Why is my teen struggling so much?
Although there is no conclusive data on what exactly is causing it, one trend that has been apparent for the past decade or more is that the mental health of our children and adolescents has been in sharp decline. In the 2020 DETECT Schools Study conducted by the Telethon Kids Institute and the Western Australian Health and Education Department, 40% of the 24,000 year 7 to 12 students surveyed scored in the moderate to severe range in terms of elevated difficulties (e.g., sleep difficulties and physical pain) and emotional distress (e.g., feeling worried, sad, or annoyed).
This was almost three times higher than the previous study when, just six years earlier, the rate was 14%. While the recent data doesn’t suggest that all these students have mental health disorders, researchers of the study concluded that it certainly puts these teens in the high-risk category.
One very well-researched explanation for the substantial increase in the distress of our teens is that the cumulative stress they are experiencing is more than they can cope with, rendering them far more susceptible to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and self-harm (among many others) than you were when you were their age.
What do you mean "they're stressed?"
Our brain is working 24 hours a day to maintain a state of balance (homeostasis) in the body and brain. When we encounter a stressor, this balance is disturbed, and we need to burn energy to return the body to a state of balance again. So a stressor is anything that our body or brain encounters that requires us to burn energy in order to return to a state of balance.
Stressors can be internal (such as a thought) or external (such as an English exam), they can be positive (such as a loud party) or negative (such as being excluded from a social gathering). They can be obvious or hidden. They can be self-imposed or imposed by external forces. They can be biological, emotional, cognitive, social, or pro-social. And something your brain experiences as a stressor, requiring energy to deal with it, mine may not.
Stress is an essential part of living an active and meaningful life. Having a moderate amount of stress as we engage with a challenging task actually improves our concentration, cognitive and physical capacity, and performance in all sorts of endeavours, from solving a difficult maths problem, to racing the 100m sprint, to presenting our ideas to a roomful of people. The goal is not to have no stress at all.
For many of our young people, their stressors significantly exceed their energy reserves. When a young person is in this state of low energy and high tension for long enough, it is possible for them to develop difficulties with high anxiety or low mood, to have so much difficulty tolerating their internal distress that they resort to self-harm or using alcohol or other drugs, or to start obsessively controlling what they eat.
Many will prefer the safe haven of their beds or bedrooms rather than risk being exposed to the possibility of being bombarded with even more stress when they engage with the world, unfortunately providing them with even more opportunities to engage with their stressful thinking and distressing emotions.
What are some examples of stressors?
We all experience stress differently, meaning that something that is a stressor for one person will not be a stressor for another. This is shaped by our unique biology and life experiences. Some examples include:
Obvious stressors: pressure to achieve academically, too many tasks to do in a short amount of time, helping a friend through a difficult time.
Hidden stressors: loud noises, social rejection, being attracted to people of the same sex.
'Negative' stressors: failing a test, chronic pain, being excluded from a social gathering of valued peers.
'Positive' stressors: a loud party, receiving an award, working on a challenging creative project.
Internal stressors: being cold, worrying about the future, feeling sad, having perfectionistic standards for self.
External stressors: the pressure to excel (academics, sport, music, drama, etc.), societal expectations about what 'normal' is, attending a family dinner.
Stressors imposed externally: gaining entry into the 'right' university, being accepted and validated by peers, living up to Mum's and Dad's expectations.
Self-imposed stressors: not eating any carbs today, only getting As at school, being chosen in the first team (cricket, dance, football, rowing, etc.)
How can I tell if my teen's stress load is excessive?
Clues of a Low Stress Load
When your teen is calm and their stress load is low, you will notice:
they have good colour in their face (they don't look pale),
their tone of voice is varied,
their body language is relaxed and open,
their body movements are smooth,
they may smile or be enthusiastic about their life,
they may spontaneously share their thoughts, ideas or experiences with you,
the upper part of their face is likely to be lively and responsive.
Clues of a High Stress Load
When your teen is experiencing an excessive stress load:
their facial colour may be paler than usual,
their vocal intonation may be tight and constricted (maybe even monotone),
their actions may be jerky,
their posture closed-down and defensive (arms crossed, shoulders slumped),
the upper part of their face is likely to be flat or devoid of expression.
Clues of a Persistently High Stress Load
When we are in a persistently high stress state, the world can appear to be hostile to the point where a neutral or even positive interaction or situation is interpreted by us as threatening. When a teen is stuck in a prolonged stress cycle, their world can feel very unsafe and they can have the tendency to misinterpret the signals they receive from the outside world, including you, further pushing them into a state of high stress. For example, they may accuse you of shouting at them when you were doing nothing of the sort. This is one very pronounced clue that your teen is in a stress cycle, in which the brain may have resorted to a negative bias in its interpretation of incoming information.
What can I do to help?
There is a lot you can do to help. Here are four ideas:
1. Start recognizing your teen's mental health difficulties and behaviours as stress behaviour and not misbehaviour. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Misbehaviour is something we can choose to do or not do, and that we are aware is the wrong thing to do. One example might be missing my curfew because I'm having too much fun to choose to come home. Stress behaviour is something we do without making a conscious choice about, for example storming to my room and slamming the door because I'm feeling furious and highly stressed.
2. Once a parent starts seeing their teen's behaviour as stress behaviour, they have a better capacity to respond in ways that are helpful to the teen, rather than in reactive ways that add not only to the teen's stress but also to the parent's.
3. This is not to say that we suddenly become a permissive parent, removing rules and consequences, but instead we start choosing our responses so that we can assist our teen rather than further contributing to the problem.
4. Small changes in our responses can have a very big effect on our teens. For example, rather than forcing our way into our teen's bedroom and shouting at them to have more respect than to slam doors, we can wait until our teen's anger (and stress load) has reduced sufficiently that they are able to hear what we have to say (and this can take some time and might even be the next day) and then discuss with them our expectations that in future they express their anger in a respectful way. We might even get a sheepish "sorry" when they are calm and once again have full use of their thinking mind.
What can I do about my own stress?
It may be apparent to you by now that being caught in a stress cycle is not the sole purview of teens - many parents find themselves in just the same cycle, particularly if they are also trying to help their teen who is struggling with significant mental health issues.
Unfortunately, stress is contagious so many families experience the rebounding and multiplying effect of each family member's stress load increasing everyone else's. Parents often need to spend some time regulating their own stress, while at the same time working to support their teen's journey to learn to self-regulate.
What can I do if my teen needs immediate assistance?
If your teen is severely depressed or even suicidal, it is best for you to seek immediate assistance and you can contact the following services:
If your teen is in an emergency (life-threatening) situation:
000 - Ambulance services
If your teen is distressed but not at current risk to their own life:
CAMHS Emergency Telehealth Service
1800 048 636
8.00am - 2.30am (AWST)
7 days per week