Reducing stress among America's teens
Posted Jul 03, 2014
Astronomically, the recent event known as the summer solstice marks the tilt of the planet's semi-axis toward the star (sun) that it orbits, bringing us the most daylight of the year. While interpretation of this event varies among cultures, it is often celebrated with holidays and festivals.
For young people emerging from academia, the summer solstice may warrant celebration of a different kind: a break from the rigors and stress of school. Indeed, solstice is derived from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still).
The most recent annual survey of stress by the American Psychological Association (APA), fielded last August, revealed that teens are experiencing levels of stress on par with, and in some cases exceeding, adults. This appears to be especially the case during the school year when they report that stress levels far exceed what they believe to be healthy (5.9 percent versus 3.9 on a ten-point scale).
No surprise there.
Worse are the associated feelings of being overwhelmed (31 percent), depressed or sad (30 percent) and fatigued or tired (36 percent). Additional concerns can be found in teen reports of lack of sleep, little exercise and skipping meals as a result of stress.
Other research links teenage stress to underage drinking, other drug use and early intimate sexual behavior. Ironically, those self-remediating behaviors may ultimately contribute to higher stress levels.
It’s a vicious cycle.
What else is driving up stress among this cohort? A survey by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation of more than one hundred teens identified key adolescent stressors as school (55 percent), including grades, tests and worries about college; parents and family (15 percent), including expectations and pressure to do well; social life (9 percent), including relationships, extracurriculars and sex; and time (8 percent).
Other clues can be found in Beth Teitell’s March 5, 2014 Boston Globe story, “Summer Fun Takes a Backseat to College Resume-building,” which details the lengths to which parents will go (and spend) to help their children succeed in the increasingly competitive college admissions sweepstakes, with some reportedly sending kids to $4,000-plus “boot camps” to practice taking SATs or learn to write code.
Suniya Luthar, foundation professor of psychology at Arizona State University, in “Girl Interrupted: Why Colleges Shouldn’t Recruit Athletes Before High School,” furthers reporting of her landmark research on the pressures facing children from affluent communities, citing manifestations of depression, anxiety, delinquency and substance abuse.
Embedded in the APA report are suggestions that young people, as in so many other areas of their lives, are particularly influenced by their parents’ experience and management of stress.
Of particular concern to prevention specialists is the use of alcohol by adults and – most especially – young people for stress reduction. While recent Monitoring the Future (MTF) data from the University of Michigan (2013) points to important reductions in alcohol use by young people, consumption remains a prominent and potent problem.
Data reported by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) suggests alcohol use can lead to increased social stress and poor grades in teens and that young people who drink are more likely than their non-drinking peers to feel like social outcasts. In addition, researchers at the University of Texas found a direct connection between such isolation and academic performance.
For sure, self-medication with alcohol is not the only problem. The MTF study also pointed to a dramatic and recent rise in marijuana use among 8th, 10th and 12th graders. For example, marijuana use among 12th graders rose from 2.4 percent in 1993 to 6.5 percent in 2013; 4 percent of 10th graders say they use marijuana daily, 18 percent report use in the past month, and almost 30 percent in the prior year; and 12 percent of 8th graders admitted to using marijuana in the last year.
All of this stress and risk behavior rolls up to reason for concern and an imperative that we not only teach and model safe and appropriate coping mechanisms in response to stress – such as exercise, sleep, healthy eating and deep breathing –, but also that we afford young people the time to “de-escalate,” especially during the summer season, as recommended by Don McMillan, president of an educational consulting firm interviewed for the Boston Globe article. Also appearing in those pages was Harvard University’s dean of admissions who similarly urged families to “bring summer back.”
Sun and stillness never sounded better.
Stephen Gray Wallace, director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD, the director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com. For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com.
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