My daughter and son staged what can only be described as an intervention. They sat me down at the dining table and explained just how stressful their lives were. It was an eye-opening experience.
Despite living with these young people and observing the ups and downs of their daily lives, I had still failed to grasp many of the sometimes subtle pressures — biological, social and psychological — that make being a 21st-century teenager so complicated. True, they may not have mortgages or dependents of their own, but that’s not to say their lives are always easy.
Here are just a few of the reasons your teenager’s life just might be more stressful than yours:
Teenage sleep deprivation is real. “Sending kids to school at 7 a.m. is the equivalent of sending an adult to work at 4 in the morning.” — William Dement, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. According to a study carried out by Brown University School of Medicine, ninth- and tenth-grade students should get nine hours of sleep each night to maintain optimal alertness. However, after surveying 3,000 high school students, researchers found that, on average, students managed only about 7.5 hours of sleep on a school night. This sleep deprivation was even more pronounced in high school boys than in girls.
Part of the problem is that even if students try to achieve nine hours of sleep each night, their own bodies may be working against them. Studies show that teenage circadian rhythms run around two hours behind those of the average adult, turning them into night owls who struggle to wake in time for school each morning. For this reason, early school start times are associated with significant sleep deprivation in adolescents, which can lead to a decline in performance, memory lapses and mood swings, as well as behavioral problems.
Hormones, anxiety and depression are on the rise. I admit that teenage hormones (and the strong emotions they create) can be stressful for the adults in their life. However, imagine carrying around that bundle of emotions with you 24/7. It’s an exhausting prospect. And it’s not just the hormones: rapid growth spurts, periods, acne and unreliable vocal cords can all add to a feeling of being out of control, which can trigger a cycle of anxiety and depression in teens.
In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers found that the prevalence of major depressive episodes in adolescent children in America increased from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 11.3 percent in 2014. The study also notes that the risk of depression sharply rises as children transition into adolescence. Adolescent girls are more likely to suffer from depression than their male counterparts, with the prevalence rising from 13.1 percent to 17.3 percent over a 10-year period from 2004 to 2014.
So what is causing the increased rates of depression in teens — and why are girls more strongly affected? Researchers aren’t entirely sure. However, they note that cyberbullying has increased more dramatically among girls than boys. Also, girls tend to use texting applications more intensively, which has been linked to an increased likelihood of depressed moods. So, external pressures coupled with surging hormones can lead to a lot of distress for the average teen.
Teens’ lives are not their own. In traditional schooling, many aspects of a student’s life are decided for them – from what subjects they study to what they wear at school and what schedules they follow. This lack of control can lead to stress. Adults have the autonomy to do as they please, but if teenagers try, it is called rebellion.
In a report published by the Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, researchers found that students tend to try harder and enjoy school more when they work toward their own ideals of perfectionism. In other words, when students set their own expectations for themselves and try to achieve them — effectively directing their own destiny — they are usually happier and more motivated.
You have one boss, your teenager has six. Imagine having six bosses, all with large amounts of power over your daily life and future. Each boss has different expectations, ways of working, levels of competency and degrees of emotional intelligence. And if you don’t satisfy each one, your career is on the line.
A teenager will typically have to deal with six different teachers who are effectively their “bosses” – not to mention parents or guardians. If an adult has a poor boss, they have the means and ability to move to another job. A typical teenager doesn’t have such options.
To complicate the issue further, researchers found last year that stress levels among teachers could contribute to student stress. After measuring cortisol levels in elementary school students, researchers learned that children showed higher levels of this so-called stress hormone when they were being taught by teachers experiencing burnout. Another survey by Gallup in 2016 found that 46 percent of teachers in America reported high daily stress levels, which means this problem could be more common than thought. What’s more, when teachers are stressed, students show lower levels of social adjustment and academic performance.
This, of course, isn’t to say that all teachers are terrible, stress-inducing people in our children’s lives. It is simply a reminder that a stressed-out teacher — or any adult in their lives — could be a source of much angst for your already hormonal teenager.
The dilemma of standing out while fitting in. The struggle for identity is hard. Teenagers like to be different, but at the same time they want to fit in. Because of this, they often face pressure from peers, parents and society to behave a certain way to feel accepted and valued by those around them.
The Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois discovered in a study of nearly 500 adolescents that peer-related stress contributes to depression in youths. Teachers have also observed that peer stress negatively affected students’ academic performance and overall emotional well-being. What’s more, when adolescents were unable to adapt to these external stressors, they ended up ruminating over the issue, which exacerbates the problem and increases their susceptibility to depression.
Examples of stressful events listed by the researchers included everything from a friend dying to physical fights to not being invited to a party — anything that could undermine their social security and identity. Girls tend to be more affected by these kinds of social setbacks than boys, as they put a greater emphasis on interpersonal connectedness and therefore are more sensitive to peer stress and negative self-evaluation.
The uncertain future of job security. For those of us who still remember a time before the Internet, being a teenager was a carefree time. Many of us weren’t as bogged down by worries about joblessness and a lack of financial security. It was expected that whatever we did, a fully-fledged career would be available for us when we grew up. I’m afraid that this is no longer the case. The global economic downturn, job automation, globalization and an increasingly competitive job market are causing great anxiety among young people. With the use of artificial intelligence imminent, teenagers find themselves caught in a transitional phase that is expected to uproot economies and labor markets around the world.
In fact, it is getting increasingly hard to predict which way their careers may go. In her book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn, Cathy Davidson states that 65 percent of students currently entering grade school will end up in jobs that have not yet been invented. While there is perhaps something exciting about that prospect, it does make it hard to plan for the future — and that can be terrifying.
These are just a few of the typical teenage stressors that my daughter and son outlined that day. Overall, I am amazed at how resilient, “gritty” and good-humored they are, considering the pressures and uncertainties they juggle on a daily basis. If I were to revisit my offer to swap places, I’m now inclined to say, “No, thanks. My adult stresses are just fine.”
John Nicholls is the Assistant Director of Leadership Development at Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong. John’s writing on Resilient Leadership has been published in Brian Tracy’s book Uncommon and The Happy Workplace Blueprint.