Pump The Breaks: My Teen is Stressed At School
By: Jennifer Krawczyk, MA Candidate, Registered Psychotherapist
Why is my teen stressed at school? Students across the United States are beginning to get back into the swing of a new school year. This time of year can be very exciting for some students. We can all remember back to each of the first days of school joyfully be able to see friends everyday again, anxious for new environment or dressing in the right style. Your teen could be experiencing similar stresses with the new school year and new expectations; or even different ones. All of this can be overwhelming in the beginning when the teacher passes out the course overview. Not to mention the additional stressors of new challenges, new routines, new friends, or the pressure of doing better than last year. Let’s be honest, of course all parents want their children to be successful and confident, but at times this can be a massive weight on their shoulders. Its December and the newness of school has worn off. Maybe your teen started suffering at the beginning of the year and you thought it would wear off. But, now you sit here reading this article, knowing that that, “wear off” period, has now passed. Let’s take a closer look at what anxiety is. Some of the common signs you will notice when your teen is experiencing an increased amount of anxiety are:
- change in sleep cycle
- change in appetite
- change in mood
- decreased memory
The list of mental and physical effects that a school stressed teen with anxiety can have can go on and on. So this weight on their shoulders on top of these symptoms, is often too much. Even though they act like it, they are not yet adults with fully formed brains. The teen brain is still developing the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for decision making, planning, and moderating behavior and complex decision making. So this powerhouse of the brain, that all of us adults have fully formed, your teen is not yet able to access all of that part of the brain benefits.
What is happening in the brain of a school stressed teen? Well let me give you the super scientific break down. A rapid action is triggered by the sympathetic nervous system that will release epinephrine and norepinephrine into the bloodstream that triggers the response “fight or flight” (Romeo, 2013.) If you are not familiar with this response, it is your brain protection mechanism for the body; when a dangerous situation is presented the brain either chooses to fight the situation or flee from the situation. Another system that is activated in stressful situations is the hypothalamic- pituitary adrenal axis, also known as the HPA (Romeo, 2013.) This begins with the paraventricular nucleus secretes corticotropin- releasing hormone, which signals to the pituitary to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (Romeo, 2013.) This hormone stimulates the adrenal glands to produce and secrete glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoid is the hormone that shuts our system down after a stressful situations (Romeo, 2013.) This means that when stress is experienced, you may shut down and do nothing. In our behaviors as people, this can look a variety of different ways, varying from, no response to anger, crying, shaking, to irrational reactions.
So considering all that brain stuff…now, we will discuss a few tips and tricks that parents can utilize to help support their school stressed teen while working through their anxiety:
It is important that as these new stressors develop that you keep an open line of communication with your teen, so they can express themselves instead of bottling it up. If your teen or adolescent is not opened to speaking in the moment just remind them that when they are ready, they can come to you. if you adolescent does come to you make sure that you listen with open ears and an open mind. What I mean by this is to “fully listen” instead of jumping directly into problem solving. Half of the time your teen just needs to feel they are heard instead of looking for a solution. When you are offering a solution, it just seems like another chore from an adult. What I would recommend going to a quiet place in the house, were you can not be interrupted, there are no distractions, and your adolescent feel safe and comfortable. If they refuse to talk, give them space and let them know that you will come back to the situation later.
Validation, another form of communication that is important! Validating their anxiety or stress about a situation or activity will show your teen that what they are feeling is normal. The right amount of validation can be the biggest support that a parent can offer their teen, before and then you can help problem- solve with them or help focus on a positive from the day. Validation could be, “that does suck, I am sorry that this happened to you” or “I understand I remember going through something similar when I was in school.” A statement that tells your adolescent that they are not the only ones experiencing this stress. A validation statement is not about only focusing on the positive, for example, “At least you have XYZ, unlike other people”. If you struggle with getting your teen to talk with you about their anxiety, maybe encourage them to confide in a friend or speak with a therapist. Also, here is a link to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (2019) with more information about stress and tips to help decrease stress: https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Helping-Teenagers-With-Stress-066.aspx.
Routine, another great way of helping your teen develop their own routine in the morning and evening to make them feel more prepared. It could be as simple as what order they would like to do their morning routine in or making sure their lunch is packed the night before. This can help their brains go into autopilot mode and reduce the anxiety of possibly forgetting something. Or just being up and ready enough to eat something …or more importantly, not exploding into a bright and early morning argument.
Self-care; Yes, your teen needs self-care, down time, or anything that allows them to feel like they have ways to decompress. This is a vital way that your child/teen can learn to self sooth is through hobbies, play, joy, and fun. I like to encourage my client’s to also focus on doing self- care a few times a week, something that brings them purely enjoy and they look forward. Even if it is something small or short, that break can give the stressed individual enough of a break to reset their brain, emotions, and body to get back to the task at hand. For those of you that do not know what self- care is, it is defined as the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health (Raphailia, 2018.) Some examples that your teen could do for self- care would be; listening to music as they begin their day, time with friends, video games, social media, yoga, proper sleep or hygiene, or getting their homework done early. All of these can help put your teen’s anxious brain to a brief rest. Parent’s can also practice self- care to make sure that they do not let all the stress they are experiencing from work, home life, marriage, and child’s care clouds their judgment to help their teen the most appropriate way for their teen. It is difficult for individuals that are “burnt out” to properly assist others that need help.
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So let’s quickly recap, make sure to leave the communication door open, offer for them to speak with someone professionally, validate their feelings, get into a routine, encourage them to do something for them, something that promotes a sense of happiness. Now that you have read this article, parent’s you can do this! It is your teen and you know them best so work with them and be supportive in whichever way that your teen needs. Parents you will know when your teen needs professional help. They will not want to be social, grades may begin to drop, take a ride on an emotional roller coaster, lose interest in pleasurable activities, or ect. Just remember that you are not alone and if you need help reach out to a professional, that’s what we are here for. We hope this was a helpful article on why your teen is stressed.
Raphailia, M. (2018). What self- care is- and what it isn’t. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-self-care-is-and-what-it-isnt-2/
Romeo, R.D. (2013). The teenage brain: the stress response and the adolescent brain. Curr Dir Psychol Sci, 22,140–145. doi:10.1177/0963721413475445