Stress impacting teens too

By Pamela Berard
January 1st, 2010

The dismal economy has not only affected American adults – teens and tweens are feeling the pressure, too.

Stress related to family finances has grown among youth in the past year, according to a new survey released by the American Psychological Association (APA). Youth are also stressed about school and other issues and their parents are underestimating the toll such pressures are having on them.

Nearly half (45 percent) of teens ages 13-17 surveyed said that they worried more this year than last year, but only 28 percent of parents reported that they think their teen’s stress increased. Additionally, 26 percent of tweens (ages 8-12) said they worried more this year, but only 17 percent of parents believed their tween’s stress had increased.

Thirty percent of children said they worried about their parents’ financial difficulties, but only 18 percent of parents thought their children worried about such matters.

Additionally, just two to five percent of parents rate their child’s stress as “extreme” – but 14 percent of tweens and 28 percent of teens said they worry a great deal.

This apparent “disconnect” could have several causes, according to Katherine C. Nordal, Ph.D., APA’s executive director for professional practice.

“I don’t think we need to draw a conclusion from that disconnect that parents are bad parents,” Nordal says.

The youth who said they were stressed “may very well be the kinds of kids where it’s just not really easy to pick up on what’s going on with them,” Nordal says.

“If you’ve got a child that tends to be very rambunctious or is oppositional or defiant, red flags go up all over the place,” Nordal says. But kids who internalize, “those kids will often times keep those problems to themselves or they’ll worry about something but they won’t necessarily talk to their parent about it.”

“Given the difficult situation we’ve had with the economy the past year, it is also plausible these children didn’t want to additionally burden their parents with their problems when they knew their parents had worries of their own and they didn’t want to add to it,” she says.

Nordal adds that many good parents try to insulate their children and may have thought they succeeded. “But kids are very good at picking up on what’s going on with parents. I think they pick up on it much, much earlier than parents realize.”

Nordal was concerned with the number of children experiencing stress-related symptoms. “By the time our body begins to respond physiologically to stress, we’ve been under a pretty good amount of stress,” she says. “So I think the prevalence of some of the physical kinds of manifestation that we are seeing do indicate that some kids’ levels of stress have become somewhat chronic.”

Thirty percent of tweens and 42 percent of teens reported headaches, 39 percent of tweens and 49 percent of teens cited difficulty sleeping and 27 percent of tweens and 39 percent of teens reported eating too much or too little.

Nordal says 82 percent of youth reported they worried the same or more than a year ago. But there is a silver lining. “The good news from the survey was the majority of the younger kids and teenagers said they would be comfortable talking to their parents about the things that worry them,” Nordal says. “So in a lot of respects, it’s as simple as asking them and engaging them in a dialogue.”

The Stress in America survey also showed that adults continue to report high levels and increasing stress and physical symptoms. Seventy-five percent reported moderate to high levels of stress in the past month and 42 percent reported increased stress in the past year. Additionally, 43 percent of adults say they eat too much or eat unhealthy foods because of stress; among physical symptoms – lying awake at night (47 percent), irritability or anger (45 percent) and fatigue (43 percent).

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