“OMG I’m so stressed out.”
I’m sure there isn’t anyone who hasn’t seen a text or heard this from someone they know especially if they have teenagers in their life. We know that teens are dealing with stress more than in previous generations and in one study teenagers were reporting more stress than adults particularly during the school year. There are also recent articles describing how teenagers are having trouble dealing with stress related to school performance , managing social media or getting into college . Sadly, we also have seen the inability to cope with stress that has lead to tragic outcomes in some areas . But how do we know if your teenager is just dealing with stress in their life or if they are experiencing something more serious such as an anxiety disorder?
There are several factors to consider if you are trying to determine whether or not your child is just stressed out or has symptoms of anxiety. First, understanding the difference between stress and anxiety is key as the terms are used interchangeably. Stress is your body’s reaction to a real or perceived demand whether it be routine (e.g. school pressures), a change (e.g. divorce) or trauma (e.g. car accident). Anxiety is a reaction to the stress which often appears as excessive, persistent or unrealistic. One aspect to determine is if your child’s stress is distressing enough to be interfering with many aspects of their life. For some kids, they may have a lot on their plate with extra-curricular activities, AP classes, job etc. but they are able to manage in most situations with a few hiccups along the way. But if you are concerned, considering whether or not stress is affecting their most important areas of their life is a start.
Other factors to consider:
Most teenagers find school to be a stressor at some point of their career. Does your teenager worry about getting their assignments done even though they always get it completed in time? Or does your teen have excessive anxiety about an upcoming exam or test even though they studied? There are some students who just avoid doing schoolwork completely because the thought of doing it is so overwhelming and end up getting behind in their classes. You may have seen their grades suffered because of this. Another indicator is that they ask to be called-in sick from school when they are not sick or they ditch classes.
Has your teenager quit their sports team because they felt like the pressure was “too much”? Or maybe they get so worked up before a game they may have stomachaches or throw-up before games. Another indicator is that your teen may mention that they are afraid to make a mistake so they do not “let the team down”. All of these instances could be telling you that your teenager is having a hard time dealing with stress and may be feeling anxiety.
Relationships with family
Are you continually reassuring your teenager that “things are going to work out”? Or you may be wondering why they are uninterested in getting a driver’s license or getting a part-time job. They may tell you they don’t want to do those things “right now” because they are too stressed. These may be signs that anxiety is a concern.
Relationships with friends
It’s typical that teenagers would rather hang out with their friends than their family. Do you feel like you are encouraging your teen to go out with their friends and it is met with resistance? Or do they end up spending most of their weekends online rather than spending face-to-face time with friends? If this is a change, it may be that the social dynamics with their friends is too stressful so they would rather stay home with family to avoid the anxiety-provoking interactions.
A job for a teenager is usually their ticket to independence. If they are uninterested in getting a job (or babysitting, shoveling snow etc.) but talked about it in the past, it may be a sign that taking on a new responsibility is just too much. Or if your child who once loved their part-time job is suddenly calling in or said they quit their job for what seems like no apparent reason, it may be a signaling a concern.
Teenagers are notorious for poor sleep habits but have you noticed they have changed recently? Sleeping too little or too much are cause for concern that your teen is having a hard time dealing with stress. In addition, if they are frequently skipping meals or eating more than usual. Not to mention if you think they may be self-medicating through drugs or alcohol. Changes in health related issues can also signal anxiety is becoming an issue.
Two other factors to consider:
How long has it been going on?
Has it just been the last few weeks around a particular event (eg. getting essays done for college apps) or has it been going on continually for several months?
Does the level of anxiety seem appropriate to the event?
Does your teenager’s anxiety about taking a test that she studied for seem more with someone who is taking the SAT for the first time?
If you find yourself thinking that more of these descriptions fit your teenager than not, it may be time to consider talking to a professional about your the way your teenager is feeling. Whether your child is just having difficulty juggling their responsibilities or if their thoughts of worry are interfering with their daily life, a psychotherapist can help. Therapy can provide tools to manage stress, incorporate self-care, and change unhealthy ways of thinking.