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How to Tell if Your High School Student is Dangerously Stressed

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How to Tell if Your Kid is Dangerously Stressed

Kids are stressed. We just have to look at their faces or their Facebook pages to understand the complexity of their lives.

So how do you know if the stress you’re seeing might be something to worry about?

First, you need to understand the physiology.

The part of the brain that sorts through and manages stress has not been completely developed in adolescents, making it difficult for them to sort through and manage stress. The blemish, bad body image, or argument with a friend that causes a teary night or very sour morning may seem silly, but it’s huge to them. And, beyond the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, they just have a lot pressure to measure up – socially, physically, and academically.

A recent study by the American Psychological Association found 25 percent of teens reported extreme stress and a third said it was making them seriously anxious or depressed and that they they expected it to increase. They also reported an average stress level of about 6 on a 10-point scale. Another recent report indicated nearly one third of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or longer during the past year.

It takes empathy and patience to help.

"Remember what life is like for teens — listen, be open and realize that you might not always be able to relate to what they’re feeling, and that’s OK,” says Katrina L. Brooks, community relations coordinator for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Adolescent Health, which has made adolescent stress a priority. “Stay alert to their stress and acknowledge that it’s often different from adult stress."

So, how can you tell if your student is just too stressed?

Experts list the following signs that a teen is overloaded – and say parents should worry if the symptoms go on for a long period without a break and seem severe -- especially, if the behavior is uncharacteristic. Long-lasting and dramatic changes in mood or behavior suggest a bigger problem such as depression or anxiety.

Here are some things to look for:

  • A heightened anxiety about things like upcoming exams, entrance into college, meeting new people or leaving home, particularly worry about activity that had not previously been concerning.

  • Feeling overwhelmed about even familiar social settings – peers and friends and even family. Avoiding social situations.

  • Having negative thoughts about themselves and their ability to accomplish tasks they normally handle, and responding dramatically if things aren’t done perfectly. Not allowing themselves to make mistakes or be wrong.

  • Sleeping more than usual and being tired.

  • Having extreme mood changes beyond normal. Being irritable, angry, aggressive or anxious over a period. Crying unexpectedly.

  • Suffering from stomach pain, headache and other chronic pain

  • Being too busy for normal tasks -- even eating and sleeping.

What can you do to help?

Brooks and other experts say you should listen to complaints; encourage them to lighten the load or break big tasks into smaller chunks; and help guide them back to healthy habits with diet, exercise, and sleep – and less caffeine.

And, they say, get them to laugh. Teenagers’ worries should be awknowledged, but keeping a sense of humor about their stressors can sometimes get them to recognize that some of what they are worrying about isn’t that big of a deal.

[Want more info? Here's how to help your teen de-stress about college prep.]

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Written by James Paterson

James Paterson-profile-picture

Jim Paterson is a writer and editor who specializes in issues related to education and counseling. He has written for the Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, Parent Magazine, Baltimore Magazine, Counseling Today and a variety of other publications. He has also been a school counselor for the past eight years and last year was named “Counselor of the Year” in Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, DC.

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