How to Help Teens Manage Academic Stress

The new school year has begun. While many teens are grateful to be back in-person, the return to school also brings new stressors. Many youth are feeling a lot of social anxiety after being away from peers for so long. Teens often struggle with overcommitment in extracurriculars and the challenge of preparing for a life after high school. But one of the most common stressors for every adolescent is anxiety over their grades and schoolwork.

The pressure to excel in school is taking an enormous toll on teenagers. In recent surveys, over 75% of teens are reporting that school is a significant source of stress. The pressure can come from parents, comments from teachers and counselors, the large number of standardized tests, the desire to get into a good college, or from the highly competitive culture at large. Regardless of the source, teens are worried about their GPAs a lot, and chronic stress can negatively impact both their mental and physical health.

If you know a teen who is struggling with the stress of academics, this article will offer tips for ways to help them.

Acknowledge the stress. Don’t dismiss a teen’s stress as not important. Don’t regale them with all the “real stresses” of adulthood. Your teen’s stress is very real to them. Encourage your teen to talk about their concerns without judgment and without interrupting. Many times, simply feeling understood can significantly reduce a person’s stress.

Emphasize good health. Our physical health actually plays a tremendous role in our ability to handle stress. Let your teen know that taking care of their body will improve their emotional well-being. This means they should get approximately 8-9 hours of sleep every night, exercise or at least engage in some physical activity every day, and eat a well-balanced diet.

Discuss healthy coping skills. When stress hits, there are lots of ways people try to cope, but not all of them are helpful. Many people will lash out in anger, try to numb the feelings with drugs, overeat, binge TV or other media, or withdraw from loved ones, just to name a few. Instead, talk to your teen about positive ways to relieve stress, such as spending time outside, journaling, yoga, being creative, making time for a fun activity, listening to music, or playing with a pet.

Offer perspective. We should keep in mind that there are many paths to success, and not everyone who becomes successful started out with straight As. Research suggests that top grades are not predictors of success in the workforce; instead, qualities such as resilience, communication skills, teamwork, and creativity are what allow workers to thrive. Research also indicates that attending an elite college does not predict long-term success. That GPA or college that they are stressing about does not mean that they will or will not be successful in life.

Teach prioritization. If your child has too much to do between school, activities, and responsibilities, sit down and rank each in order of importance. Have him or her tackle the most important tasks first. Work with your teen to develop a schedule that will create balance in their life. They need time to complete homework, work on projects and study for tests, but they also need to leave time for activities, getting adequate sleep and having fun with friends.

Reframe negative thoughts. Teens easily fall into the trap of negative self-talk. They might announce that they are terrible at math or that they will never make the team. Negative thoughts can have a big impact on a teen’s stress levels and make them feel much worse about their situation than is warranted. When a teen uses negative self-talk, ask them to really think about whether what they are saying is true or based on facts. Remind them of times they worked hard and improved. Ask them to consider how they can make the situation less stressful. Learning to frame things positively will help them develop resilience to stress.

Act as a cheerleader. A parent’s role changes when your child becomes an adolescent. You become more of a guide, coach, or support. You should provide resources and show an active interest in your teen’s activities, but allow your teen to make their own mistakes or solve their own problems. They will gain confidence in themselves as they overcome setbacks. Praise their efforts, not their results. When parents offer this type of support, instead of control, they reduce their teen’s stress and set them up for a successful adulthood.

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