Feature: Stressing Good Health

By LeeAnn Bernier-Clarke MEd, NCC, NCCC

If you were asked to rank the 10 most critical high school student health issues, which ones would you rank as the most crucial for school intervention programming?

A few years ago, as the new president of my daughters’ high school PTSA (Parent, Teacher, Student Association), I was asked to organize a student health program to be sponsored by the organization.

Without any other direction, I recruited another parent (a nurse clinician) to chair the project and together we surveyed the students and teachers to learn what areas of student health they considered the most crucial around which to focus our student health program.

Would you like to try the survey of the top 10 student health concerns?

The results were surprising. First, the teachers’ and the students’ calculated responses were diametrically opposed!

The teachers' cumulative ranking showed sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse and pregnancy prevention as the areas of most concern. These were ranked lowest by the students.

The students ranked stress management, depression and coping with emotions as their top concerns. These were at the bottom of the teachers’ student health concerns.

What We Learned

The parents and teachers on the PTSA Board were quite surprised at the results. Our teen board members were not.

Most parents agreed that from an adult perspective, we would have been more likely to respond in line with the teachers than the kids. So, in a nutshell, we learned that our kids were stressed and that the adults in their lives were unaware and unresponsive to it.

Adults tend to view the teen years as a happy, carefree time of life, but we worry about our teens getting dangerously involved in drugs and sex. The anonymous student comments indicated that most of the "special" health-related programs they had been exposed to since elementary school concerned drugs and sex.

They complained that nobody ever bothers to talk to them about how to cope with the everyday stress of being a teenager.

I was touched by the dozens of other, more heart-rending comments students voluntarily provided on their survey forms -- statements about pressure to perform, grueling competition, alienation, sleep deprivation, morbid thoughts and lack of understanding from parents and teachers. Many seemed like pleas for help.

A national study conducted in the early 1990s revealed that nearly half of all adolescents reported difficulty in coping with stressful situations at home or school.

The symptoms of stress were about twice as prevalent in girls as boys. These stressors often lead to more serious conditions like depression, eating disorders, substance addiction, self-mutilation, promiscuity and suicide.

The American Academy of Family Physicians states that about two-thirds of all visits to the family doctor are for stress-related disorders.

So Much to Do… So Little Time

In their latest book, The Seven Worst Things Parents Do, best-selling authors and psychologists John and Linda Friel identify "pushing your child into too many activities" as one of the seven.

They point out that middle-class Americans are experiencing an epidemic of the modern-day disease "afluenza." A common symptom is viewing our children’s schools, grades, activities and accomplishments as important status symbols around which our self-esteems become entangled.

As both the beneficiaries and victims of this condition, our teens are pushed to take special classes and lessons of all sorts, and to aggressively compete on athletic and academic teams. They go to special camps, tutors and enrichment programs to learn skills designed to keep up their grade point averages, ace the college entrance exams and get into "the right colleges." It’s not all bad, but it surely isn’t all good.

Educational systems and peer pressure reinforce this activity mania. With so much to do, there is little family time or personal time for teens to reflect on what is important and process what they do and learn.

The Signs of Stress

Stress is what we feel when we react to pressure, either from the outside world (school, work, after-school activities, family, friends) or from inside yourself (wanting to do well in school, wanting to fit in). It's caused by the body's instinct to protect itself. How can we tell if our teens are experiencing too much stress? Are they displaying some of the following symptoms?

  • Minor problems and disappointments cause excessive upset

  • Things that used to be enjoyable aren't fun or have become burdensome

  • Constant complaints of being tired

  • Experience flashes of anger over situations which used to occur without concern

  • Change in sleeping or eating patterns

  • Complaints of chronic pain, head, stomach and back aches

  • Laughing or crying for no apparent reason

  • Only seeing the down side of a situation

  • Resentment towards other people or their own responsibilities

All teens, and parents too, display these symptoms of stress from time to time. If you’ve noticed a marked and prolonged increase in one or more of these symptoms, there is a good chance that life has become too stressful for your child. If ignored, more serious physical, emotional or behavioral disorders will eventually occur.

Managing Stress

Not all stress is bad. Like competition, it can give us an edge when facing challenging situations. Each person has a different level of tolerance to stress. Parents can help teens determine their tolerance level for stress, try to live within its limits, and learn to accept or change stressful and tense situations whenever possible. Here are some strategies we can adopt or encourage that can help:

Be realistic – When feeling overwhelmed, eliminate an activity that is not absolutely necessary or ask someone else to help.

Meditate -- Just 10 to 20 minutes of quiet reflection may bring relief from chronic stress as well as increase tolerance to it.

Visualize -- Use your imagination and picture how a stressful situation can be more successfully managed when anticipating a difficult task.

Take one thing at a time -- Pick one urgent task, focus and work on it. Once that is accomplished, choose the next task and check them off to increase motivation and satisfaction.

Exercise -- Regular exercise is a popular way to relieve stress and it works.

Hobbies -- Take a break from worries by doing something enjoyable.

Healthy lifestyle – Encouraging and demonstrating good nutrition, adequate rest, exercise and a good balance of work and play make a difference.

Share your feelings – Create a home environment where sharing feelings is encouraged and treated in a non-judgmental manner.

Lead by example – Be willing to scale back your own activities in favor of family priorities.

Go easy with criticism -- Try not to show frustration or disappointment when you feel that your child has not measured up to your expectations.

Remember, everyone is unique, and has his or her own virtues, shortcomings and right to develop as an individual in his or her own time. When we experience the symptoms of stress, it is the body’s way of telling us it’s time to make a change.