Practical ways to support teens who are stressed out about school

On Sunday evening June was in the kitchen preparing dinner for her family. Her 16-year-old son, Timothy, walked into the kitchen and slumped into a chair. June looked at her son and said, “Is everything alright? You look really sad.” Suddenly large tears started falling from Timothy’s eyes and he hung his head down. June went over and hugged him while asking, “tell me why you are crying.” Timothy looked up and said that he felt overwhelmed at school and dreaded Sunday evenings because he had to go to school the next morning. June was surprised by this answer; Timothy was always a good student and looked like he enjoyed school. She wondered what she was missing.

Like many parents, June had given more and more control to her children as they progressed through school.  She was always around to help with questions or to help them review for tests, but she allowed them to manage their homework on their own and take responsibility for their own education. June considered this a natural and normal part of growing up. So, she was surprised when she found out her adolescent son, who was doing well in school, felt anxious about his studies.

Teens are under tremendous stress today to choose their career paths very early in their lives and make decisions that will follow them for many years. While parents are there to help guide their children, most teens have not yet fully matured so their preferences, desires and goals are likely to change. Additionally, teens can feel pressured to please their parents by choosing coursework that makes their parents happy rather than following their own desires. Even when teens do choose what they most want to do, they can feel overwhelmed by their coursework, homework, exam stress, and finding a balance between studies and leisure.

Research shows that academic stress worsens achievement. School stress can also increase the risk for depression. Students who are overwhelmed with their academic work tend to have poorer peer relationships because they have less time to socialize. This can be even more common if teens view their fellow students as competition to get the best grades. Some teens can also feel that their success in school defines their self-worth, which can drive a deep fear of failure. And finally, some teens feel tremendous pressure to do well in school so they will be able to find gainful employment in the future. This fear of being left behind is a real stressor for today’s adolescents.

No matter if your teen is a great student, average student, or struggling student, it is important to remember that they spend a large amount of time every day in the school environment. Outside of school, teens have additional academic responsibilities with homework. This means that school stress follows them for most of their waking hours and should be something parents monitor.

There are some easy things parents can do to support their adolescent children related to academic stress. Some examples include:

  • Be available to have small chats with your teen. Ask them about school and listen to what they tell you. Be attentive for cues that might mean they are feeling stress, such as “worried,” “difficult,” “feeling lost,” “I’m the dumbest in class,” “I don’t get it,” “I don’t have enough time to finish my work” and other similar words or phrases.
  • Parents and teachers can be a main source of academic stress for teens. Be sure to emphasize that your teen should do their best, not be the best. This will help them prioritize focusing on their own learning rather than competing with other students.
  • Encourage your child to participate in leisure activities to help off-set the stress of school. These activities can be social with other friends or individual. It’s important that the chosen activity is something your teen enjoys and feels good about themself when doing.
  • If you see your child really struggling, reach out to the school to find out more about what is going on. Sometimes teens can look very mature but have trouble knowing how to help themselves when stressed. Be proactive and take the lead if you think something isn’t right.

Allowing your teen to take over more control of their life as they grow is an important step toward adulthood independence. However, it is important to monitor how they are doing and step in with support, a guiding hand or direct help if you see them struggling. Your attention and care will help them overcome their difficulties and stay confident in their abilities to succeed.

Sources:

Priti, A., Garg, R., & Singh Chavan, B. (2017). Stress and suicidal ideation among adolescents having academic difficult. Industrial Psychiatry Journal 26(1), 64-70.

Ye, L., Posada, A., & Liu, Y. (2019). A review on the relationship between Chinese adolescents’ stress and academic achievement. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development 163, 85-95.

Zhang, J. & Zhen, Y. (2017). How do academic stress and leisure activities influence college students’ emotional well-being? A daily diary investigation. Journal of Adolescence 60, 114-188.

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About the instructor
Proactive Parenting
Dr. Deanna Marie Mason PhD
More than 20 years of clinical experience helping families:
Bachelor's Degree in Registered Nursing, Master’s Degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and PhD in Nursing. University professor, patient education specialist, pediatric researcher, published author and reviewer to first-line international scientific journals, continuous philanthropic activity related to health promotion and education, wife and mother of two children.

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