Recently one of my sons experienced some pretty serious anxiety issues. When I mentioned it to a family friend, she replied, “What does he have to be stressed about? He’s just a kid.”
Not only was my friend’s response unsympathetic and tone deaf, but factually, wrong.
Adolescent stress and anxiety is a significant health and societal issue, and it’s on the rise.
In the age of COVID19, isolation, school shootings, and tech addiction, Gen Z (ages 13-17) are manifesting unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues. In fact, teens report stress levels at even higher rates than adults do.
So, how do adolescent boys experience stress? How can we know when stress is too much, and what can we do to help?
What Boy Stress Looks Like
Stress in teenage boys doesn’t always look the same as it does in adults (and especially not in adult women). There is overlap of course, but often parents and well-meaning adults miss the signs because they’re looking for boys to admit “I’m stressed.”
Some common symptoms of stressed-out boys include:
- Irritability and anger
- Increased activity
- Sleepiness, or alternately, insomnia
- Physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, headaches, body aches and pains, and chest tightness.
The truth is, not only are boys reluctant to talk about being stressed, there’s a good chance the boy experiencing stress isn’t even aware of it himself.
Josh Nordean, Clinical Director of Embark at the Forge, shares his insights, “with teen boys, you have to initiate the conversation about stress. Share stories of times when you’ve experienced stress, what it felt like in your body and how you learned to manage it. Share these stories while doing something active with them. Model what caring for yourself looks like and start the conversation before they’re in crisis.”
According to the APA Stress in America report, the majority of teens self-reported that stress had little or no impact on their lives.
But when asked about specific, stress-related symptoms, the numbers told a different story.
31% reported feeling overwhelmed, 30% were depressed or sad, 36% said they felt nervous or anxious, and a full 40% said they felt irritable or angry.
Significantly, 42% of teens indicated not doing anything to cope with their stress and not knowing what to do to manage it.
The takeaway from the research is that while teens boys are more stressed than ever, they don’t know how to recognize it, nor what to do about it.
Talk It Out
I know, easier said than done with an adolescent boy. You may be doing most of the talking at first. The important thing is to get the conversation started.
Let your son know what stress can feel like. Share your own experiences with stress. Tell him it’s OK not to be OK.
After you’ve opened the door, you may have to wait for your teen to be ready to share. My boys were most open late at night or driving in the car.
When he does start to talk, let him. Don’t interrupt, don’t react, and initially, don’t try to solve the problem. Just listen.
Then, ask if he is open to receiving feedback, and if he’d like you to help him make a game plan for dealing with his stress.
Sometimes, just talking it out can be healing in itself.
Put the two together, and boys have a potent weapon to manage anxiety and stress.
If your teen isn’t motivated by “just exercising,” finding something he enjoys or is excited to try can be a better approach. Make it an experience.
For example, if he’s shown an interest in rock climbing, you could buy a membership to a rock gym and plan a trip to hike The Narrows.
If he likes watching hockey, you might sign him up for a rec league, along with tickets to watch the big game.
From skateboarding to walking the dog, kayaking to yoga; anything to get your teen up and out of the house.
De-stigmatize Getting Help
Sometimes, our teens need more help than we alone can give. And that’s OK.
If your son is experiencing signs of stress, despite using coping techniques, or his stress is impacting his day-to-day functioning, it may be time to speak to his doctor about it. An assessment from an adolescent psychologist or other mental health professional is another good option. Sometimes, an environment outside of the home is what boys need to break negative patterns and learn new coping techniques.
Whatever you choose to do, take heart. Many boys have learned to successfully manage their anxiety and deal with life’s inevitable stress. Yours can too.
By Natalie Walker Whitlock, for The Forge School
This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your child is having a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.