Parenting Tools

Is Your Teen Suffering From Toxic Stress?


Like adults, teens feel stressed. However, young people often lack the necessary coping skills needed to manage stress. When stress becomes too intense or prolonged, it turns into something called “toxic stress,” which can have lifelong implications.

When our bodies are exposed to stress, hormones are triggered and cortisol levels rise. This increases breathing and heart rate and slows down non-essential processes such as digestion and immune response, a process often referred to as the “fight or flight” effect.

Normal stress can actually be beneficial, helping teens prepare for challenges ahead like a final exam or job interview. But exposure to toxic stress can result in depression, anxiety and addiction, as well as physical health problems later in life such as heart disease and liver ailments.

The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University divides stress into three categories:

Positive stress is normal and an essential part of healthy development. Examples of situations that might trigger a positive stress response include the first day of school, asking a friend on a date, or doing an oral presentation.

Tolerable stress is a more severe and longer-lasting form of stress. It results from difficulties like losing a grandparent, a natural disaster, or serious illness or injury. Good relationships with adults who help the young person adapt buffer the physical impacts of this sort of stress and enable the body to recover before there are damaging effects. Generally, there is time to relax and recover following a tolerable stress event.

Toxic stress occurs with strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity — such as physical or emotional abuse, neglect, economic hardship, or family problems like substance abuse or mental illness. But perhaps most important is the lack of good adult relationships to help a young person manage and recover from this stress.

Toxic stress results in a prolonged activation of the stress response systems, with no time to relax and recover. It can disrupt brain development and impact a teen’s ability to learn and function in school, as well as his or her ability to build trusting, supportive relationships. The good news is that if at least one parent or caregiver is consistently engaged in a caring, supportive relationship, most stress responses will be positive or tolerable.

In looking at the stress level of your teen, consider these common stressors:

  • ŸChanging bodies and physical acceptance
  • ŸPressure to wear certain clothes, makeup or jewelry
  • ŸChanging relationships or problems with peers and/or parents
  • ŸAcademic demands or grades, i.e. failing a test
  • ŸFamily tensions or problems such as divorce or substance abuse
  • ŸCommunity safety and violence
  • ŸFinancial concerns
  • ŸConcerns over the future or college prep
  • ŸBullying, negative thoughts or feelings and other events that damage self-esteem
  • ŸPressures to experiment with drugs or alcohol

Sometimes the hard part for parents is determining if their teen is stressed and to what degree. Studies show that fewer than 50 percent of kids talk with their parents about feeling stressed. Following are signs that your teen may be doing too much:

  • No time for a social life or being overscheduled with school, sports, jobs, etc.
  • ŸFrequently staying up late to finish schoolwork
  • ŸExpressions of being overwhelmed such as “I’ll never have time to get all this finished!”
  • ŸDrive for perfection, also known as overachieving
  • ŸPhysical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, muscle pain or tiredness
  • ŸWithdrawal from family, friends and activities
  • ŸIrritability or angry outbursts
  • ŸSadness and/or tendency to cry or get teary-eyed
  • ŸFeelings of hopelessness or lack of motivation (“What’s the use?”)
  • ŸFrequent feelings of panic, anxiety and nervousness
  • ŸPoor sleep
  • ŸOvereating or under-eating
  • ŸDifficulty concentrating
  • ŸDrug and/or alcohol use or participation in high-risk activities such as unprotected sex or extreme sports

You can help by monitoring stressors and listening carefully to what your son or daughter is saying. Make a routine of setting time aside to talk with your teen one-to-one — doing so helps ensure they know they can count on you. It’s also important to help your teen develop healthy relationships with peers and other adults. Last, but certainly not least, modeling good stress management yourself is critical.

While watching for overload, parents can also support positive activities like a walk in the park, music or other calming experiences that help mitigate stress — laughter and physical activity are reliable stress relievers. Also, help your teen put things into perspective; after all, how much will the failed math test matter in five years?

When stress does become front and center, you can help defer its impacts by teaching calming techniques, including deep breathing, focused muscle relaxation and positive imagery. You can also buffer many of the causes of stress by being positive with kids and authentically complimenting them on things they do well. When you hear your teen express a negative self-image, counter it by pointing out their positive attributes.

Stress is a part of life, no matter your age. The true key is learning to mitigate it with healthy habits and strong relationships.

87Patti Skelton-McGougan is Executive Director of Youth Eastside Services (YES). YES is a nonprofit organization and a leading provider of youth counseling and substance abuse services in the region. Since 1968, YES has been a lifeline for kids and families, offering treatment, education and prevention services to help youth become healthy, confident and self-reliant and families to be strong, supportive and loving. While YES accepts insurance, Medicaid and offers a sliding scale, no one is turned away for inability to pay.

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