Stress impacts the thoughts and behaviors of adolescents, as well as their behaviors later in adulthood. Those who experience high amounts of stress are more prone to mood disorders later in life. Stress is also of interest because of the prevalence of illicit or socially unacceptable behavior, such as smoking, drug use and abuse, and substance dependence among adolescents. These behaviors may be caused by stress and can cause even more stress. Stress influences the way adolescents deal with social groups, such as the family, peers in school, and peers outside school. Changes in the social environment compel adolescents to find new ways of responding and adapting. These changes create a stressful environment. These changes also expose adolescents to piecemeal stress that can accumulate over time.
The social environment of adolescents leaves them only a few options for addressing stress. They also face difficulties managing and coping with stress. To succeed in helping adolescents deal with stress, it is essential to understand their experiences with stress.
Sources of Adolescent Stress
The sources of stress among adolescents can be classified into three: (1) family, (2) school, and (3) peer-group situations. Adolescents are often left to find ways to address stress on their own. All of these sources of stress are linked to possible problems in mental health.
Stress in the family is caused by problems in relationships with family members. Sibling rivalry, parent-child conflicts, and marital conflicts are common causes of stress among adolescents. An adolescent experiences stress if he frequently sees or hears yelling and violence among parents or siblings. Stress in the school is linked to relationships with other students and teachers. Conflicts and academic pressure are common sources of stress among adolescents in school. The school is a social environment that impacts the behaviors and mental wellness of adolescents. Stress in peer-group situations are linked to conflicts or competition with friends. When friends compete for attention from other friends, they generate stress among themselves. These three types of sources of stress have negative effects on the mental health of the adolescent. However, stress in the family is the most significant. The family has the greatest effect on adolescents, compared to peers, classmates or teachers.
Adolescent Stress, Smoking and Substance Use
Adolescent smoking, drinking and substance use are linked to stress. Adolescence is typically the stage in life when people start smoking. Stress has a significant correlation with the adolescent’s decision to start smoking. It is also linked to alcohol consumption and substance use. Many adolescents start drinking and using marijuana because of stress. Thus, addressing stress can help reduce the likelihood of smoking, drinking and substance use among adolescents.
In understanding adolescent stress, a factor is the link between emotional self-regulation and smoking/substance use. Emotional self-regulation is the adolescent’s attempt at stabilizing his emotions to deal with his changing social environment. Adolescents naturally experience bodily and emotional changes during puberty. They search for new ways to maintain emotional stability. In many cases, adolescents use alcohol consumption or smoking tobacco or marijuana in an attempt to achieve emotional stability. They usually view smoking, drinking alcohol and using marijuana as ways to gain a sense of self-control.
A higher need for emotional stability is linked to heavier smoking, drinking and marijuana use. A sense of helplessness especially leads to higher stress and need for emotional stability. Thus, adolescents who feel helpless are more likely to smoke, drink or use marijuana.
Adolescent Stress and Depression
Depression is commonly associated with stress. Depression is a common condition among adolescents, especially those who have difficulty adapting to their changing social environment. Depression is reached when the adolescent is unable to properly address stress. This inability is linked to lack of skills to deal with stress or the use of inappropriate coping strategies.
The link between stress and depression varies between male and female adolescents. Females experience more stress and depression from familial problems. They also experience higher stress and depression related to interpersonal relationships than male adolescents do.
Social Disadvantage and Adolescent Stress
Stress among adolescents is linked to social disadvantage. Social disadvantage is a condition of having a discriminatory social label or having fewer resources. High stress levels are observable among individuals with fewer resources, a low social status or label, or are of a discriminated race or ethnicity. Higher social disadvantage is linked to higher stress levels.
An adolescent who belongs to a socially disadvantaged group suffers from more stress. They are also more likely to experience depression. Moreover, these adolescents are more likely to smoke, drink, and use marijuana or other illegal substances because of the combined effects of stress, discrimination, and financial difficulties.
Stress and Its Effects on Adolescents’ Self-esteem
The adolescent’s perspectives of others and the self partly depend on the kind and level of stress he experiences. Thus, stress impacts his self-esteem. Self-esteem is the positive or negative regard for oneself. Because of inadequate knowledge or skills to deal with stress, adolescents frequently feel disappointed with their lives. Such condition contributes to problems with self-esteem.
The adolescent who experiences more negative life events tend to experience higher stress levels. These events include the loss of a family member, the loss of a home and failing academic performance. These events often lead to anger, self-pity and other negative emotions. The associated higher stress level makes the adolescent feel more inadequate, leading to lower self-esteem.
Managing and Coping with Adolescent Stress
Male and female adolescents cope with stress differently. Male adolescents tend to use active distraction, such as physical exercise. Female adolescents tend to use passive distraction, such as watching television programs. Also, adolescent males are more likely to develop aggressive or violent behaviors as a way of coping with stress. These differences between male and female adolescents in coping with stress have implications on how adolescent stress should be addressed. Counselors, parents and guardians should approach male and female adolescent stress differently.
Adolescent students who experience stress in school should seek help from counselors trained in helping adolescents cope with stress. It is important for school counselors to be proficient in handling stress among adolescents. It is also beneficial to help adolescents gain knowledge and skills to address stress. Adults, including teachers and parents, should provide assistance and encouragement to help adolescents cope with stress. It is important to monitor stress levels and how it impacts adolescents’ health and behaviors. Listening is necessary in helping adolescents cope with stress. Simply listening to adolescents’ problems can help relieve some of the stress they experience.
- Casey, B.J., Jones, R. M., Levita, L., Libby, V., Pattwell, S., Ruberry, E., Soliman, F., Somerville, L. H. (2011). The Storm and Stress of Adolescence: Insights from Human Imaging and Mouse Genetics. Developmental Psychobiology, 52(3), 225-235.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012). Managing Stress.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). Coping with Stress.
- Hackman, D. A., Betancourt, L. M., Brodsky, N. L., Hurt, H., & Farah, M. J. (2012). Neighborhood disadvantage and adolescent stress reactivity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6.
- Hetherington, E. M., & Blechman, E. A. (Eds.). (2014). Stress, coping, and resiliency in children and families. Psychology Press.
- Murray, K. M., Byrne, D. G., & Rieger, E. (2011). Investigating adolescent stress and body image. Journal of adolescence, 34(2), 269-278.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (2014). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment.
- National Science Foundation (2011). Teens and Stress.
- Seiffge-Krenke, I. (2013). Stress, coping, and relationships in adolescence. Psychology Press.
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (2015). Adolescence and Substance Abuse.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2015). Family Stress Linked to Teen Obesity in Study.