What comes to mind when you think of teenage? Perhaps individuals aged between 13 and 18? High school kids? "Difficult to handle" children? The future of our world? Students preparing for competitive exams?
I think teenagers are the wonderful, spirited individuals who hold all the hope we can have for humanity and this world. They are also troubled folk in pain, going through the metamorphosis from a child to an adult. They need our support and understanding.
I have found that mentally speaking, the teenage phase that begins at around 12-14 years of age, does not end magically overnight when the individual becomes legally adult, that is, at 18 years of age. In my experience, the whirlwind status of the mind that begins around 13, ends only at around 25 years of age. Scientific studies have also shown that structural and physiological changes in the brain start at adolescence and go on till about 25 years of age, after which the brain is truly an adult brain.
What causes stress in a teenager?
The external triggers that lead to stress in the teenage child are many. Some amount of stress is actually universal, given that in this age they facing both internal and external changes. Changes are always stressful for children, though the response of each child may differ. Some of the factors that cause a lot of stress in a teenager are discussed below.
1. Academic Matters:
The pressure at school is immense in India with strong academic competition during the high school years. The academic challenges, competitive exams, coaching, tuition classes, on top of the expectations of teachers, parents and relatives is a lot for some children to handle. There is a serious need for parents and teachers to reduce the pressure on children and make their expectations more rational. Also, the parents need to understand that it is wrong to portray to the child that the academic results of these years are so critical that life will offer no second chances if they do not excel NOW. It is true that these years are crucial to get the college they want to get into, but it would be wrong to say that not getting that college admission would indeed mess up their career, future prosperity, happiness and success forever. This is a long topic in itself. But mental breakdown, anxiety induced poor performance, anxiety induced sickness and worst of all, suicides are something that should not happen to even a single child. And the society should strive towards that.
2. Family Matters:
The situations and events in a family affect children of all ages. Sometimes there is verbal violence (or worse) at home directed at the child. The relationship between the parents may be strained. There might be sibling rivalry or sibling bullying. Parents may favor a sibling over the others, or compare one repeatedly to emulate a sibling who is "better". There may be financial stress, chronic illness, parental death, death of close grandparents, and job related problems of parents. These impact a teenager more than they show.
3. Peer/Micro-Social Factors:
Many teenager feels they are different from others, or their situation is very different from others. They feel an immense pressure to fit in, to be liked. They strive to be understood and validated. They want to be appreciated. They often do not realize that the others are also struggling with their own stories. In addition, they might be facing overt or subtle bullying. Some have self-esteem issues or other kinds of trauma because of which they might have behavioral problems. They want to establish friendships, which is a tricky area, because their friends are also emotionally volatile teens. They are developing sexually and have crushes that they often do not know how to handle. In our mostly closed society, they do not have validation of their developing sexuality and access to information regarding these things. Individuals who are nonbinary are especially vulnerable to anxiety, depression and suicide. Interrelationships with relatives, teachers, and events in the immediate vicinity fall into this category.
4. Global or Macro-Social Factors:
Events that occur in the region or the world also can play an important role in causing stress in teenagers, as has been made amply evident by the Covid-19 pandemic. Other factors can be war or unrest, climate change, energy and water crisis, job crisis, and other crises that the world is facing. Especially with the recent Covid-19 pandemic, we are witnessing an unprecedented level of mental health crisis all over the world, which has increased the rates of anxiety, depression and suicides in teenagers markedly as well.
Trauma is not some terrible event that happens only rarely to people we do not know. Trauma is when an event causes overwhelming stress in a person, more than they can handle staying healthy, more than they can handle staying tuned to their authentic self. Many people including children and teenagers carry internal unresolved trauma. These affect their physical and mental health, influence their personalities and attitudes, and may even determine their life's trajectory. Trauma can be something that happened in their childhood, even as earlier as in infancy. Abuse (physical or verbal), death, sickness, abandonment, loneliness/isolation, accidents, parental divorce, relocation with loss of friends and attachments, massive financial stress in the family, and many such things can cause trauma.
What does stress look like in a teenager?
The huge changes that are going on in the brain of an adolescent result in many things we see in a teenager - mood swings, poor judgement, poor impulse control, high emotions and sleep cycle disturbances. In addition to these internal changes, there can be the above mentioned stressors. Then, there are also internal factors like the child's innate personality that determine the child's responses to many things they face in these years. They also contribute to the outward manifestations we see and the inner stresses the child faces.
Stress may manifest in some teenagers in the form of withdrawn attitude, agitation, eating problems (overeating, skipping breakfast or meals, or eating unhealthy foods), poor concentration, depression, irritability, belligerence, curt behavior, unable to sleep at night, mood swings, and even repeated cold infections and allergies. They may have repeated pains like stomach pain, headache, muscle pain, etc. Their grades may suffer and they have trouble remembering what they learn. They may become inattentive to self-care.
It may be difficult to know that a child is stressed and even when asked they may not share it. The only way is to establish a healthy communication in early childhood and maintain it by constant evolving with the child's changing needs. If the pre-existing relationship with the parent was strained, with poor communication, then it is difficult to connect to the teenage child and expect that they will be truthful about their stress and fears. But it is never too late to start. However, if one wishes to reconnect with a teenager with whom they lost emotional connection a while ago, one may need help to do it.
If you feel that your teenage child is extremely stressed, please know that there is no shame in getting help for either a physical illness or a mental situation. Stress needs a multi-pronged approach and in that, support of the parents, friends, teachers, and a mental health professional can be key factors. Often the teenager's problems are not isolated problems, and the parents also need to explore their own issues, their attitudes and their behavior that may be unhelpful to the child. We learn so much with our children, as every engaged parent will know. If you help your child develop routines that improve mental resilience, you will find that your own mental well-being will improve as well.
Dr. Sudha is an Expressive Arts Therapy Facilitator. This article is a cross-post from her website www.reclaimind.com. She offers the popular anxiety management workshop for teenagers - The Uncrash Course.