Help Students Reduce Stress by Creating Margin

The American Psychological Association (APA) periodically surveys the American public about their stress levels, and since 2013, teens have consistently reported higher levels of stress than adults. In the most recent survey, teens reported worse mental health and higher levels of anxiety and depression than all other age groups. Our high schoolers are stressed!

The problem with stress

A little stress every now and then is not something to be concerned about. However, ongoing or chronic stress overexposes our bodies to cortisol and other stress hormones which can disrupt almost all of the body’s normal processes. Chronic stress can lead to:

  • Anxiety, depression, self-harm, and other mental health problems
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Impaired memory and concentration
  • High blood pressure and other cardiovascular disease
  • Eating disorders, including obesity on one extreme and anorexia on the other
  • Menstrual problems
  • Skin and hair problems, such as acne, eczema, and permanent hair loss
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as acid reflux, gastritis, and irritable colon

These problems make it clear why it’s so important to learn healthy ways to cope with stress.

Why are teens so stressed?

Every teen is unique, so they each react differently to stressors. Therefore, there is no one reason for the high stress levels of today’s adolescents. However, the APA survey reported the most common sources of stress were school (83%), getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school (69%), and financial concerns for their family (65%). In another survey on youth stress, teens reported their top stressors as school work (78%), parents (68%), and peer relationships (64%).

With school topping the list of stressors, we know that juggling the demands of school (homework, studying, projects, papers, etc.) with their other interests, such as friendships and extracurricular activities, leaves our students tired, stretched too thin, and overwhelmed. The stress of “busyness” often continues into adulthood where we juggle multiple commitments. To help our youth cope with their current stressload, as well as to develop healthy habits now that can continue into adulthood, we should introduce adolescents to the concept of putting margin into our schedule.

What is “margin”?

Margin is the free time in your day. Don’t have any? That’s a problem! When our schedules are filled 100%, there is no room for anything unexpected. If a task takes longer than you expected, you are now in a panic. If a friend calls needing help, you feel irritated rather than helpful. If you get sick, you don’t even feel like you have the time to rest! Life is full of unexpected moments, but we don’t leave any room in our schedule to accommodate these surprises, which leads to stress.

Instead, if you fill your schedule only 80% or 90% full, when something pops up, you’re able to address it without feeling stressed. And if nothing pops up, you have the space to do something that you enjoy, which is important to our overall mental wellbeing. Having margin in our schedules significantly reduces our overall stress levels.

How to create margin

Students are notoriously overscheduled. They are in school for 6 hours each day, they often have 2-3 hours of homework and studying each night, and they participate in afterschool clubs, team sports, part-time jobs, or other activities. They have very little time left for socializing, relaxing, or catching up on things they didn’t plan for. Here are a few suggestions for teens to add margin in their life:

Create a schedule. Encourage your teen to create a weekly schedule. First, they should block off time periods where they are committed, such as school, clubs, sports, or other commitments. They should also mark off hours for sleeping. Teens are notoriously sleep-deprived, but the more tired they become, the less productive they are, so they truly need 8-9 hours of sleep each night to function at full speed. Once they have blocked off their commitments, they will be able to see how much time they have left for homework, socializing, or other activities. To add margin to their lives, they should do the following:

  • Block off one hour every week to spend solely on one of their favorite activities.
  • Leave 10% of their schedule free to compensate for unexpected events.
  • Overestimate how long tasks will take. If you plan for more time than you think you’ll need, you build mini margins into your day to give yourself cushion.


Just say no. Every time your teen is faced with a new addition to their life, they should pull out their schedule. Is there room in their schedule for the activity?  If not, is it something important enough that they are willing to subtract one of the other current activities? If not, just say no. Advise your teen that they don’t need to make excuses, they can simply say, “No. I can’t do that right now” or “Sorry, I won’t be able to help.” Teens must limit the amount of things they do in their life to reduce their stress. This might mean that they can only play one sport per season or hang out with friends one night on the weekend. While your teen might feel sad to miss out on some activities, they will ultimately feel happier with less stress. Teach your teens now this valuable lesson: Just because something is a good idea or would be helpful or fun, doesn’t mean you need to do it every time.

Create a routine. If you’re always trying to accomplish things in different ways, you have to think more about simple tasks and the tasks take longer. Instead, set up habits for repetitive tasks so that you can move through them quickly and easily. For example, in the morning, create a logical order for getting ready, and perform it in the same order every day. It saves time and reduces decisions.

Plan 15 minute breaks. Students should take 15 minute breaks between activities. If your teen is working on homework, they should take a 15 minute break between subjects. If your teen just got home from sports practice, they should take a 15 minute break before jumping into homework. It’s counterintuitive, but our brains are actually more productive and creative when they have breaks throughout the day.

Limit social media. The greatest time-suck of today is social media. It’s just so easy and seems so relaxing, but we can quickly lose an hour on social media without even noticing. Encourage your teen to schedule time to play on their phone and to avoid it the rest of the day. They will have more time to accomplish everything else that is important to them.

Final Thoughts…

Our current culture encourages busyness. Unfortunately, packed schedules lead to intense stress. If we want our teens to develop into successful adults, they must learn how to set up habits to reduce their stress load. Encourage your teen to build margin into their schedule so that they can embrace free time, avoid time sucks, and feel more relaxed throughout the day.

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