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Explaining to Your Adolescent About Stress of Growing Older

With increased responsibility comes pressure from having more to do.

Key points

  • One way to think about stress is as a survival response to meet unexpected, excessive, or emergency demands.
  • Young people must maintain their energy with adequate rest, relaxation, and renewal to strengthen resilience.
  • Adolescents to control personal goals, standards, and limits on how demanding the teens want life to be to moderate their stress.
Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Generally, the further one grows through adolescence, the more taxing life becomes as responsibility for self-direction and self-management increase with age. So it can be helpful for parents to talk with their teenagers about coping with the additional stress that naturally comes with leading a more grown-up life. “As you become older, you will find life gets more demanding.”

About Stress

So, consider a simplified explanation of stress.

One way to think about stress is a functional one: as a survival response. People rely on it to force themselves, by will or crisis, to generate emergency energy, pushing themselves to meet an unexpected, excessive, or urgent demand.

Stress is about managing energyone’s potential for doing or action. At any moment in time, one’s energy is a very precious and limited life resource. Meeting any demand upon you takes spending some energy in response. So regularly maintain your energy as best you can, and try not to overspend it to your cost.

It takes investing in regular rest, relaxation, and renewal to keep one’s available store of energy maintained. Neglect to do so or overspending the readily available energy one has, and fatigue and exhaustion from increased stress can set in. Now it may take a stressful effort to keep going and get things done.

Thus someone who regularly shorts themselves on sleep for urgency, advancement, or enjoyment can feel depleted and run down. In this state, it's harder to keep coping and meet demands, which is where the function of stress comes in. For example, the weary college student explained, “I ignored the deadline until the last minute and had to pull an all-nighter to get the paper done. Now I feel completely blown out!”

The experience of stress can be threatening and anxiety provoking: “Can I cope?” “If I can’t, what will happen then?”

Costs of Stress

The costs of accumulating stress can be increasingly burdensome the more one daily relies upon it to cope and get things done. Four successive levels of feeling stressed might look like this.

  • At first, there can be fatigue: feeling drained and weary a lot of the time, with an increasingly negative outlook and attitude. Others can find you more complaining and critical to live with. “You need to lighten up!”
  • Next, there can be pain: experiencing regular physical or emotional discomfort, like aches and anxieties, with increased susceptibility to lingering ailments. Others can find you more sensitive to live with. “You’re so touchy now!”
  • Next, there can be burn-out: some loss of interest in what has traditionally mattered and been important, as becoming less concerned takes hold. Others can find you more apathetic to live with. “You don’t care as much as you used to!”
  • Finally, there can be breakdown: physical or emotional collapse with an increasing inability to meet normal life demands. Others can find you less participatory and active on your behalf. “You can’t get as much done anymore!”

So, suggest that your adolescent watch for signs of protracted stress because they can be problematic when allowed to worsen. Alert to fatigue and pain, respect the need for stress when urgency arises, but don’t risk burn-out and breakdown by making relying on stress a regular lifestyle habit. Occasionally stress is healthy and helpful, but constantly it can be hurtful and harmful.

Controlling Demand

Since stress is partly a demand issue, talk about the three basic personal gate-keepers of demand: how one sets personal goals, standards, and limits.

  • Goals involve how much one wants to accomplish and how soon. High goals encourage high demand. At issue can be managing ambition–how much one wants to achieve.
  • Standards involve how well one wants to perform all the time. High standards encourage high demand. At issue can be managing perfection–how well to do everything.
  • Limits involve how much you choose to undertake at one time. High limits encourage high demand. An issue can be managing obligations–how much one should do all the time.

In all three cases, the degree of striving is at issue. So the young person might ask themselves: “Am I constantly relying on stress by encouraging excessive demand, and is the benefit worth the costs I pay? If not, would I feel better occasionally deciding that some or less is just going to have to be enough?”

End of Adolescence Stressors

While the early stage adolescent complaint was often about parental authority: "You can't make me!" the last stage adolescent complaint is often about personal authority: "I can't make me!" Now responsibility comes home to roost. In the words of cartoonist Walt Kelly: "We have met the enemy, and they are us!"

So, during what I call "trial independence" (ages 18 -23), consider common causes of youthful stress to beware of.

  • Sleep deprivation from late-night socializing
  • Procrastinating with daily demands
  • Indebtedness from overspending
  • Poor nutrition and healthcare
  • Loneliness away from home
  • Social pressures from peers
  • Future worries and anxieties
  • Incapacity to keep commitments
  • Disengagement from Internet escape
  • Lower esteem from feeling incompetent
  • Substance use and abuse for self-management

The last is the most serious since it can increase the likelihood of the others.

These stressors can make the final stage of adolescence the hardest for some young people who, for a painful time, feel honorably overwhelmed. Don't despair! In such cases, stubborn struggling, and sometimes support of short-term counseling, can usually help the beset young person find their independent way.

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