"Teenage stress? Not in my day. We just got on with it!" A common reaction, usually accompanied by a supercilious smile. Or, "Teenagers? They don't know they're born! Wait till they've got bills and taxes and children and no holidays - then they'll know about stress!" More supercilious smiles.
But many adults working or living with teenagers have a different narrative. They see symptoms of negative stress: sleep problems, poor concentration and performance, irritability. They know that, according to the Samaritans, suicide is the second commonest cause of death amongst 15-19 year olds worldwide. Obviously, the vast majority of stressed teenagers will never reach that point but the negative effects are too damaging to ignore. And this is Mental Health Awareness Week so now, more than ever, let's not ignore them.
Stress is natural, part of the "fight or flight" mechanism that raises heart rate and sends blood where it's needed in a challenging situation. It's what enabled me to jump a huge gate when chased by a goose. Many people thrive on it - not being chased by geese, though surviving that was pretty exhilarating - and learning to thrive with some stress is a valuable goal. But it becomes unhealthy when it's long-lasting and relentless. Recognising signs and learning to take appropriate breaks are important strategies at any age. One good reason to take teenage stress seriously is that those strategies can become lifelong skills, preventing heartache, illness and underperformance later.
So, what's different about teenagers? And what's different about today compared with "my day"?
Teenagers have a load of pressures that apply less to children or adults: exams; rapidly changing bodies - or not rapidly enough!; extreme peer pressure; an undeveloped prefrontal cortex making many thinking processes harder; new realisation of all the frightening things that can happen, and less possible reassurance from adults that all will be OK; teachers pressing them (because that's their job) to pass exams in a wide range of subjects including ones they struggle with or hate.
Then there are extra stresses that weren't around years ago: social media issues, including online bullying, so that bullying is no longer confined to school, which was bad enough, but persists day and night and is horrifically more public; relentlessly repeated multi-media exposure to stories of tragedy and danger; greater availability of strong alcohol; more exams and greater perceived need to excel; greater pressure to conform to "perfect" body shapes, as prescribed by "celebrity" culture; pressure to go to university or be regarded as a lesser mortal; a highly materialistic and aspirational culture; real fears about the environment; and an extremely difficult economic climate which makes their futures very uncertain. The teenager who can rise above all this is remarkable indeed. And that's before we even consider those with horrendously difficult home lives, often lacking support and hope.
I'm not saying everything is harder today. Teenagers often have more money, more opportunities and more flexible ambitions than in previous generations. Many teenagers in previous generations had to earn their own living early and life was enormously hard for many - as for many today, who may be caring for a parent (there are an estimated 700,000 young carers in the UK, many of whom are at school) or dealing with a challenging home situation, or no home situation. Besides, we may not have called it "stress" but the condition or symptoms certainly existed. I don't believe adolescence was a breeze for any generation. In the old days, stress was left to fester, or was medicated. That's nothing to be proud of.
I'm just saying: don't ignore the stresses facing modern teenagers. Stress need not be a medical issue; it becomes one when we ignore symptoms, risking them developing into mental illness. Don't indulge in the smug "I survived - so can you" approach. Not everyone does survive, actually.
Besides, why be satisfied with survival? Why not aim to thrive?
A few tips for parents:
- Realise that teenagers suffer from stress just like adults, but may not have the coping skills. It's our job to help. What seems obvious to us may not be to them.
- Encourage healthy strategies: regular breaks and rewarding activities; deep breathing techniques; switching off all internet/social devices an hour before bed; hobbies; reading; socialising; laughter.
- People under stress get things out of proportion. Teenagers even more so. Be reassuring; help your teenager see things in perspective and look ahead to better times.
- Learn about the problems caused by social media and phones but don't ban your teenager from using them. Young people need to join in and to learn how to be safe.
- Just talking about stress can be a relief.
- Have you ever suffered from stress? Tell your teenager about that time. It helps to know that you have gone through it.
- Teenagers often find it easier to talk to someone other than a parent.
- School guidance teachers should have the advice you need and they are experts at confidential help. However, they are not perfect. If they can't or don't help, persist or ask to speak to someone else.
Remember: adolescence can be really tough. It requires sympathy and support, not supercilious smiles.
Nicola Morgan is the author of Blame My Brain - The Teenage Brain Revealed and is currently writing a guide to teenage stress, for teenagers.