
Some—if not most—parents are reluctant to say no to anything today. Parents have been fed the false doctrine that if you establish standards for behavior, enforce rules and set limits for teens, you will severely repress them or destroy their creativity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Standards, rules, limits and punishment for infractions teach children self-discipline. In every field of endeavor, truly successful people—even creative ones—are highly self-disciplined.
All children—especially teens forced to live in an environment without standards, rules and limits—are living in a high-stress situation. Standards, rules and limits that are consistently enforced provide children, including teens, the sense of safety, security and sense of well-being necessary for good physical and mental health. Teens need a lot of guidance, direction and teaching, which helps develop effective reasoning skills.
Clean Living Reduces Stress
One area in particular where teens need parental guidance, direction and correction is human sexuality. Parental permissiveness and a relentless media culture have encouraged rampant sexual promiscuity in America. Sexual promiscuity is wrecking the vigor of teens. We are doing tremendous harm to our children by allowing this situation to continue.
Parents and adults must look at this situation honestly. How bad is sexual promiscuity among teens?
Teen contraction of sexually transmitted diseases is at the epidemic level. Early in 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published that adolescents ages 15 to 24 account for nearly half of the 20 million new cases of stds each year. For example, Chlamydia rates are highest among teens in this age bracket. This number shows that four in 10 sexually active teen girls have had an std that can cause infertility and even death. Males make up more than two thirds of hiv diagnoses among 13-to-19-year-olds. These serious health crises bring extreme and unnecessary stress into the lives of mere children.
The solution is not buying a condom and then teaching your child how to use it. Teaching your child to live a clean moral life is the solution that works.
Most people today, even the so-called religious, hold great contempt for the Ten Commandments. Yet these laws, carefully thought out by an all-wise and loving Creator, protect the vitality and success of human life. Each of the Ten Commandments, when followed faithfully, produces what Jesus Christ called the “abundant life,” (John 10:10). Living a fully fleshed-out moral life brings great confidence and reduces stress in the life of teens and adults.
Build a Tougher Teen
Are you too embarrassed to teach your teen “You shall not commit adultery”? (Exodus 20:14; English Standard Version). The Seventh Commandment also warns against fornication in all of its forms. God designed this commandment to not only protect the institution of family, but also to protect the health of teens. The facts about the destructiveness of living a loose sexual life are many and well known. It is time humanity listens. Teaching your child the self-discipline of sexual abstinence until marriage is one of the most important things you can do for your child. Actually, by doing so, you may save his or her life.
Parents and all adults who work with teens must be careful not to overindulge them. While all teens need to know how to enjoy the pleasures in life, that pleasure should remain age-appropriate. Exploring the outdoors, participating in sports, playing a musical instrument, singing, producing works of art and developing the craft of writing are examples of the type of activities teens should devote their attention to. However, there are times we should put our teens under stress to ensure they grow in their education and moral character, and develop the ability to solve problems and meet the challenges of life. We are wasting the wealth inherent in teenage life if we allow teens to have “the easy way.” The future of our world depends on them.
“A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life, and above all, it is a life which ultimately unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world,” Theodore Roosevelt said. “In the last analysis a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and risk.”
Let’s use this advice from a teen who learned to use stress to accomplish great things in life. Let’s build tougher teens who can do the same!