Teenager in despair

Stress Affects On Teenagers. Emotions are the barometer of mental well-being and are part of the human experience.  During adolescence, more than at any other time, emotions rule our lives.  Teenagers are usually up or they’re down, and they are very rarely something in between.  As parents we sometimes experience our teenagers’ emotional highs and lows as frighteningly out of control and most parents don’t know about stress affects on teenagers.

Why Are Teenagers So Up and Down?

  • Their response to the world is driven by emotion, not reason. This is because there is much less activity in their frontal lobes (the part of the brain responsible for reasoning) – this makes it harder for them to handle their emotions, especially in crisis situations. Read more about the structure of the teenage brain.
  • Because teens are not fully accessing their frontal lobes, other areas of the brain can get a little out of hand and create more extreme impressions of an external threat.

How Stress Affects The Maturation of Our Brains

  • The part of the brain associated with memory, particularly long-term memory, (Hippocampus) gets smaller.
  • The Amygdala, which is responsible for the perception of emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness, as well as the controlling of aggression, appears to grow in size – perhaps in an attempt to cope with challenges.

Heightened emotion goes hand in hand with stress and the stressors for adolescents are everywhere from speaking in front of a class to peer rejection and bullying. The effect of stressful experiences and emotional trauma on adolescents can have serious consequences for mental and emotional health later in life.

Substance abuse and other distracting behaviour also often develops.   Anxiety is astronomically high in kids today, with a host of societal issues, less consistent family life, and exposure to all sorts of stimuli on the internet, not to mention the vagaries of social networking.  These are otherwise good, normal kids, but stress can seriously strain their ability to cope.

Affects of Stress on Learning

Stress is terrible for learning. A little pressure can be motivating but once you pass beyond that, stress contributes to inattention and a real inability to learn.  We have all seen a nervous kid in the midst of a presentation – he freezes and an otherwise easy word becomes insurmountable.  This happens because the surge of cortisol during a stress response can interfere with memory –particularly long-term memory.    Rats that great at learning a maze under normal conditions completely freeze up and are unable to learn if a stressor, like a cat, is placed outside their cage.  The Hippocampus is one of the brain structures that suffer the most damage in chronic stress and is critical to both memory and learning.

We need to be mindful of what our teenagers consider stressful and realize that school can sometimes be analogous to a rat in the cage experiment, and that parents and teachers can be as stressful as the cat in that research paradigm.

When trauma is severe or prolonged, an adolescent is more prone than an adult to developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (PTSD). Without treatment, those who suffer PTSD can become susceptible to crippling fear and anxiety throughout the remainder of their lives.

The symptoms and problems associated with adolescent PTSD include not only fear and anxiety but also sadness, anger, loneliness, low self-esteem and an inability to trust others.  Behaviour problems associated with adolescent PTSD also run the gamut from social isolation and poor academic performance to aggression, hyper sexuality, self-harm and abuse of drugs or alcohol.

How Can Parents and Caretakers Help?

  • Explain to the teen that they can expect to be over-emotional
  • Encourage them to take care of themselves physically by eating right and getting enough sleep.
  • Encourage them to take time out from the internet, texting and Facebook Engage in sport and other pleasurable activities Practice mindfulness meditation
  • Encourage them to talk out their problems with a good listener they trust. Preferably someone older (whose “reasoning” brain is mature – aged 25 years+). Sometimes the “good listener” isn’t the parent and parents need to be mature enough to be with that.

Source “The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s survival guide to raising adolescents” by Frances E. Jensen

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