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January 10, 2009

Teen Stress: When sulky, disrespectful, or disruptive behavior signals your child is in serious trouble

Kerry Dickinson, a Danville mother who helped push for changes in the homework policy in the San Ramon Valley School District, continues to pen interesting articles or share interesting articles she comes across. This is one she wrote regarding Teen Stress, and it was published in the newsletter of that school district’s Healthy Choices Team.

Other local school districts, including those in Walnut Creek and Lamorinda also have Healthy Choices Teams.What Kerry writes about the San Ramon Valley community and the teen-agers who struggle to make it through its high-achieving schools could, of course, pertain to kids and schools in towns throughout central Contra Costa County.

Her article also reminded me of an excellent article I recently came across in San Francisco magazine about the suicides of more than a dozen teens from privileged Marin County. They ended their lives by throwing themselves off the Golden Gate Bridges. The article deals with the long-simmering debate about whether a barrier should be erected along the bridge to deter people from using it as their means of self-destruction. But, more interestingly, it closely follows the lives of a few of these deceased teens, chronicling the seemingly ordinary stressors that prompted these kids to want to die—fear of failure at school, not doing a perfect job on a homework assignment, a fight with parents. These upsets, which to a teen-ager can seem like defining, devastating moments life, apparently touched off the sudden spiral of despair that led them to the bridge.

Kerry's article is a lead-up to an invitation to parents from all over, not just the San Ramon Valley district, to attend a talk, this Tuesday, January 13, by local doctor J.B. Humphrey. Starting at 7 p.m., the talk takes place at the Commons at San Ramon Valley High School in Danville. His topic, “Got Moods?” will cover adolescent brain development and related mood disorders, such as depression, ADD/ADHD, addiction and more.

As Kerry writes, some of the symptoms of these various disorders are often dismissed as typical but benign adolescent angst, rather than serious trouble requiring professional intervention. After Humphrey speaks, there will be time for some questions and answers.

Meanwhile, here is Kerry's article:

The Ramon Valley is a beautiful, privileged, affluent, and successful community. At times, life can seem almost perfect here. Even in this community, however, serious problems affect our teens. "Affluent kids are two to three times more likely to suffer from depression and to self-medicate with drugs than any population," according to Dr. Denise Pope, speaking at a recent conference in Marin County.

Teen stress can come from different sources in our teens' lives, including school, family, friends, and even extracurricular activities, for example. There are many aspects of school that can cause stress for teens. Ideally, teens should be engaged in school and self motivated.

Often, instead of focusing on learning, however, teens find themselves under pressure with regard to grades, test scores, homework, and the college application process. Teens are rewarded for their performance with regard to school, and this external motivation places much stress on them.

Dr. Michael Riera spoke at San Ramon Valley High in October and reminded parents that praise should be limited to comments about their students' effort, not their performance. For example, instead of saying, "You are really smart, you got an A," say, "You really worked hard on that assignment."


The family should be the ultimate source of love and support for the teenager. Dr. Ken Ginsberg tells us that in order for our teens to be resilient, parents need to unconditionally believe in them and hold them to high standards. Because this is the time in life when teens shift from concrete to abstract thinking, teens will argue with parents, practicing their ability to use abstract thinking. Unconditional acceptance and love will foster greater communication between parents and teens during these times of argumentation.

As Dr. Riera explained during his lecture, parents are essentially the "managers" of their children while they are young. But as children become teenagers, parents are essentially fired as the children's "managers" until their children are ready to rehire them at a later date as "consultants." Consultants don't lecture, but remind teens to listen to the voice in their head that knows what is right and to operate within established family boundaries and expectations.


A teen's daily life can be stressful because of problems with friends as well. … Positive peer influence plays a major role in a teen's life.. A young person's best friends model behavior for the teen. However, Dr. Riera reminds us that teen attitudes are influenced more by parents than peers. Parents should be sensitive to the fact that a teen can have a difficult day at school because of issues that arise with friends.

Dr. Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University program that questions the usual measures of success, advises parents to connect with teens at the end of the school day by asking them questions about how their day went with their friends, instead of focusing on academic questions.

While extracurricular activities are important for teens, maintaining balance for a healthy lifestyle is critical for teens so that they do not feel overburdened or stressed on a daily basis. As Madeline Levine noted at the recent Stressed Out Student conference at Stanford University, "we don't have families on school nights anymore, we have machines."

Teens should be able to participate in some creative activities while also spending quality, down-time at home. Their lives should not be overly structured and adult-directed during their waking hours. When teens are constantly told what to do by adults (e.g., parents, teachers, coaches) they become fragile and afraid to make decisions and take risks on their own. Parents need to remember that it is acceptable not to sign up their teenager for every available extracurricular activity. Down time, especially for teens, is critical for their mental, emotional and social growth and development. It is also critical for students to get plenty of sleep).

Teen stress is real and some of the causes can be related to school, family, friends and extracurricular activities. Stress in teens can result in depression, anxiety, bulimia, anorexia, ulcers, cutting, drugs, drinking, cheating, lying and even suicide.

While families are fortunate to live in an area that offers so many choices to our teens, parents must realize that providing teens with everything, both in terms of material possessions as well as over-crowded schedules, isn't always the right decision for the student.

Dr. Wendy Mogel noted at a recent lecture in San Francisco that "we worship at the idol of our children's achievements" instead of having a broader vision of our students. When adults focus on teens' performance and achievement over effort and a healthy balance in life, they unwittingly rob teens of their young years and often cause them stress.

3 comments:

jules said...

Good article. Suicide happens in our Colleges too, more often than we want to think or know about. Sadly my son experienced this just a few months ago, a friend of our son took his life just before finals at his University. It was shocking and so very sad. The counselor the school brought in said this is very common in our colleges. Sometimes there are only subtle warning signs, like moodiness. Talk to your children, no matter how old. The pressue can be to much for some and I have heard parents putting so much pressure on their teens/young adults to get good grades, study hard, be the best athlete and it is so sad hearing this. We all want our children to be successful no matter where we live but it has to be their success not the parents!

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Linh Cinder said...

this article was very relatable . i used to be homeschoold but now ime not . it feals like everything i do is wrong . we did a sress releaving exercise in health class but it didnt work on me cus as soon as i closed my eyes i was shore someone was sneaking up on me !