Stress & Your Teenager

Ah, the teen years—what most adults recall as being the most exciting time of their lives, a time for discovering who they are, discovering what God has called them to.

While teens of today also embark on their personal journeys of self-discovery, the social and educational landscape that they are growing up in is very different from teens 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

In 2015, 27 Singaporean teenagers committed suicide—twice the number in 2014. In a Straits Times report (26 July 2016), the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) said that the three chief stressors cited by teenagers that call their helpline are mental health issues, academic stress and relationship problems at home. In many cases the stressors are interrelated.

Depression and School Stress

Mental health problems among teenagers is on the rise in first world countries. America, the UK, even New Zealand have all seen a spike in the number of young people experiencing depression in the past two decades. This is a likely contributor to the increase in suicides among teenagers.

In the book The Happiness Industry (2015) author William Davies unveils research that shows that cultures that have strong materialistic and competitive values lead to higher levels of mental distress. When an individual believes that he has no control over such forces as societal expectations, the conclusion he comes to is that is it he who must change and not society. When he is unable to change in a way or at a rate which allows him to feel in control, that is when depression may begin.

In Singapore, where academic and material success is celebrated by society (note the recent fuss over Singaporean students and PISA scores) and in most families, children face pressure whether or not parents deliberately emphasize such success. These are the values that society has placed upon youth, increasingly so over the decades, and failure to meet these standards causes stress.

In 2016, two junior college students from a top school took their own lives, 10 days apart. In a The New Paper report, a psychiatrist revealed that he had seen a 100 percent increase in the number of teenage students seek help compared to five years ago. He described one of his patients as a student who had done well in secondary school, but entered a top junior college and saw his grades drop. “Part of his depressive condition came from the embarrassment that he wasn’t doing as well as his peers, and it didn’t help that he didn’t have a strong support system at home,” the psychiatrist said. The student began harbouring suicidal thoughts when things did not improve at school, and only managed to overcome his suicidal thoughts getting professional help.

The proliferation of Internet usage among teenagers in the past decade, thanks to technological advances, has contributed in part to this trend toward depression. Young people are exposed to online communities and allow their social value to be determined by the approval or disapproval of virtual strangers they may never meet. This is the very way Facebook began—as a site that invited teens to rate one another on the basis of physical attractiveness. Online bullying or cyberbullying is a common problem among teenagers, even in Singapore. The abuse may take the form of spreading rumors, offensive personal messages or spreading unflattering or compromising photos. A 2016 study of 3,000 students between 12 and 17 years of age, conducted by the Singapore Children’s Society and Institute of Mental Health, revealed that cyberbullying, which is estimated to affect one in three teens in Singapore, is linked to self-harm. Psychologists suggest that such teens resort to self-harming because they feel they cannot turn to anyone, least of all an adult, for help.

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Family Relationship Stress

Unstable or violent family situations have been shown to cause trauma to children, teens included.

Separation and divorce of couples in Singapore is on the increase, with latest figures at 7,000 divorces being filed annually.

In a 2014 report of the 11th Family Research Network Forum at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which discussed “Life After Divorce” from legal, psychological, social and educational viewpoints, it was found that “the effects of parental separation on children depended on their age; children who are old enough to witness the process might be affected more compared to those under two years old. These older children have a higher risk of having relationship problems compared to those from two-parent families.”

The impact of divorce on teenagers and young children have been shown to be lifelong, affecting these teens’ own family relationships later on in life.

Violence in the family is another key area of stress for children. Violence isn’t just physical or sexual, but also mental and verbal. Over 2015 and 2016, the Centre for Promoting Alternatives to Violence (PAVE) saw 21 cases of abuse towards children 16 and above. PAVE says that incidences of violence tended to take place in large families with many children, families with children that have medical needs, and families that are strict and enforce discipline.

Even children who are not abused can be deeply affected, as a 2016 study on 102 children showed. Conducted by social workers from PAVE, the study showed that children between ages 3 and 18 who were exposed to violence suffered symptoms of trauma, such as nightmares and stress, and these could develop into chronic symptoms.

What Can Parents Do?

Raising children to be healthy, responsible and God-loving is hard enough without the additional stresses that our young ones need to go through. But there are things we can do, as parents, to help our children navigate life in as stress-free a way as possible.

1. Love and encourage your children

Ephesians 6:4 (NIV) says “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” This is also true for mothers. The temptation parents face is this: when we do not see our children physically studying, we feel compelled to nag. Most times, our teenagers have already drawn out their own study plans, or spent the whole afternoon at the library mugging. To be faced with a sarcastic “No need to study, ah?” from their parents can be hurtful and annoying. It really means “I don’t trust you to be responsible.”

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Instead of nagging, spend time praying with your children. Take the opportunity to spend a few minutes sharing a verse you read, or praying for them as you drive them to school or take public transport together in the mornings. Building their confidence in their God-given identity and purpose will go a long way in helping them navigate life.

Some encouraging verses you can share with your teens during times of stress:

Galatians 6:9 “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

Philippians 4:6 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Romans 8:37-39 “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

2. Spend quality time with each teen

Set aside an hour or a few hours each week (or several times a week) to do something meaningful with your teenage child, alone. It doesn’t have to be a big event; it could be something as simple as grocery shopping or an after-dinner walk. Pick an activity that takes you both away from the TV, your phones and other distractions so that you can be together and talk. Your teen may not “spill” all to you at first, but as you build that trust over time, and he or she knows that this is one time he has you all to himself, chances are that he will open up and talk about things that are bothering him, and you will have the opportunity to address those issues. Teenagers understand many things that we may think are too complicated for them to comprehend, but they are also beset with insecurities and may misread a situation. Having a clear channel of communication gives you both a chance to discuss and perhaps to solve problems together.

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3. Adopt the right language.

Your teen may be taller than you and sport more facial hair than his father, but inside he is still a child looking for signposts in life and strong examples to follow. The little kid you could smack on the wrist and call naughty won’t take to the same discipline now. Use the right language with your teens — they are not your peers, so beware of sharing information that is too adult for them. They are also not babies, so don’t talk down to them. Reasoning with your teen is or will be one of the toughest things any parents has to go through, but if you do it right, you will both walk away respecting each other and yourselves.

Instead of nagging, try to find out the real reason why your teen is behaving a certain way. Asking the right questions will help you to understand your teenager better.

One mother shares an experience: “Once, my teenaged son asked me for $10 so that he could have lunch with his cell group. As I had just given him a few hundred dollars for his monthly allowance, I was a little cross that he didn’t bring any money for lunch. But instead of scolding him, I calmly asked him ‘Why is it you don’t have money left? It’s a week into the new month and I gave you your allowance last week. Did you need to buy something important?’ His reply stunned me. He said, ‘I’m a bit short because of the church building fund. I pledged $100 and gave it last weekend. But don’t worry, I’ll live within my means. I promise I will pay you back the $10 when I get home, Mom.’ It was the last answer I expected, but I am glad I asked calmly instead of accusing him of being a spendthrift!”

4. Be a good husband to your wife and be a good wife to your husband

To hear one’s parents quarrel is a stressful thing—even for those of us who are in our 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s! Imagine how our teenager feels listening to his parents fight.

The late Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame famously wrote, “The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” The converse is true also. When we love our spouse and show it, it is an unspoken reassurance to our children that things are well, and they are safe and loved. We also become a good example for our children to grow up and love their spouse and children likewise.

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Protect your marriage. Spend quality time with your husband or wife, away from the children. Build your relationship even as you parent your children together.

The Bible has plenty of good advice for couples, but one of the most powerful is this: “Be angry, and do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil.” (Ephesians 4:26-27) All couples will have disagreements, but don’t allow anger to take root and give the devil a foothold into your marriage.

5. Help your children focus on what’s important

One of the best ways to help your children focus on what is important is to remind them that they have a great future in Christ (Jer 29:11). Your child’s life does not end with his PSLE, ‘O’ Level or ‘A’ Level results. So, helping your teenager to refocus her thoughts on the infinite possibilities her life holds will help.

You can support this sort of thinking by encouraging your child to try new things — an art form, sports, dance. If your child discovers a talent that brings him or her joy, that helps to take some pressure off focusing solely on academics. (Just be sure not to make this newfound talent another source of stress and competition!)

Let your child take the lead on how far he or she wants to go with studies or a sport—be as supportive as you can. The important thing is to constantly remind your child that although results are important, they are not the end of the story. Their results alone do not determine the person they become.

Many times, our teenagers are more worried about disappointing their parents than anything else. Reassure your teen that you love them, believe in them and know that God has a great future for them—and how can anyone be disappointed with that?

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