School stress can be a significant challenge for teens. Academic performance and relationship issues are just two of the many factors that can take a mental, emotional, and physical toll on teenagers’ minds and bodies.
To understand how stress affects teenagers and how parents can support them and promote good mental health, we spoke with Madison Little, a licensed associate counselor who has counseled many teens dealing with school pressure. Little is a therapist at the Embark Behavioral Health outpatient therapy clinic in Phoenix, Arizona.
Table of contents
- How Does School Stress Affect Mental Health?
- Why Is School So Stressful?
- 9 Stress Management Techniques for Your Student
- 1. Make homework less stressful
- 2. Support your teen as they go back to school
- 3. Help your teen balance work and school
- 4. Teach your teen time management skills
- 5. Encourage your teen to build and reach out to a support network of family, friends, and fellow students
- 6. Teach your teen how to handle peer pressure and difficult relationships
- 7. Practice healthy habits with your teen
- 8. Talk to your teen about school violence
- 9. Reach out to a therapist for help
- School Stress: Wrapup
How Does School Stress Affect Mental Health?
When it comes to student mental health, it’s important to point out that school stress isn’t always a problem, as stress itself is not always a problem. Good stress, which feels manageable, builds resilience and is necessary for growth. The issue is unhealthy stress (also known as “distress”), which feels unmanageable and can negatively impact teens.
How unhealthy stress can affect teens
“With distress, we fear a negative or undesired outcome,” Little said. “It decreases focus, increases procrastination, and is experienced as fear or concern. It’s overwhelming.”
As a result, teens could experience:
How good stress can affect teens
“A positive response to stress is often experienced as excitement or a healthy anticipation for something,” Little said. “It feels more manageable and is often associated with confidence — when we can expect a desired or positive outcome.”
Teenagers experiencing this positive response to stress can be motivated to study for exams, complete assignments, and recall information more accurately, leading to:
- Academic success.
- High self-esteem.
- Strong relationships and a good support network.
- Newly developed skills and knowledge.
Why Is School So Stressful?
Why is school stressful? School stressors can come from several different sources, and it’s important to identify how your teen reacts to and deals with these various aspects of middle school and high school life.
Homework helps students practice the skills they learn in class and prepare for exams. It can be a positive stressor that promotes growth. However, excessive assignments can lead to homework causing unhealthy stress. As a result, teens could experience:
- Sleeping problems.
- Digestive issues.
What’s an excessive number of assignments that can lead to homework causing unhealthy stress? According to the National Education Association, many school districts assign 10 minutes of homework per grade level. The NEA noted that amount could be adjusted up or down based on a student’s needs.
While it’s normal to feel some tension and worry about an upcoming test, exam, or presentation, once the stress overwhelms a student’s ability to focus and perform well, it’s unhealthy.
Midterm stress can happen as students study for their exams and worry about an upcoming test. Excessive worry can show up as difficulty sleeping, headaches, and upset stomachs.
Finals stress can affect any student but can be especially challenging for high school juniors applying to colleges, as their grades will be important to their applications. This can cause students to worry excessively, leading to difficulty concentrating, negative thinking, and self-criticism.
Going back to school
The beginning of a new school year can be a difficult time for students worried about entering a new school, handling changing relationships, and adjusting to new routines. The uncertainty they face can cause teens to experience back-to-school stress.
While working at a part-time job allows teenagers to not only earn money but also learn about responsibility and time management, it can also lead to work and school stress. Students must balance fulfilling their job duties with keeping up with their homework, studying, and performing well on tests.
Waiting until the last minute to study for an exam or finish homework has been a problem for students for generations. It’s important to note that procrastination is often about trying to minimize stress by putting it out of one’s mind. It’s an attempt to feel better. However, procrastinating can have negative consequences, and they go beyond poor grades. In a Frontiers in Psychology study, researchers who reviewed multiple studies pointed out that procrastination is also a health issue, as it can cause mental and physical problems.
As a parent, you want to encourage your child to do well in school. However, when teens experience too much pressure from parents to improve or maintain their academic performance, this can become a source of school stress. Teenagers may feel they’ll let their parents down by not achieving high grades, leading to higher levels of anxiety, insomnia, and changes in appetite.
“Success is the status of having accomplished an aim or objective,” Little said. “However, getting straight A’s, kudos from the teacher, and scholarships for higher education are not appropriate indicators of success when your teenager does not believe they’re worthy of love, value, and respect. As parents, our objective is for our teenagers to know that they’re worthy of these things no matter their academic status.”
Healthy relationships can motivate students to study efficiently so they have more time to spend with their friends — and are key to increasing the ability to tolerate stress. However, negative relationships can interfere with academic performance and be a source of unhealthy stress.
For example, bullied teens may skip school to avoid confrontations with their tormentors. However, because bullies can post comments about their victims online, known as cyberbullying, students can experience stress at home too.
School violence and fear of shootings
With school shootings now an unfortunate reality, school violence and fear of shootings affect many teenagers. Teens who witness or hear about a shooting may experience anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress. Injured students may miss school and fall behind, while traumatized students may refuse to attend school completely. Even students who go to school can be negatively affected.
“When teenagers don’t feel safe in a school environment, their brains go on high alert for signs of danger and abnormal activity,” Little said. “But when you’re on high alert, it’s much harder for you to pay attention to lectures, complete coursework, study, and be present. You experience high levels of unhealthy stress.”
9 Stress Management Techniques for Your Student
How can you help your teenager learn how to deal with school stress? Little emphasized that the most important step you can take is to create a safe, nonjudgmental space for your child to express their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and concerns.
“Do not jump to problem-solving,” she said. “Most of the time, your teenager is seeking validation and needs a listening ear or shoulder to cry on. As you lean into supporting your teenager, ask the simple question, ‘Do you need me to listen and validate, or do you want me to help you think of solutions?’”
By asking this question, you and your teenager can clarify your expectations and communicate better.
If your teen wants your guidance, there are many ways you can work together to relieve school stress.
1. Make homework less stressful
To make homework less stressful, Little advised you lower school pressure at home and model the value of resting and recharging before starting any work assignments. People need breaks to eat, sleep, and take care of themselves, so by making these practices part of your regular routine, you and your teen are practicing healthy habits.
You can further reduce homework stress by:
- Creating a homework schedule if one doesn’t already exist.
- Designating a quiet study space for homework.
- Encouraging your teen to make breaks a regular part of homework.
- Helping your child get started with their homework, if needed.
2. Support your teen as they go back to school
You can help your teen manage school stress before they even go back to class. Consider the following simple back-to-school-tips for teens:
- Make sure your teenager knows where their classes are located before the first day of class.
- Help your teen fill out all required forms if needed, especially medical documents.
- Encourage your teenager to focus on the positive aspects of being back in school (e.g., making new friends, joining a club, or learning about a subject that interests them).
3. Help your teen balance work and school
Learning how to balance work and school can be challenging, but proper communication goes a long way in helping your teen enjoy the benefits of being a working student. Consider the following tips:
- Ask your teen how they feel about their overall workload.
- If your teen feels they’re working too much, encourage them to talk to their manager about reducing their hours.
4. Teach your teen time management skills
School, work, and social responsibilities place a big demand on your teenager’s time. To make sure these demands don’t become overwhelming, emphasize the importance of time management for students by:
- Helping your teen plan out their activities.
- Teaching them to break homework and studying for exams into manageable tasks.
- Showing them how to set realistic goals.
5. Encourage your teen to build and reach out to a support network of family, friends, and fellow students
While you can do much to support and empower your teenager, it’s important to encourage their relationships not only with family members but other people as well. You can help your teen develop positive relationships and a strong support network by:
- Pointing them toward positive influences like guidance counselors, teachers, or mentors.
- Encouraging them to include supportive, loving family members in their network.
- Reminding them to contact their support network in times of stress.
6. Teach your teen how to handle peer pressure and difficult relationships
Peer pressure and difficult relationships can lead to unhealthy stress and challenges in school. To help your teen navigate such challenges:
- Teach them how to establish healthy boundaries in relationships.
- Show them how to be assertive in communication.
- Share your own experiences with peer pressure.
7. Practice healthy habits with your teen
“A lot of times, we may not realize we’re anxious or depressed, but our bodies know and start to change our appetite, give us headaches, and alter our sleep patterns,” Little said. “If medical conditions are ruled out, a lot of times it’s a mental health concern like anxiety or depression.”
To model to your teen how they can become more self-aware of what their body may be trying to tell them so they can respond to these signs appropriately, consider the following suggestions:
- Practice deep breathing with your teen.
- Help your child get in the habit of journaling.
- Get your teen in the habit of taking small breaks.
- Encourage your teenager to spend time outside.
8. Talk to your teen about school violence
Dealing with the reality of school violence and school shootings is a lot for a teen to handle. To help your teenager manage any fear or anxiety they experience in a school environment:
- Observe your teen’s emotional state for signs of anxiety or stress.
- Validate their feelings.
- Talk about the difference between the possibility of violence and the probability of it at their school.
- Review safety procedures so your teen knows what to do in case of an emergency.
9. Reach out to a therapist for help
The following warning signs can indicate your teen needs counseling for stress:
- Withdrawing from peers or family members.
- Starting to drink or use drugs.
- Struggling with symptoms of anxiety in multiple areas of their life, not just school.
- Getting into legal trouble.
- Seeming constantly angry or showing other sudden changes in mood and personality.
Little recommended you find a therapist who works with the issues your teenager is experiencing. She added that you, the parent, may also need support from a therapist to ensure your mental health lets you help your child.
School Stress: Wrapup
If school is stressful for your teen, you can provide them with a safe space where they can reflect on their experiences and come up with ways to manage and reduce their stress. Validate their feelings, and let them know you support them.
Showing your teen you love, value, and respect them is important not only for addressing school stress, Little said, but also for their overall mental health.
“We need that affirmation from our parents and the adults around us,” she said. “And when we don’t get that, we’re far more susceptible to experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression and other mental health concerns. Choose to say, ‘I hear you, and I love you, and I’m here with you.’”
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!