Stress and teenagers go together like iPods and earbuds. A 2013 American Psychiatric Association survey found that teens are more stressed out than adults, with 83 percent of teenagers reporting that school is a somewhat or significant source of their stress.
In the Washington area, predictably, students carry high expectations for academic achievement and a well-rounded resume of extracurricular activities with them every day.
A stressed-out teen who lacks support at home and school might become sleep deprived, moody and have trouble concentrating, says Rachel Soifer, high school guidance counselor at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. Other symptoms could include self-medication and substance abuse. Stress can also contribute to anxiety disorder and depression, she says.
Yet stress is a fact of life, and Soifer says that, year by year, students build on their coping skills.
Alan Goodwin, principal of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, says the competition to get into college drives up students’ stress levels.
“It’s harder to get into colleges now, and it gets progressively harder every year,” says Goodwin, whose students were the subject of Alexandra Robbins’ 2006 book, The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids. “Many high schoolers have seen older siblings go through college and not get a job of their choice, although it’s getting better now.”
One secret to mitigating stress is good time management, says Ruby Snyder, upper school counselor at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville. Complaints by students that they’re short on time are nearly universal. Time management at Berman Academy is challenging, she says, because the school employs a dual curriculum of Judaic and general studies.
“Our kids get out at 5:30,” she says. The ones who do extracurricular activities get home at 9.
Snyder suggests that time-stressed students write their commitments in a planner, then check it daily, as a way to get a feeling of control over their responsibilities.
But those interviewed for this story said the biggest thing students can do to win the time war is unplug.
“We counsel students and parents to not let students do homework while hooked up to electronics,” Goodwin says. “It’s an easy distraction.”
“A student will come in complaining that they have six hours of homework,” says Melissa Gartner, high school guidance counselor at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. “And we’ll talk about it and it turns out it was 30 minutes of homework, then 30 minutes of Skyping, then 30 minutes of Facebook, then 30 minutes of homework. So it adds up to six hours.”
The solution isn’t so simple, Goodwin admits, because students also use their electronics to do their homework. Just like adults, they have to separate work time from play time.
When extra-curricular activities last until 9 p.m. with six hours of homework to follow, what falls by the wayside?
“That’s what ends up going to the back burner,” Snyder says. “I have students coming to my office and they’re losing it because they haven’t slept. My approach is to collaborate with parents to be proactive. I hope parents will encourage” stress-reducing behavior.
Current wisdom lays most of the blame for the endless escalation of expectations and accomplishments on parents. But Goodwin says the helicopters and tigers have gotten a bad rap.
“Stereotypically, parents are blamed for putting pressure on their kids. But a lot of pressure is peer-to-peer” — students wanting to take the same hard class as their friends or vying for the same high grades.
“We do have parents who are very driven for their kids,” Snyder acknowledges. “Then there are kids who have expectations that are unachievable.”
When it comes to applying for college, parents need to guide their children to the achievable.
Says Goodwin: “There are 6,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Parents need to get to know them. They have to know and tell their students — you have to have alternatives to look at. No school can take everybody who wants to go there.”
In the end, what teenagers need is an open ear.
“One stressor for teenagers is their own mistakes,” Soifer says. “They’re impulsive and they haven’t had a lot of practice in life and not a lot of rehearsal in thinking through consequences.
“It’s important that there’s someone they can go to and talk about the mistakes they made.”
Observes Snyder, “They’re almost adults, but not quite.”
Ruby Snyder, upper school counselor at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, created a stress-busting bulletin board. Only she didn’t want to mention stress — that could be stressful. “So we say, ‘these are the things you can do to have a better life.’”
Here are her six suggestions to students:
Eat and drink throughout the day.
Prioritize getting a good night’s sleep. “That’s the one I have the most pushback for,” she says.
Get active, move around, even if it’s just at lunch.
Get organized. Get a planner to keep track of extracurricular commitments and in-school deadlines. Check it daily.
Keep in touch. Communicate with family, friends, teachers and school supports. “Anyone you feel you can talk to,” she says.
Don’t forget to breathe if you feel overwhelmed. “It’s deep breathing and reminding yourself that it’s going to be okay.”
“Student stress is subjective,” she says, “and they can get in control of it.”
Arc of stress
Stresses rise and fall — and change as students move through high school. Here are four years in a nutshell.
Stress comes from the transition between middle school and high school, says Ruby Snyder, upper school counselor at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy. It takes time and energy to figure out the routine.
“There is some stress in transition from middle school,” agrees Alan Goodwin, principal of Walt Whitman High School, “but many are ready for harder work.”
Adds Snyder: “The same thing will happen to them when they go to college. In real life, there are going to be adjustments, too.”
It’s a year of relief, Snyder says. “Kids have gotten to know their schedule and found their niche at school.”
“In junior year, the pressure comes back again,” Snyder says. “This is where the stress really mounts,” Goodwin adds.
Students have been told that 9th and 10th grades don’t count for college and now they’re in the spotlight. They have standardized tests to take and take more sophisticated classes than before. College decisions loom.
“There’s a myth that junior year is extraordinarily challenging and almost impossible to get through,” says Melissa Gartner, high school guidance counselor at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.
The school seeks to slay the myth with “No fear junior year,” a program in which seniors tell juniors what happened during their junior year and say, “We’re here to tell the tale,” Gartner says.
Stress is highest in the first quarter of senior year because that’s when the applications are due, Snyder says. Finally, there’s the stress of getting accepted or rejected by colleges.