As the new school year begins, teens and parents gear up for new classes, new experiences and new responsibilities.
What they might not be prepared for, however, is identifying and coping with stress.
"Kids can be hurting and parents don't always recognize it," says David Palmiter, professor of psychology at Marywood University in Scranton. "Teens don't want to stress out already stressed parents. Or they worry if they tell parents that they are stressed the parents might say, OK, no cell phone or going out on Friday night - they could lose their autonomy."
According to a recent report from the American Psychological Association, teens report that their stress level far exceeds what they believe to be healthy (5.8 versus 3.9 on a 10-point scale) and tops adults' average reported stress levels (5.8 for teens versus 5.1 for adults). About a third of teens reported feeling overwhelmed or sad and depressed as a result of stress.
In the study, school ranked as the number-one stressor, followed by the college application process.
More than a third of teens in the study said stress was exhausting them, not surprising because stress affects sleep habits. Others reported procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, feeling overwhelmed, having negative thoughts, and eating too much or too little due to stress.
Long-term stress contributes to anxiety, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system, and can lead to depression, obesity and heart disease.
And it can be further complicated when teens don't want to talk to their parents about what's going on.
Palmiter's prescription: at least an hour of undivided parental attention every week.
"Parents can sit down with their teenager, not teaching or lecturing but simply enjoying space with their teen, paying attention and expressing proportionate authentic praise or any positive thoughts or feelings. By making time you can make a big impact," he says.
Yoga, relaxation techniques, meditation, and simply breathing can all help reduce stress and anxiety, as can getting enough sleep, practicing good nutrition, and trading online time for physical exercise.
There's no one-size-fits-all answer. Little surprise, given that every teen experiences stress differently, as we heard in a discussion with four Cheltenham High School students - Andy Rutkowski, 18; Isaac Smoler Schatz, 17; Valerie Melecio, 17; and her younger sister Leslie, 15 - a few days before they went back to school. They talked about what gets to them most, how they cope - and even offered up some praise for parents.
Valerie: One of my biggest stressors is the amount of schoolwork and the amount of time a teacher gives us to finish the work. It's hard to get everything done on time. Plus, I'm a perfectionist. If I'm doing a math problem and don't get it done right away, I keep doing it and doing it over and over. I can spend two hours on it. It can cause problems because when I'm doing a paper for school I want to get it to a certain point and I'm always worried I get to a place where it's good, but not where I think it should be.
Isaac: I feel completely opposite. I get a lot of anxiety and stress about an essay and I figure out a way to procrastinate about it. When my stress gets to a certain level, I'll crank through an essay - whether it takes three or six hours. I put myself in a chair. I'm not a perfectionist; I just understand there has to be output.
Leslie: I've never been in a romantic relationship, but I see people around me going through them. What's the point when you're going to be stressed all the time? People are always asking, "Why didn't I get a text message?" "What's my significant other doing now?" I'm more interested in getting good grades and keeping up with things at school.
Valerie: I had a very stressful two-year relationship. We got into a lot of dumb arguments. Like "You didn't text me back fast enough" or "You're always busy." He wanted my attention 24/7. I thought that if he was upset, I had to be upset. I thought we had to feel the same things. My perfectionism made me want to make everyone happy. I wanted to fix things. Finally I decided a 15-year-old didn't have to go through this.
Andy: I've had relationships throughout high school. They can help with stress: You don't have to worry what you're doing on the weekend; you know you'll be hanging out with this person. But it gets bad when you break up with someone or someone breaks up with you. That's the most stressful time, worse than being single.
Leslie: I'm only a sophomore but I'm watching my sister go through getting ready to go to apply for college. I want a scholarship and I'm worried about how that's going to happen and where I'm going to and everything I have to do to make it happen. I'm worried about getting into college and getting financial aid and getting out of college without having big student loans.
Valerie: I want to go into structural engineering. People say it's so hard or a field that girls don't do. I worry about getting into college and being able to impress the people who are reading the applications.
Isaac: Friends have told me, "You're so weird." It sticks in my head. In movies, no one wants to get stuck with the weird college roommate. I stress over how much of myself can I really show. I'm sure it's not a unique problem to me but there is a lot of myself I don't show people.
Leslie: Disappointing people causes me the most stress. I'm scared to disappoint my family and myself. They expect certain things and I expect the same things of myself, and I stress out over it. Last year I had good grades in math and then I got one bad grade after receiving all A's. I saw other kids getting worse grades, but I beat myself up over it. Eventually, I refocused, but it was hard.
Andy: The most stressful point in high school so far came because I didn't want to disappoint someone. I joined the swim team freshman year when I didn't have that much schoolwork. Swimming is a huge time commitment - three practices a week at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, and then practices those same days until 5:30 or 6 in the evening. It was hard, but good. But sophomore year, I took two AP [Advanced Placement] classes, and it was harder and I had more work to do. Three or four weeks into the season, I dreaded going to swim practice. After practice I had time to eat dinner, take a shower, do three to four hours of homework and go to bed knowing I had to be up at 4. I got to the point where I would keep myself up at night, thinking about how I would feel the next day. But I didn't want to disappoint my coach and quit the team. I didn't want to disappoint the team. One night I was up thinking until 2 in the morning and crying and so upset and decided I can't do it anymore. It was really hard. I had to call my coach and a bunch of teammates. I still feel guilty whenever I see people swimming. At the same time if I didn't quit, I wouldn't be where I was today academically.
Isaac: My mom stresses me out a lot, but it can be good stress. I play soccer for school and two club teams and during the school year when she knew I had a lot of schoolwork she might say it might not be good to go to practice. I told her I couldn't let down my coach. But when I was at practice, I thought, Oh, my God, my mom was right. I was so divided. I got into this cycle, not knowing where I should be. Parents remind you that your life is not balanced.
Valerie: For me, my parents do stress me out sometimes. But they also support me and I know so many people don't have that support. They are always open to me, my dad is like, "You can do it." I know parents will be reading this. I want to tell them that even if you think your kid is going to do something you don't want them to do, it helps them to have you on their team. It's your foundation.