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stress in adolescents

Stress is the "wear and tear" our bodies go through as we adjust to our constantly changing environment. Anything that causes change in our lives causes stress.

Stress can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat. This is commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. The threat can be any situation that is perceived, even subconsciously, as a danger.

Under stress, the heart rate and breathing increase. The muscles become tense. Multiple sources of stress worsen the stress level. The body needs relief from stress to regain balance.

What is the information for this topic? 
The adolescent years are among the most stressful times in a person's life. Adolescence is the time of life when children change into adults. They are going through puberty, meeting the changing expectations of others, and coping with feelings that may be new to them.

Adolescents are between stages. They have more responsibility and freedom than they did as children. But they have less responsibility and freedom than adults do. Their thoughts, behaviour, and social relations are all changing radically. The rate of change varies from person to person.

There are a number of reasons for an adolescent to feel stress. These include:
  • problems with peers
  • family issues or problems with parents
  • school-related problems or pressures
  • death of a loved one
  • move to a new home
  • injuries or severe illness
  • child abuse, or sexual abuse
  • family or community violence
  • natural disaster
Reactions to stress vary with the adolescent's ability to cope, how long the stress continues, and the intensity of the stress. Some adolescents withdraw from others, some lash out at others, and some actively seek the comfort of others. Signs of stress in an adolescent may include:
  • withdrawal
  • antisocial behaviour, such as stealing, aggression, and acting out
  • rebellion in the home, such as refusal to do chores
  • physical complaints, such as headache and stomach ache
  • missed school or poor school performance
  • changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed
  • difficulty concentrating
  • lying
  • thoughts of death or suicide
Helping adolescents realise that they are important members of society can ease a great deal of their stress. They need help to find out where they belong. Ways that adults can help adolescents cope with stress include:
  • encouraging them to talk about what they are going through, without being judgmental
  • avoiding remarks that minimise problems, like "you'll get over it"
  • offering reassurance, encouragement, and support
  • continuing to provide structure, stability, and predictability
  • encouraging participation in activities they normally enjoy
  • trying to build a relationship so they feel comfortable asking for help when they need it
  • modelling effective coping skills, by talking about how to deal with problems and cope with difficult situations
  • teaching them safe ways to blow off steam and relax, including relaxation techniques
Helping adolescents cope with stress is an important task. It helps to prepare them to face the challenges that lie ahead as they move into the adult world.

Signs of stress in adolescents should be taken seriously. Stress can lead to depression and a greater risk for drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and suicide. Parents should seek professional help for an adolescent if the stress is making normal, everyday life impossible, or if there are signs of depression or thoughts of suicide.

Author: Gail Hendrickson, RN, BS
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 27/02/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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