Addressing Teen Stress, Part 1

Elin Björling

Elin Björling, PhD
University of Washington

Just because stress is an increasing problem for today’s teens doesn’t mean that it is “normal.” We need to work together to address adolescent stress so today’s teens don’t suffer long-term consequences to their physical and mental health.

Among other research topics, Dr. Björling co-authored the qualitative study “Anger Without Agency: Exploring the Experiences of Stress in Adolescent Girls.” We thought that National Stress Awareness Month presented an ideal opportunity to learn more about teen stress and consider how societal institutions can address it to prevent current and long-term health consequences. – Ed.

The problem of teen stress
In the 2013 Stress in America Survey, which focused on teens, the American Psychological Association found that

  • School is teens’ most common stressor
  • 30% of teens felt overwhelmed or depressed as a result of stress
  • Most teens felt their stress level was unhealthy
  • 34% believed their stress would increase in the next year.

Not surprisingly, like adults, teen girls report higher stress levels than teen boys. More teen girls feel “pressure to be a certain way” than teen boys. And in every study I’ve ever seen (or done myself) teens most common stessor is school.

Unlike adults, however, teens are particularly vulnerable to stress. The teen brain is amazing in its flexibility. At that age, teens are at the height of their neuronal development, but that flexibility means that negative influences, such as stress, can have a much larger impact on the teen brain. In addition, chronic stress, which is unhealthy for adults and contributes to both physical and mental illness, seems to happen much more quickly in the adolescent brain than in adults. In other words, the negative impact of stress on health happens much sooner for adolescents, with corresponding long-term consequences.

“Managing” stress
Stress does not come solely from an individual: it results from an interaction between an individual and their environment. Suggestions that a teenage girl needs to learn to “manage” her stress inappropriately places the responsibility on the teen to “fix” what is actually a societal problem. Because stress is both relational and individual, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I’ve been studying stress for almost 20 years and still find it fascinating in its complexity. We’re not going to solve stress problems overnight, but we can – and should – invite solutions that involve adults and institutions in addition to teens. Schools, parents, and communities have a large role in decreasing stress for teens and in developing environments that are stress-resistant for teens.

When we see stress as an interaction between teens and their environment, we have to acknowledge that stress reduction can and should happen on both individual and environmental levels. Schools in particular can take ownership for reducing academic stress for teens, especially teen girls who appear to be particularly vulnerable to academic stress. That school shows up as the major stressor in almost every study of teen stress suggests that adults in the school realm (administration, staff, teachers, and parents) could be doing more to reduce stress.

In addition, the current adolescent generation is a moving target. The era that today’s teens are living in, and experiencing stress in, is very different than any previous generation. Gun violence, social media, fluidity of gender, technological immersion: all impact a teen’s internal and external environment. Exploring teen data from decades ago likely has little transferability.

Current research is needed to support development, implementation, and evaluation of institution-based measures to address teen stress. In comparison, a great deal of research has been done in Scandinavian countries to explore school stress, specifically around reducing depression. So far, it looks to be very successful. In the U.S., we can learn a lot from other countries about how to reduce stress and rates of depression. Reducing stress needs to be a country-wide priority so we can create learning environments rather than stress environments.

I feel strongly that deeper exploration through both formalized research and personal stories is helpful in assessing – and then addressing – stress in teens. Like all big emotions, talking about feelings can be therapeutic. So talking about stress needs to become the norm. And needs to be endorsed by families, schools, and communities.

Figure 1: Example of a Community Teen Stressors Board

We need to work as families and as schools to create healthier environments for our teens. We also need to TALK about stress and model self-care. The first step in addressing stress is to better understand stress. As a very simple way to do this, I invite families, schools, and communities to create a community stress board. You can capture teens’ “stressors” and, if you want, their “calmers.” By engaging teens in sharing what is stressful or calming to them, and by listening to that information, we can begin to address the problem. This type of activity communicates to teens that they are not alone and that it is important to talk about stress. It also demonstrates that we can work together as a community to think about solutions, tools, and resources to help with stress as part of self-care.

To be continued next week.

Your Turn

  • What do you think about stress being seen as more than an individual’s problem? What roles do parents and schools have in mitigating teen stress and its impacts?

Elin Björling, Ph.D., is a research scientist and lecturer in the department of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington. She is the co-founder of the Momentary Experience Lab, conducting design and development projects that capture data and intervene to improve health in the real world. Elin is the Project lead for Project EMAR, an interdisciplinary project exploring the design and development of a social robot to measure and reduce stress in teens. Using human-centered design, Elin engages in outreach education and research working directly with teens in the local community, including co-creating the high school Design Challenge. Over the past two decades Elin has been an integral part of numerous research projects in health sciences and education with a focus on teen stress and she continues to advocate for improvements in teen mental health.

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