Stressful times

My parents visited my house recently during a fairly typical weekend. The family calendar for two adults and three teens included three concerts, three play performances, two sleepovers, one concert rehearsal, one community celebration, and one cocktail party. The kids also had to squeeze in homework time before Monday, and I had a column to write.

During a lull in the activity, my dad turned to me and asked, “What’s your next column about?”

I responded, with a note of anxiety in my voice, “Stress!”

We looked at each other and laughed. Sometimes, finding the humor in a situation is your best survival tool.

It’s easy to romanticize the days of my youth and imagine that life was simpler then for teens and tweens. But I do think it’s true. Although I had to juggle homework and multiple activities, our society has even higher academic expectations now for our youth. They need to take advanced classes and get top grades so they will be accepted into college. That’s the baseline. Then, from the age of three, they must have participated in a kaleidoscope of activities—sports or fine arts, or better yet, both—so they can get into the “right” college. It’s not just enough to participate, however. They need to win awards, or invent a cure for a disease, or deliver medical supplies to people in third world countries to get a scholarship, so they can afford the “right” college, which they must attend to have any chance at getting a “decent” job. Ugh. Even if you don’t believe it to be true, or you have a kid who fits a different student profile, it’s hard not to get caught up in other people’s anxiety over the imagined road map to success.

It’s no wonder that a survey conducted last fall by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Harvard University School of Public Health and National Public Radio found that 40 percent of parents with kids in grades nine to 12 reported that their children are experiencing a great deal of stress from school. Of the issues that could cause stress—bullying, safety, difficult relationships with friends or with teachers—the one with the highest response was homework. About one-fourth of high school parents said homework caused their child a lot of stress.

Although it’s not broken down by category, students in Minnesota also report experiencing feelings of stress. According to the 2010 Minnesota Student Survey, 67 percent of 12th grade girls said they had experienced stress levels that were higher than usual in the 30 days before taking the test; of that number, 19 percent said it was almost more than they could bear. The respective percentages for 12th grade boys were 51 and 11.

The levels were lower for younger students, but still significant. Twenty-eight percent of sixth-grade girls reported feeling more stress than usual, and nine percent felt it was almost more than they could take. For sixth-grade boys, the percentages were 26 and nine.

Whether reported by youth or their parents, it’s clear that tweens and teens are experiencing stress, much of it academic-related. What also seems clear is that parents and students don’t always understand each other when it comes to the causes and effects of stress.

A 2010 survey by the American Psychological Association found that nearly three-quarters of parents reported feeling stressed out by their family responsibilities, but more than two-thirds felt their stress had no effect on their children’s stress levels. However, about 85 percent of the tweens and teens said they were affected by their parents’ stress.

How can parents help?

What’s a parent to do? First, do not become anxious about all these findings. All stress isn’t bad. People often need the push of a deadline, or the possibility of a negative consequence, to accomplish their goals. But as parents, we need to recognize when we are under stress, and then we need to manage it in healthy ways. That’s the only way we can teach our kids to do the same.

Which brings me back to laughter, the underrated survival tool. If you’re having one of those impossibly busy days or weekends, when you can feel your stress level rising through the roof, do your best to make room for just one more activity: laughter. Laugh at yourself, and then with your children. You’ll all feel better, I promise.


Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to jriggs@mnparent.com.