High school can be a pressure cooker for your teen. Learn to spot the signs of anxiety and stress, and help them through it.
At the beginning of the year, the middle of the year and during the end-year exams, many teenagers begin to feel the pressure and stress that comes in the school year. Whether it’s the unknown territory of starting a different school, the academic leap for grade eight pupils, or those entering their matric year, high school is a battleground on which many teens come face to face with anxiety and depression. Research indicates that today’s teens are more stressed than any other, with the highest rate of mental illness compared to previous generations.
Dr Wendy Duncan, a child psychiatrist at Oxford Healthcare Centre in Joburg, says the expectations and demands on young people today are extreme.
‘This doesn’t only start in adolescence but has been set up quite early on. For some reason society – schools, families, communities – seems to expect that our youth be scholastically bright, socially and emotionally astute, physically strong and able on the sports field, as well as creative and artistic.’
Combined with hefty workloads and extramural activities, navigating the hormonal changes that accompany
adolescence and ‘fitting in’ socially, the high school years can be quite a stressful period.
‘There’s very little downtime on a day-to-day basis for modern teens,’ adds Wendy. ‘Moreover, the choice of downtime
is often not restful as it’s spent on phones/ devices where the “school yard” persists. Social interactions and conflicts play out after hours over electronic devices and these spaces can be brutal to say the least.’
Add modern life’s escalating issues to the mix – global political and economic unrest, environmental issues, addiction to screens and social media – and teens are not only stressing about their immediate situation, but also about their future and the need to be seen as living ‘the perfect life’ digitally.
Did you know? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide is the second leading cause of death in
The warning signs
But how do you identify anxiety in your child? Unlike in adults, anxiety manifests in different ways. ‘One of the key mistakes we make in understanding adolescents is to assume that they’re “mini adults”,’ explains Wendy. ‘Adolescents are expected to manage more than they’re sometimes developmentally able to – emotionally, physically and socially.These young people are often trying to make sense of the changes in themselves, and at the same time having to respond to relentless pressure from the world around them.’ All this pressure can manifest in anxiety, and if
left untreated, can spiral into depression. ‘Look out for the two common warning signs of anxiety in teenagers – anticipatory worries and avoidance,’ says Wendy.
“When you are feeling anxious, remember that you are still you. You are not your anxiety.” – Deanne Repich.
10 changes in behaviour to look out for:
- When adolescents become increasingly reluctant to participate in areas of their lives that they previously were happy to, anxiety needs to be considered. ‘There may be a lot of self-doubt and “what if” kind of comments. They might be inclined to catastrophise things that they would ordinarily have taken in their stride.’
- Teachers and school may not necessarily notice a change in behaviour, which usually starts to manifest at home, in their safe space. ‘Emotionally this is characterised by significant irritability, emotional outbursts
and tearfulness, and parents may view their teen as being very unreasonable,’ Wendy explains.
- Anxiety and stress in children and adolescents also manifests in physical symptoms: stomach aches, headaches, and generalised muscle aches.
- Sleep may be affected and sleep deprivation could become an issue: they may wake up feeling exhausted, or want to nap excessively during the day (in order to avoid facing the anxiety).
- Appetites may change – either eating less and stringently controlling what they’re eating, or overeating or comfort eating.
- Avoidance behaviour may include excessive time on the phone or watching mindless TV/series.
- They may become increasingly reluctant to participate in activities at home, at school and socially.
School marks may deteriorate and teachers may complain of impaired concentration, being disorganised
- In severe cases, panic attacks may emerge for the first time.
- Teens may engage in destructive behaviours, including recreational drug use and alcohol.
- Self-harm is also on the rise and is an extremely dangerous psychological concern.
How can you help?
When your child is in high school, don’t dismiss the things that could potentially cause stress and anxiety at the start of the year – a new classroom, new teachers, a new school. Leading up to school, try and reiterate the positives about returning.
Visit the new school and meet the new teacher if you’re able to. ‘It’s so important to hear and acknowledge the child’s distress,’ says Wendy. ‘Don’t dismiss it. Instead, connect with the emotion without judging it and spend
some time seeing how issues may be resolved.’ Keep a path of communication open so that they know you’re there for them no matter what.
‘There genuinely seems to be less time available for families to be together these days and for parents to help children navigate some of this difficult stuff – without invalidating or judging it,’ says Wendy.
Nurture your teen’s strengths and passions, and don’t be disappointed if they don’t succeed in something you were good at. Being a parent means helping your teen negotiate struggles and teaching them coping mechanisms
to handle failures. Will the world really end if they didn’t make the first hockey team? Will they lose out on a college
place if they aren’t top of their class? It’s essential to manage your own anxiety and expectations as a parent so that
you don’t fuel the issue. ‘Be honest as parents about what your aspirations are and how much you’re living through
your child, allowing them to let go of some demands on them if they’re not necessary,’ suggests Wendy.
Tips to help your teen
- Never judge or dismiss your teen’s concerns when they voice them. Don’t shrug them off with a ‘What
do you mean you’re stressed, you’ve got nothing to worry about; everything is provided for you’ type of response. Leaving the child doubting their experience and still not having a way of solving it doesn’t help them through the problem, and also prevents them approaching you with future concerns.
- Provide opportunities for relaxation, and holidays to help alleviate tension and reduce stress.
- Set aside time in your schedule at least twice a month for regular coffees/milkshakes, go to gym, walk the dog, cook a meal together – something that’s not demanding and allows you to spend time with each other.
- If your child is asking for help beyond parental support, get it! ‘You’re not less of a parent if your child is not opening up to you. Help them find the help they need, be it a therapist, an adolescent group, a counsellor or a life coach. Just because you as a parent know how to deal with it doesn’t mean that the
adolescent does; when problems are reflected as being simple to address the adolescent may lose
their confidence if they can’t seem to get it right,’ says Wendy.
While modern life is demanding, high school can provide a great opportunity for parents to teach their teens how to cope with the pressures they may face in adult life. Failure, for example, can be heart-breaking and devastating for high-achieving 2 students, but can provide a platform from which to discuss ‘the bigger picture’. ‘Teach them balance from an early age,’ suggests Wendy. ‘Help them plan their time and schedule, and teach them to take ownership and responsibility over their workload and time so they don’t feel intruded upon, and can gain the skills to manage things
Coping mechanisms are also essential – for both you and your child. Learn and practise mindfulness together, enrol them in yoga. ‘Don’t forget to acknowledge the successes, even if they’re expected, and don’t harp on the failures,’ adds Wendy. Help them find outlets for fun, friends and creativity – so that they work hard and get to play hard too. And reiterate that there are many ways to make it in this world!
FEATURE: TARYN DAS NEVES PHOTO: FOTOLIA.COM