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teen boy at school stressed thinkingEmerging adolescence is often a time full of change and stress, and not just for parents. As tweens transition to teens and take the step from elementary school to secondary school, research has shown that many of these young people produce high levels of stress hormones.  While successful development of stress management skills can help an emerging adult respond to periods of upheaval, ineffective skill development can lead to depression and a host of future concerns that persist into adulthood.

Based on these findings, researchers at the University of Montreal were curious as to whether an educational program based on our current knowledge of stress would decrease the levels of stress hormones as well as depressive symptoms in teens.  The 5 week, school-based DeStress for Success program is designed to educate teens about stress, including what causes it, how the body responds, and how to stop and control those responses.

The program was presented to 504 students aged 11 to 13 years from two private schools in the Montreal area. Students from one school were exposed to the program, while those of the other school served as the control group. Before starting the project, cortisol levels (the stress hormone) in saliva and depressive symptoms were measured to determine whether adolescents beginning secondary school (grade 7) with specific depressive symptoms responded differently to the program. Markers were also measured during and after the program as well as three months following participation in the project to validate whether improvement was maintained.

The study, published in February in Neuroscienceconfirms the benefits of the DeStress for Success Program. Researchers showed that adolescents starting secondary school with high levels of anger had, through the program, significantly lowered levels of stress hormones. These adolescents were in fact 2.45 times less likely to suffer from depression compared to the other adolescents. “This study provides the first evidence that a stress education program is effective in reducing stress hormone levels and depressive symptoms among adolescents making the transition to secondary school,” says Pierrich Plusquellec, co-author of the study. The program also helped identify a certain profile of adolescent responding more to the educational tool.

While this exciting news will likely result in development and expansion of the program beyond Canada over time, you may not have the energy to just wait it out until then.  Thankfully, you don’t have to. Engage your school counselor or a family therapist about the study and your interest in helping your teen learn some coping and stress management skills to help them succeed over the long term.  You can also take advantage of the program’s core components and discuss them with your teen at home.

What causes stress?

Research has identified four situational determinants that activate our stress hormones: novelty, unpredictability, threat to personality, and a sense of low control.  The transitions to a new developmental stage and a new school environment are riddled with unfamiliar and unpredictable situations over which teens feel they have very little control. And with the social pressures of fitting in, a teen’s still developing persona is constantly being challenged.

Teens are even more susceptible to feeling the stress of it all because adolescence naturally heightens the activity of the stress hormone system, so it’s more sensitive to firing.  Helping teens better understand what sorts of situations and experiences might be particularly stressful for them can help them to be better prepared to manage the stress symptoms when they emerge.

How does the body respond?

Stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts, your feelings, and your behavior before you’re even aware that you’re stressed, and stress affects everyone in different ways. When you can recognize common stress symptoms and how your body responds to stress, you better able to take steps to manage them. Here are just a few of the many ways stress can affect us physically, emotionally, and behaviorally.

Thoughts and feelings: 
Anxiety; Feeling restless; Worrying; Feeling annoyed or irritableSadness; Less interested in doing things you usually enjoy; Anger; Feeling insecure or unsure; Not able to focus; Forgetfulness; Imagining that the worst will happen; Trying to avoid thinking about problems; Hindsight thinking (‘If only…’ ‘why didn’t I…’); Negative thoughts about oneself, one’s friends, family, the future, or the world; Confusion; Nightmares; Body: Heart rate increases or pounds; Feeling hot or sweating; Tired; Trouble sleeping, or spending a lot of time in bed; Nightmares; Headaches; Back pain; Inability to relax; Dry mouth and throat; Feeling sick or dizzy; Trembling; Stomachache and diarrhea; Loss of appetite, or always hungry; Weight gain, or loss; Feeling very hot or cold; Shortness of breath; Shallow, fast breathing

Behaviors: Overeating; Under eating; Angry outbursts; Drug or alcohol abuse; Increased smoking; Social withdrawal; Crying spells; Nail biting; Picking at skin; Relationship conflicts; Trying to do several things at once; Not doing anything

Talk with your teen about how they experience stress: How can you tell when you are under stress – what signs do you notice in yourself?  Offering examples of how you experience stress (I pace a lot, or I start to clean/fidget with stuff; I get quiet and answer in short, clipped responses.) may help your teen better identify his/her own stress symptoms.

How do you deal?

mom talking with teen daugther

Once you have helped your teen identify how his/her body experiences stress, you can then develop a list of ways to help them manage and beat the stress response. Because our automatic, physical reactions to stress are intended to keep us alert to the stressor, it can be very difficult to emotionally cope and feel better without addressing them first.

Often a great first step is controlled, deep breathing; this can help regulate our heart rate and body temperature, stopping the stress signals firing in the brain. So as not to draw attention to and embarrass (and further stress) your teen, help him practice quiet deep breathing, so he can use it wherever he goes (think of it as stealthy coping).

Once the body is a little calmed down, your teen will be better able to implement other coping skills, like practiced self-talk phrases they can repeat in their mind (“This feels like a lot of homework, but I am a hard worker and can always ask for help if I need it.”).

Last, but definitely not least, support your teen’s active self-care to help keep her baseline stress level low. Encourage her to take breaks from school/homework/etc. to have fun, get adequate sleep, and exercise regularly, and then model the same self-care for yourself! Our kids will manage stress like we manage stress, and with all the stress that comes with being and parenting a teen, there are plenty of opportunities to practice.