Why are our young so stressed?

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
Image: iStock

Feelings of stress and anxiety among our young people are on the rise, but why? Dr Stephanie Thornton looks at what the research is telling us and considers what schools can do

Shocking numbers of our teenagers are stressed and the problem is rising. Whether you look at self-report, referrals for mental health problems or students seeking counselling as they enter university, it seems that the numbers of adolescents suffering from excessive stress have doubled since the 1980s.

Why? Many of the pressures on the young (exams, bodily changes, the advent of sexuality, relationships, the challenges of growing up toward adult independence) are common across the generations. What new pressures do our young face that their predecessors did not?

The common suggestion is that the rise in teenage stress relates to increasing family break-up; to the increasing tensions and dangers of our world; to the new pressures created by social media, which bring increased social scrutiny, increasing pressure to conform to ever higher peer expectations, a new form of bullying that can invade even your home, your bedroom. But such factors do not offer a convincing explanation.

For example: as alarming as the national/world situation is now, it surely was not less alarming in the 1980s – a decade when unemployment was higher than now, the economy more turbulent; when riots were more frequent; when HIV was new and causing panic; when Chernobyl exploded; British warships were sunk by Argentinians; when IRA terrorism was far more frequent than IS or Al-Quaeda have managed in the UK; when the Cold War was not yet over – yet teenagers in the 1980s were very much less stressed than those today.

Equally, divorce levels are high today, and family break-up is a genuine source of adolescent stress. But the statistics show that divorce levels were slightly higher in the 1980s than in the past decade.

And while it is clear from certain high-profile cases that a life lived in social media may indeed create new kinds of threats and strains, it is far from clear how common – or rare – such problems are. We simply don’t have the data to substantiate the notion that the use of social media is driving general stress levels in our young.

Current expert thinking in this area suggests that stress levels are not so much a reflection of what is happening but of how we, as individuals and as a society, react to it.

One very marked change since the 1980s is in our willingness to admit to being stressed, both to others and to ourselves. This may well account for some of the rise in reported levels of stress and mental health issues in the young.

Another marked change since the 1980s lies in the way information about national and world events is communicated to us. Where once a few journalists patrolled a huge planet, now millions capture – and tweet – dramatic reports from their SmartPhones, from everywhere.

Where once authoritative media (the BBC, for example) reported the world in calm and measured tones, now even the BBC reporting is often lurid, even apocalyptic (think of the language used in the coverage of IS, ebola, climate change, the election of Jeremy Corbyn. Civilization is evidently on the verge of collapse).

There is strong research showing that the young are stressed by such reportage (and the more lurid, the more stressed). In the 1980s, families watched the single household television together, offering the opportunity for dramatic news to be discussed and put in perspective across generations.

Today, hearing the news is a solitary affair. Few teenagers have the political or historic sophistication to put apocalyptic reporting in perspective. The world has always been a dangerous place. But today’s news – and the social reaction it fosters – underlines that danger, and this may well exacerbate stress in the young.

Furthermore, many experts believe that adolescents today are less able to cope with stress than those of the 1980s and that this relates to changes in parenting. Parents today tend to micromanage their offspring’s lives, organising activities to fill their days, supervising the young to keep them safe, and being constantly in touch through texts and the like.

They see threats where previous generations of parents did not (for example, “stranger danger” – no greater today than 40 years ago, but fear of it has ballooned, utterly changing children’s lives).

Parental fears communicate, making the world seem more dangerous to the young. And at the same time, over-protection means that the young now miss out on the mishaps and scrapes through which previous generations learned how to manage risks and stress for themselves. In sum, current parental practices have created a generation more sensitised to threat, and less capable of managing stress for themselves than was the case for teenagers in the past.

Stress matters. It damages physical and mental health, reduces the capacity to concentrate and learn – even the capacity to engage with the world. But is there anything schools can do, to counter the rising tide?

Individual needs

Be alert to individual needs: even if a whole generation is stressed, individuals will differ both in why and how much they are stressed. Families are often not good at spotting or supporting the very stressed (either because the whole family is stressed or because they are the cause of the stress). The cornerstone of good practice in schools is a vigilance that can identify and provide support for stressed individuals before they are overwhelmed.

Current affairs

Place current affairs in historic and political perspective. Teenagers today are often staggeringly ignorant of history, particularly of recent history. They don’t have the knowledge to put current events in any sort of perspective, or to assess whether apocalyptic reporting is substantive or simply dramatisation “to sell more papers”. Simply realising that society has faced similar threats – and much worse – in the past, and civilization did not end can calm fears. Explicit classroom discussions, taking the long view of history, can allow the young to share and defuse “news stress” by exploring and contextualising fears and developing more realistic assessments of threat.

Coping strategies

Teach strategies for coping with stress. Many teenagers do not realise that there are ways of managing stress, that one can learn to take control – and that idea alone can be liberating.

Even simple stress-management strategies can make a big difference to wellbeing: controlled breathing and muscle relaxation, in the moment; healthy life choices in diet, sleep patterns and exercise, in the longer run; and above all, intelligent strategies for assessing the reality of a threat, and the options for reacting.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development.


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