Teenagers! What can we do about them? What comes to mind when you think of teenagers? As adults, some of us are sometimes quick to jump to the conclusion that teenagers are always moody, lazy, think they know it all, and so on. Granted that in some cases, this can be true from time to time, but have we as adults ever paused to understand the emotional pressures (stress) that teenagers go through daily?
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A teenager’s brain
A child’s brain develops quickly between the ages of 3-5, but the most dramatic and intense growth spurt of the brain occurs typically between the ages of 12-19 (known as adolescence). All of this change that is going on in a teen’s brain causes them to wonder how they can deal with themselves while dealing with external factors they encounter.
As adults looking in from the outside, if we don’t fully understand or grasp the changes that a teenager’s brain goes through – we will view teens as irrational, impulsive, moody. Studies have shown that teenagers differ from adults in how they behave, make decisions, and problem solve. This is because a teenager’s brain is not fully developed. A teen’s brain reaches its biggest size in adolescence BUT doesn’t fully grow and mature until 25. To learn more about teenage brain development, click here.
When adults think back to their teenage years, some saw it filled with happiness, forgetting quickly that being a child (even at the tender age of 5) and going through adolescence can be very stressful. I grew up in three different countries before moving to America. In school, I was called the ‘PK’ (pastor’s kid), and the stress that came from that became emotionally draining from time to time. I was expected to act a certain, dress a certain, and be this perfect being, all while trying to figure out what changes my body and mind were going through at that time.
It is not easy being a teenager because of the developmental changes (physical, cognitive, and social) they are going through from childhood toward adulthood. They are changing emotionally and physically, plus there is external stress, and they are trying to balance it all. These transitions trigger a tremendous change in teenagers that is usually overwhelming for them.
For the most part, adolescence has always been an awkward challenging stage where teens struggle to find their identity, seek autonomy, and learn about intimacy and sexuality in relationships. Their minds are also going through a ton of emotions that they are trying to regulate while trying to balance their physical, cognitive, and emotional developmental changes at the same time. This is why teens often come off as moody and very dramatic.
These things create a level of emotional stress, but they are not new areas of teenage development. What is new is “the environment that we live in, and it is this fast-paced, perpetually plugged-in society that sets the tone for the messages and expectations that teens receive every day.”
Today, I have 3 amazing teens to talk about the emotional pressures they experience as teenagers. Here are their stories:
Alexandria K. (age 16) – “In 2018, my parents separated, and that took a toll on my life in and out of school. At times I felt like they didn’t care about my mental state. I felt alone, kind of like I was drowning, and nobody was there to help me, and it eventually affected me in school.
As a new kid to the district, I couldn’t be sad because people would call me weird, so I would hide all of my emotions with a smile, and the smile was believable. I tried to fit in as much as possible, but it’s honestly impossible to do so, I was always depressed, and I felt alone. I was trying to get straight A’s when my mind wasn’t in the space I needed it to be, and I eventually started to slack in school.
When I started to feel alone at home and at school, I would shut down. I started doing things I wasn’t supposed to do, and the people I would hang around didn’t bother to stop me; they actually influenced me. It’s not a great thing to say, but it’s apart of my journey. I treated the things I did as a coping mechanism; it was the only way I felt the stress, the loneliness, and the depression was lifted off my shoulders.
Eventually, I realized that what I was doing wasn’t the cure. I realized there isn’t a cure. You just have to live through it until it passes. Substances couldn’t save me. My so-called friends couldn’t save me. I’m still battling things as I’m maturing one step at a time. I’m learning more about myself, trying to heal from all my childhood wounds.”
Jaquan D.(age 16) – “I feel pressure from everybody like parents, friends, and loved ones. They expect me to do certain stuff at this age, and it sometimes feels like a job. Schoolwork is too much, and it makes me feel stress and the large amount of work that is given makes me feel overwhelmed, and I become unmotivated to do anything. When I’m with my friends, I can’t be a bum. I have to dress the part to not ‘get my ass cut’ – not be made fun of.
I also can’t be a ‘sherm’; I gotta be solid. I cannot present myself as a weak person. Having to be like this makes me feel paranoid but confident at the same time because I have to always be aware of my surroundings. It’s regular life to me. At times my friends would be, “Oh, you don’t smoke, why you don’t smoke,” and I say to them no. They act like I need to smoke to have fun.
With social media, it makes me feel like I have to get on my grind and be better than my friends or meet them on the same level. Seeing what they post inspires me but at the same time creates pressure because I feel like I have to have it all together now.”
Shanaqua D. (age 18) – “Personally speaking, social media can be very informative and help maintain relationships with friends near and far, but it can also lower your self-esteem. Every second I go on Instagram, I’ll see girls posting photos with their bodies looking perfect and their likes and comments over 3k. I’ll then start getting in my head thinking that my body isn’t good enough, wondering what I can do to get the same amount of likes as them so that I can be popular.
I’ve also had problems trying to fit in at school. Everyone is always looking at you. Every day I had to make sure my hair was well done, my skin wasn’t looking ‘ashy,’ and my shoes and bag were clean and some sort of name brand bag because if I didn’t meet those criteria, I wouldn’t belong. I didn’t want to show my phone at school because everyone would laugh and know that I am not fortunate enough. Even though that’s not the importance of going to school, and you shouldn’t care what people have to say about you, I still didn’t want to attend school every day and get picked on.
Don’t’ get me started on doing good and being perfect. All my life, I’ve wanted to make my family proud, and there were times when I stressed about whether or not I will pass an exam because I did not want to be a disappointment to my parents. Sometimes I wanted to do fun and risky stuff with my friends. I just had to stop myself because from the moment I slip, I’m disobedient, rebellious, and all other forms of names other than ‘good.’ You do so many things to be good and be perfect, and sometimes it’s still not enough.”
Alexandria, Jaquan, and Shanaqua, thank you so much for being brave enough to share your story with us! You all are not the only teens that go through this, and your story will help teens know that they are not alone and help parents/caregivers have an insight into some of the emotional pressures teens face.
Warning signs that the pressures are too much
The emotional pressures teenagers go through can significantly impact teenagers’ choices and how they cope. There may be an underlying problem as well that needs to be addressed. Look out for these signs that can indicate your teen is at their breaking point:
- Social withdrawal (if this is something they do not usually do)
- High levels of irritability and hostility
- Extreme and frequent mood changes
- Sudden change in behavior – eating or sleeping habit
- Frequent or long periods of sadness over everyday events that are disappointing
- Loss of interest in activities
- Confusion and loss of concentration
- Self-injury such as cutting
Tips to help teenagers manage
Here’s how you can support teenager as they face their emotional pressures
- Have open communication. Do not speak to them in codes. Be open and honest.
- Encourage positive behavior.
- Be empathic and always acknowledge their frustrations and how they feel.
- Promote structure and routine.
- Talk to them early on about developmental changes their body will be going through.
- Be patient and do not jump to conclusions. Give them a chance to voice/vent how they feel, then make decisions together.
- When disciplining, explain the reason for it before doing it. This is how they learn right from wrong, about morals and integrity.
- Be supportive, be loving, and allow space.
- Let them know that they are loved no matter what and that you are proud.