Teenagers have something of a bad reputation when it comes to their emotional stability. It seems to be something of a running joke that teenagers are 'stroppy', 'unreasonable' and 'volatile' which makes them great fodder for sketch shows and sitcoms. But while this might be true and it can certainly seem amusing at times from an outsider's perspective, what's important to remember as a parent is that this is actually a very difficult time for them. The teenage years are something of a perfect storm when it comes to stress, both in terms of the biological changes that teenagers go through and in terms of the life events. It might not seem like a big deal to you but it is to them and sometimes it can feel like their whole world is crashing down around them – even when the issue is really only very small.
Here we will look at why stress in teenagers is such an issue and what you can do to make this time a little easier.
Teenagers undergo a number of biological changes that can directly impact on stress levels. In particular, teenagers have wildly varying levels of hormones with sudden increases in estrogen and testosterone for females and males respectively. Testosterone can cause an increase in aggression and short temper, whereas estrogen causes heightened emotional responses.
At the same time, it's important to consider that the teenage brain is literally changing shape as different areas grow disproportionately quickly or slowly. The part of the brain that is the last to develop? That would be the prefrontal cortex which is the area that controls things like forward thinking, reasoning, logic and self-control. This means that it's harder for a teenager to actually understand their emotions, making a sudden increase in stress more difficult to rationalize and intellectualize.
What's also interesting is that teenage brains become more sensitive to social stimuli during the development of their capacity for 'social reasoning'. This is an important aspect of a teenager's brain function as it is what will enable them to become functioning members of society as they become older. This is why teenagers tend to be particularly 'sensitive' to comments from friends and particularly keen to 'fit in' or be 'cool'.
These changes don't necessarily directly result in an increase in stress then but rather a heightened emotion caused by increased sex hormones and an impaired ability to reason and understand those emotions and more scenarios that can trigger them.
This all places the teenage brain in a very sensitive position where the slightest provocation might result in a disproportionate response. Unfortunately this is around the same time that teenagers will be struggling with many other issues: not least the physical changes that their bodies go through.
The main role of these increased sex hormones for instance is actually to lead to the development of secondary sex characteristics such as facial and pubic hair, breasts and other features. All this can be quite traumatic for teenagers as in a short amount of time they can see their bodies changing drastically before their eyes. This can create feelings of a lack of consistency and even lead to an identity crisis of sorts in extreme cases.
On top of this, teenagers are starting to explore their romantic feelings for the first time, they might be getting their first jobs and they will be undergoing examinations. Learning to drive, choosing careers and picking a college might all also be on the agenda. All these challenges can be extremely stressful in their own right and are all big factors in causing stress in teenagers.
Meanwhile, teenagers will often be going through a process of 'individuation' at this point, where they will be trying to create an identity for themselves that's distinct from that of their parents. This process too can be upsetting and may lead to arguments and upset.
With all this in mind then, it's easy to see why stress in teenagers is so prevalent and why it's such a big issue. With so much going on at once, it's really a wonder that any of us manage to come out of puberty in one piece.
It is crucial however that parents do everything possible to minimize the experiences of stress in their children at this stage in order to avoid a number of serious potential consequences.
For starters, stress in teenagers can hamper brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to grow and develop new neural connections in response to stimuli. Seeing as teenagers are still usually in education and are still developing crucial areas of their brain, this can potentially seriously limit their cognitive potential.
Suicide rates are very high in teenagers too and it's likely that this has a lot to do with stress levels. Roughly 1 in 12 teenagers have attempted suicide at some point according to some reports and this is particularly between the ages of 14-16.
Stress in teenagers can also lead to addiction as they may be tempted to turn to alcohol, cigarettes or drugs in order to cope with powerful negative emotions – especially when these are combined with peer pressure and the availability of such contraband.
With all that in mind then, what can you do to try and help your teenager through stress?
The first and most important thing is to ensure that your child has a warm, loving and accepting home that they feel comfortable in and where they feel unconditionally loved. This can be fantastically therapeutic in helping them to deal with whatever they might be going through and can combat many of the negative effects of stress.
At the same time, it's crucial to understand the nature of stress in teenagers and to treat it with respect. Parents should treat their teenagers' problems as serious issues and be careful not to downplay, undermine or ignore them. It might not seem important to you now but try to remember the way you might have felt going through the same things at that age.
Looking after your teenager's health is also important. A balanced and nutritious diet along with lots of high quality sleep will help to protect your teenager's brain and to encourage a healthy balance of neurotransmitters.
Finally, keep an eye on your child's state of mind and be mindful of what they're going through. If they appear to be having a particular difficult time then try to open up the gates for communication and to get them therapy if they should need it.