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Are today’s teens feeling too stressed out?

Are today's teens too stressed out?

David Pereiras | Asti Mak | Prostock studio | Ground picture | CLton Studio | Shutterstock | Collage by Aleteia

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 05/05/24

It is easy for adults to ignore or dismiss the problems of teens as if they were insignificant. But teen problems are real and deserve to be taken seriously.

Teenagers have real problems. As a proud middle-aged man and father of three teenagers, you might think that when I say they have “real problems,” I mean that they need to shape up, work harder, wake up earlier, and start paying me for room and board. Nothing would delight me more than to pretend that I have it all together and that the only problem teenagers have these days is the need to mature.

It’s easy for us adults to act as though we’re the only ones with stress and responsibilities and we’re just waiting for our teenagers to grow up.

But, no, when I say that teenagers have real problems, what I mean to say is that the problems they’re concerned with are real. Growing up is hard work. It’s real work.

Real problems that really matter

I think back to when I was a teenager and how real my concerns were during those formative years. Perhaps they don’t seem important to an adult who has forgotten how difficult it was to go through those years ourselves, but to teenagers, their concerns are important. It really mattered to me how I fit in with my peers, what grade I got on some (in retrospect) completely unimportant quiz in freshman biology, if I qualified to play on the basketball team, and why the girl I liked hadn’t called me back on the phone yet.

I should know better, but I sometimes find myself dismissing the concerns of my teens as unimportant. My daughter might be concerned that her prom dress doesn’t fit and my son is needing help to find odd jobs for money to buy a new mountain bike. In comparison to, say, paying the mortgage or worrying if the beat-up old minivan will last another year, those concerns seem minor. Not real problems.

In fact, however, those small problems and how teens deal with them are vital. Dealing with small problems is how we learn to deal with larger problems.

Stressed out teen boy orange background

Don’t dismiss their problems

That’s why it’s important how we, as parents, react to our teens when they express how stressed out they are. We shouldn’t dismiss them. The problem-solving skills they learn as they deal with their issues are vital, including learning to handle setbacks, emotions, or even failure. It may be a problem as simple as a fight with a friend or a disappointing grade in school. It may be nothing more than drama on social media or a young romance that has fizzled, but these concerns matter.

Most importantly, these issues cause real stress. Incredibly, surveys show that teens are even more stressed out than their parents. They’re overwhelmed by their burgeoning responsibilities and struggling to cope. Some signs of stress are fluctuations in mood, loss of sleep, low energy, and loss of appetite. These might appear when teens drive themselves too hard to get the perfect grade, make the sports team, or feel anxious about how they fit in socially with their peers.

My fear is that they might burn out before they even really get started. I’d hate to see teens give up on relationships, academics, and their faith before they reach their full potential.

Holding high standards vs. putting pressure

As a parent, I don’t want to be a source of compounding stress on my children. There’s a fine line between encouraging them and holding them to a high standard, on the one hand, and putting unreasonable pressure on them, on the other. Because they’re still developing a core identity, teens are sensitive to environment. This means that the kind of home parents create is extremely important. Their lives outside the home are stressful, so the home needs to be a place where they feel safe and re-energized.

They might want to withdraw and try to handle it all themselves. As a parent, though, I want my children comfortable coming to me with their problems. Even if I can’t fix the issue, I can listen and provide a calming reaction.

If my teens do talk to me, it means they trust that I won’t add to the stress. My job is to tell them the world isn’t ending while also taking their concerns seriously.

Stressed teen girl yellow background

The source of teen stress

Ultimately, we could summarize the sources of stress for teenagers into one, overriding concern. They’re shaping the rest of their lives. That’s incredibly stressful. This is a real, adult-sized source of stress that will span marriage, career, where to live, what debt to take on, and how to be happy. That’s enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed.

Don’t add to the stress. The last thing your teen needs is a parent who makes it worse. There’s a fine line between encouraging them to achieve their best and having unrealistic expectations. A little stress isn’t a bad thing, we all have to deal with it, but an unrelenting stress isn’t sustainable for a teen any more than it is for an adult.

I don’t know that there’s any secret method for parents to assist their children through this process, but in my experience all my teens really want and need is for me to take them seriously. It’s comforting for them to know that adults worry about the same things they do, that their problems are real but I’m confident that they’ll do great. I want them to know that they’re already doing great.

Even more, I want my teens to know I love them no matter what, that I support them even if they’re stressed out. Their problems are real, but the happiness that we feel when we put everything in perspective and love those around us, well, that’s even more real.

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