Often times I hear people tell youth their teen years are going to be the ‘best years of their lives’. Every time I hear this, I shake my head. Having worked with a teenage population for a couple years has opened my eyes to all the new challenges and difficulties that are being thrown into the lives of youth. It seems too often that young people are coming to me with overwhelming feelings of anxiety and worry. So let’s take a minute to explore some the major sources of stress encountered by today’s youth.
One of the major sources of stress is school. At the academic level, there are the tests and assignments
paired with expectations to achieve good grades. When inquiring into where the expectations are coming from, youth feel they are from parents, teachers, and self. They fear disappointing their family with poor marks and are concerned for their futures. Youth appear in my office as young as 13 expressing concern over what career they should pick and fearful that anything less than a B grade on any exam during their entire high school career will eliminate any opportunity to pursue a post secondary education and ultimately ruin their future. For some, perfectionism becomes an addiction.
Paired with academics are all the extracurricular activities in which youth feel required to partake. Extracurricular activities now serve a purpose of demonstrating to future employers and schools student’s level of community involvement. Without them, some youth feel they will be at a disadvantage for getting into the post-secondary institute of their choice. Thus, making it appear even more imperative to load up their schedules with clubs and sports. Youth are also required to participate in work experience programs to assist them in exploring possible future occupations. During their work experience, the expectation to maintain their grades and extracurricular involvement remains.
On top of it all, youth are faced with their peers and comparing themselves to others. I am often amazed at the value of possessions the modern teen holds. Between the designer clothes, bags, phones, and other electronics, I have seen more than a handful teens that, in one outfit, could be valued more than my first car. When a youth does not hold these modern symbols of status, they get an earful of negative comments from peers. What makes it even more difficult is the impossibility to escape being bullied. Not only are youth getting bullied face to face, but they can be bombarded with text messages, voice mails on their cell phones, and wall posts on internet social networking sites.
After a lengthy day of juggling stress at school and after school activities, teens make the trek home. Strife in the home and even parent’s expectations can be other sources of stress. In addition, youth encounter chores, part-time jobs, helping with younger siblings, catching up on school work, and finding time to relax and recharge. During these down times, youth may spend time focusing on self stress – stress that others are unaware of, such as self esteem, confidence, expectations, and body image. Self stress also includes the natural desire to discover one’s own belief system, values, and identity. Self talk, or internal dialogue, often plays a role with self stress. When feeling overwhelmed, one’s internal dialogue has a tendency to turn negative. Common self talk statements I hear include ‘Nobody understands me’, ‘I’m so stupid’, and ‘I’m not good enough’. It’s almost as if youth begin to bully themselves. It’s important for youth to learn how to acknowledge and change these statements. They need to know that it is okay to not be perfect and how to appreciate their strengths.
The result of all this stress is a generation of tired and irritable youth who keep hearing that these are going to be the best years of their lives. Perhaps it’s time to shift our focus to the potential for the wonderful and exciting futures these young people hold. We can do this by encouraging and supporting our youth by commenting on the things they are doing well. We can acknowledge life can be challenging and that stress can be managed. We can also model healthy coping strategies such as healthy communication, exercise, positive eating habits and time management. Parents, keep the lines of communication open and strong between yourself and your teen. Part of this communication will be to use your listening skills and maintaining a non-judgemental ear. To help build the relationship, plan more time together to chat and have fun. Perhaps start family movie or game nights. Also, include children in making a list of activities the family could do together. Lastly, let them know you are proud of them and that life only gets better.