Why All the Hype About Teen Stress?

A high school teacher was recently asked, “What’s new with teens?” She responded, “Every year, it seems like more of them end up in the hospital.” Continuing, she said, ”I’ve taught frazzled over-achieving students who forgo sleep for flashcards and always seem on the verge of a breakdown. I’ve had students who won’t come to school because they don’t want to compound their stress. It’s become common for student breakdowns to happen and for parents to request their child’s upcoming assignments in advance, knowing they’ll be out of school.”

And this was reported by a teacher whose school isn’t a high-stress pipeline for Ivy League colleges, but a public school that has a diverse student body comprised of both affluent and low-income students.

In many other public schools around the country, teachers are reporting that student stress is on the rise and is putting teachers in awkward positions. It is causing them to question themselves and wonder if students are too stressed out or lack the organizational and time-management skills needed to complete homework assignments and study for tests.

And their anecdotal observations are supported by research, which shows that anxiety, depression, and self-harm are on the rise among teens. According to a 2019 Pew Research Poll, 70 percent of surveyed teens agree that stress is a significant problem.

Emergency room visits for self-inflicted, nonfatal injuries among children and young adults increased by 5.7 percent from 2008 to 2015, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that between 2007 and 2017, more teens were seriously considering suicide or hurting themselves in suicide attempts than in past decades.

It’s estimated that about 20 percent of teens have a diagnosable mental health disorder, and most of them go untreated. The problem is very disconcerting, but before we look for solutions, we must ask, “Why?”

What Pressure?

Academic pressures and the resulting stress faced by many teens begin long before they enter high school and are escalating every year. It has been reported by teachers and administrators that it is the parents and teachers who are creating the pressure, from their fear that their children won’t get accepted into prestigious universities or be adequately prepared for an increasingly competitive job market upon graduation.

To make matters worse, even with these overloaded schedules, often including honors or AP courses, students still have no guarantee of being accepted into the more elite institutions. According to Dr. Keating, Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Michigan and author of the 2017 book Born Anxious, “For teens [today], it’s not clear that there’s going to be a prize at the end.”

What’s more, Dr. Keating explained that students react more intensely when their world feels less stable than they expect—and less likely to reward their efforts and hopes with desired outcomes. For teens, in particular, these pressures can be especially challenging to navigate, given their stage of brain development: They can’t manage the stress like adults can.

How Do our Teens Experience the World?

In our digital world, saturated with information, students no longer live and learn in a bubble. According to many educators and psychologists, the impact of these academic pressures is exacerbated in teens by current events, economic fluctuations, and some of the unique cultural and social dynamics that previous generations didn’t experience.

It isn’t that the world has ever been safe. It is that these children are exposed to a relentless stream of alarmist reminders by Facebook or some other digital outlet. A prominent school counselor in Atlanta remarked, “The other day, a student told me that the world isn’t safe anymore, with school shootings, terrorists, politics, war, and violence. Kids are processing a constant bombardment of [negative] headlines daily.”

According to a Stress in America survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2018, it was found that 75 percent of participants between 15 and 21 reported worrying about mass shootings, compared with 62 percent of adults overall. With every issue—whether immigration policy, sexual harassment, climate change, or suicide itself—these youth reported experiencing the most stress of any age group.

In 2018, a Pew Research Center study on teen social media use revealed that nearly 95 percent of teens use a smartphone and over 45 percent report being online “constantly,” an increase of over 20 percent since 2015. This obsessive attachment to the smartphone can mire teens in unhelpful shallow connections that make existing problems seem all-consuming—whether it be a world conflict or an unhealthy relationship.

What is an Effective Solution?

Some of the solutions are quite obvious. Indeed, the schools need and deserve more therapists, whether they be onsite or online school psychologists. We need to help students detox from their phones and reduce academic pressures to the degree it is possible.

But assuming that there is no more than limited control over the circumstances, online school psychologists advocate that we need to pursue another strategy altogether. The most effective solution may be to give students the toolbox to deal with any stress they may confront throughout their lifetime. That toolbox is imparting upon our children coping strategies such as grit, resilience, and self-care, empowering them to deal with today’s challenges as well as tomorrow’s.

Social and emotional learning shouldn’t be viewed as “extracurricular” or as a weakening of academic rigor, but rather as a necessary and valuable dimension of the curriculum — as some schools are beginning to recognize.

Teachers who have watched a student suffer a breakdown or, even worse, a suicide understand that kids benefit from time built into the day not only to relax but to actively heal as well. Even AP Economics courses could incorporate mindfulness exercises and other opportunities to help children heal, become stronger, more resilient, and better tooled to deal with the pressures over which they have no control.

As one teacher put it, “What’s more important—for a child to understand an obscure concept in macroeconomics, or be gentle and kind with themselves when he/she fails, to be able to recover, try again and persevere?”