Talking to teens
Today’s teens are facing many of the same stresses and problems their parents and other adults are facing. Contrary to what many parents think, their teens are stressed about their academic performance, popularity, finances and future. As a parent of a 17-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy, I too was bewildered about what teenagers could be stressed out about? They don’t have a mortgage, a car note and a family to feed, so what’s so stressful about what dress to wear or what movie to go see? After talking with these teenagers, I discovered they deal with stress on a daily basis, which is quite comparable to those many adults face.
Parents so often work to keep life stresses from their children; whether it is their struggle to make ends meet, the woes of marital problems or the threat of homelessness. No matter how well parents work to protect their children from the stresses of everyday life, stress is something teens can’t always be shielded from.
“We are forced to deal with the secrecy of it all,” said Leah, who is 16. “If we find out our parents are having money problems or are about to lose the house in foreclosure, we have to pretend like we don’t know. We can’t really let on that we know.
“Like when my parents were about to lose our house in foreclosure. They didn’t tell me anything until after they were able to work something out with the bank.” she added. “If we had lost our house and I had to move, that would just be the worst thing ever.”
I interviewed several teens and asked them about the stress in their lives. I also asked how they deal with stress and what plans, if any, did they have to alleviate stress. Luci, a 17-year-old high school senior, said, “I’m stressed about everything, what to wear, what to say, who to date, what to eat and how am I going to get off punishment for sneaking out last Friday.”
Family illness is another stress teen’s face. Mary, 17, has a younger brother who has a serious brain condition which claimed the life of his father and uncle and is now taking its toll on the entire family. Not only are they facing financial ruin, but there is no cure and the young man needs 24-hour constant care.
“Brian has these severe anger swings where he’ll yell at me and start pulling my hair,” said Mary. “I can’t do anything about it, so I let him do it and then I go off and cry.”
The two attend different high schools. Brian goes to a public high school where he takes special classes. “People pick on Brian all the time, Mary said.
“Last week, someone hit him with a full carton of milk which spilled all over his clothes. Of course, everyone started to laugh. Not understanding, Brian thought it was a joke and he laughed, too.”
The need to do well in school is another stress factor for many teens.
“With finals coming up, it’s all I can do to keep from pulling my hair out,” said Moesha, 16, who attends a private Christian high school and says her mother reminds her often about how much it is costing her to send her there.
“I’m taking all advance placement classes,” Moesha said. “I’m trying to keep a 4.0 average, but it’s hard, especially when I want to hang out with my friends on weekends. I have to keep my average up or my Mom will make me go back to public school.”
Being caught in the middle of their parents’ marital problems is another major stress for today’s teens. Juan, a 17-year-old senior, was on the honor roll most of his educational life. During his freshman year, his parents split up and subsequently got a divorce. He and his two siblings spend alternate weekends and holidays between their parents.
“I hated going over to my Dad’s house because all he does is blame my mother for everything,” Juan said. “It has gotten so bad, that finally I refused to go over any more.”
Prior to the divorce, Mario, Juan’s younger brother, actually ran away because he couldn’t deal with his parents’ constant screaming and fighting.
Stress takes on many faces. Usually depression is a byproduct. Juan said their home situation became so bad that his brother became depressed and started to do poorly in school.
“He wouldn’t go out or talk to anyone,” he said. “At least now things are better, because he doesn’t spend that much time with Dad.”
Amanda, who said she has had her share of stress, says she spends a lot of her time worrying about her future.
“I think about what college I am going to go to,” she said. “You can plan your whole life around going to one school and then you don’t get in. Now, you have to complete other applications and try and get in somewhere.”
Linda, an 18-year-old college freshman attending junior college, said, “My mom went to the University of Illinois; my father did, too. So I’d like to go.”
Linda could not get into U of I so she is attending her freshman year at a junior college, hoping to reapply next fall. “If I don’t get in then, I’ve also applied to Northern Illinois as my second choice,” she said.
Competition is another stress factor for teens. Whether it is competing for a spot on the debate team, chess club or trying out for the football team and other sports, the pressure to make it is great.
“Making the team determines who your friends will be,” said Karl, 18. “If you’re on the football team, then you’re popular with the girls. You never have to worry about a date for Saturday night or the prom.”
“If I weren’t on the cheer leading squad, I’d have a whole different set of friends,” said Lisa, 17. “Last year before I made the squad, I wasn’t popular at all. I walked to school alone, and I ate alone and I didn’t have anyone trying to take me out. Now, I have more attention then I want. I spend more time saying talk to the hand, than yes.”
“Anything you want to succeed in will cause stress,” said Tina, 17. “Even the stress of your parents knowing they need help, but not letting you help is too much.
“Sometimes the child wants to help out by getting a job, but the parents won’t let them because the parent doesn’t feel they should ask their child to give up their education and free time to help with something the parent should be able to take care of.
“When asked how she copes with stress, Tina said, “My first reaction is the logical way, I step back and sort out my options and go with the best one. Some teens turn to drugs and alcohol. Some get other’s opinions; still others go to the Bible. Some ask people they know for advice, people who have been in that situation,” she added.
Many teens lose their ability to cope with daily stress and life in general. Many commit suicide, a permanent solution for a temporary problem. Suicide is the third leading cause of teenage deaths, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.