Stress in Adolescents


The causes of stress in all adolescents can both reside in internal or developmental, and external factors. Stress is defined by Vera et al. (2011) as “environmental events or chronic conditions that objectively threaten the physical and/or psychological health or well-being of individuals of a particular age in a particular society” (p. 333). The importance of determining the reasons for stress and the symptoms that indicate the rising of the stress level is crucial for preserving the health of the child and learning more about the development of adolescents in different age groups. Such knowledge can be useful for understanding physical, emotional, and psychological stages an adolescent is going through. The knowledge gained about the causes and symptoms of stress in adolescents can also be easily used for further research. It might help determining the reasons for boredom, self-esteem, and academic achievement; drug and alcohol abuse, usage of illegal substances; psychological traumas and diseases based on stress and depression; offending and the level of the crimes among the adolescents; and many other problems that can be caused by stress.

Despise the common understanding of stress, it can be positive or negative. In both occasions, stress influences an individual, changing one’s behavior, and makes one act differently. According to Patterson (2010), everything can be a cause of stress in adolescents: “It’s environmental issues, political issues, economic issues, social issues, war […] It’s everything from guns to the variety of drugs to sexually transmitted diseases — some of which are permanent and potentially lethal.” These factors, as well as such private ones as dating, moving, cognitively- and socially-related school problems, self-esteem, personal physical development, household responsibilities and problems, money and employment issues are all the causes of stress for adolescents (Teen Help, 2012).

This paper discusses the research findings about the main causes of stress for adolescents, taking a closer look onto each age group respectively: early adolescents (10 to 14 years old), middle adolescents (15 to 18 years old), and late adolescents (19 to 25 years old). This paper has for an aim to describe the main symptoms, which indicate the availability of stress in an adolescent individual. The research draws conclusions on how the stress in adolescents can be prevented and gives suggestions for further research on this topic.

Stress in Adolescents

Stress in adolescents can be caused by many factors both internal and external. Generally, stress in adolescents is related to the overwhelming experiences that they get to undergo for the first time. Among the most widespread stressful situations are found the problems at school/college, such as fear to meet the expectations by the peers, pressure from unclear tasks and assignments, dysfunctional classroom settings; at home, such as lack or exceeding levels of structure or discipline, sickness, sudden changes, undernourishment, different types of abuse, dysfunctional family; and social issues, such as changes, social hostility, dating, gaining or losing friendships, etc (NASP, 2009). In addition, the stress is known to be a high risk cause for depression. According to Chaplin, Gilham and Seligman (2009), “anxiety and depressive symptoms are so highly correlated that some researchers have questioned whether anxiety and depression are part of the same syndrome” (p. 308).

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Adolescents strive to become more distant and hostile while at stress; therefore, the parents have to know how to identify the symptoms of stress in their children. Despite unique development of each adolescent depending on the age, there are few main symptoms, which are found to be common. Adolescents tend to be extremely emotional or irritated, have bad dreams or insomnia, find difficulty while concentrating, which also mirrors in their school success. Other than these, stress problems in adolescents also leave a mark on their overall health condition. Children lose or gain weight fast, have trouble eating or toileting, often complain about tooth and headaches, sudden arrhythmia and increased anxiety levels. Also, they might get into troubles or start using alcohol or drugs (NASP, 2009).

Early Adolescents (10 to 14 years old)

Early adolescence is a delicate time period for most children. It is the stage of transition from a child into and adolescent, therefore, is extremely stressful. Angold & Rutter (1992); Cohen et al., (1993) and Hankin et al., (1998) had identified that at this period, an individual faces such problems as self and peer evaluation, parent attitude in positioning and attachment to an adolescent, fear of new responsibilities, etc. During early adolescence, stress related depression line goes up steadily. The research statistic had indicated that the stress related depression increases from 3% to 8% for 11- to 15-year-olds (Chaplin, Gilham & Seligman, 2009, p. 307).

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Cole et al. (2010) based their hypothesis on the helplessness theory (Abramson et al., 1978), asserting that the level of causal attribution style defines the level of predisposition to stress and depression; Beck’s model (Beck, 1963, 1964; Clark & Beck, 1999), regarding positioning in the negative cognitive schemas, which formulates dysfunctional attitudes towards the self; and Cole’s competence model (Cole, Martin, & Powers, 1997), which emphasizes the formation of negative personal image due to the negative feedback from the peers. The goal of the study by Cole et al. (2010) was to examine the stressful circumstances in enhancing the risk for emerging symptoms of depression in young adolescents. In their three-year long study, the researchers analyzed the reports of 515 7-10 years old public elementary school students, their parents, and the results of the clinical interviews. The researchers identified that the younger the group was, the higher their depressive levels were. In addition, the number of negative events has had an additive impact on the level of stress in adolescents. The highest depressive scores were attributed to the adolescents with high cognitive risk interconnected with a high number of stressful events in life.

Buchanan (2003) has been investigating the perception of 75 mothers of the adolescents, who had to respond to the Stereotypes of Adolescents scale, the beliefs regarding adolescence parenting, and the relationship between children and parents in early adolescents. The researcher hypothesized that the perception of adolescence and the parenting style of the parents are extremely influential on the formation of the child’s character. “One source of parents’ expectations for and attributions about their own children appears to be parents’ generalized beliefs and stereotypes concerning the behavior and abilities of children based on age, gender, or other characteristics” (Buchanan, 2003, p. 31).

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Most parents perceive adolescence as a negative time period of life of the family. Nonetheless, parents want to try to make this time period to go as smoothly as possible. “It is reasonable to assume that most parents expect their children to do well at school, because good examination results bode well for enhanced life chances in the labor market. Failure of pupils at school to fulfill parental expectations may lead to family conflicts” (Buchanan, 2003, p. 319). It was found that the mother’s expectations would not exceed the general opinion about the adolescence, yet it would relate to such characteristics as “general activity level, lower flexibility, lower persistence, high depressed mood, and lower current mother/child closeness” (Buchanan, 2003, p. 40).

Duchesne et al. (2009) had been studying stress in children, who are attached to their parents while transitioning to middle school. The researchers investigated 626 six graders, who had previously been selected, basing on their results onto the Security Scale, which assessed their attachment to the parents. The results had shown that the level of the attachment to the parents designates the level of the stress an adolescent experiences in the academic surrounding, in such a way imposing that the more an adolescent is independent, the less stress one would experience while transitioning.

Vera et al. (2011), who had studied subjective well-being in urban, ethnically diverse adolescents, have come up with the ideas on how to help an adolescent cope with stress at the stage of early adolescence. The researchers define coping as “the ways in which individuals attempt to manage internal and external demands that are appraised as taxing (Folkman & Lazarus, 1988)” (Vera et al., 2011, p.334). In other words, it means diminishing the level of the stress by using finely selected individual techniques. According to the author, adolescents and adults cope with stress differently, accounting to all sorts of changes they have to go through. The data in the study by Vera et al. (2011) collected from African-American participants of the research indicate that the stress can be reduced through the utilization of social support, relaxing, and usage of humor (p. 335). Other than this, venting, planning, distraction, active coping, acceptance, and emotional support are also on the list for effective coping techniques.

Middle Adolescents (15 to 18 years old)

Cognitive, physical, emotional, and social changes during the period of middle adolescence predispose the transition from childhood to adulthood to stress. Murberg and Bru (2004) examined 531 Norway students of middle adolescent to find the correlation between school related stress, gender, and psychosomatic symptoms. According to the results, 18, 1% of students (girls were more numerous) claimed to be very affected by psychosomatic symptoms. The students had also reported the most affecting categories of stress: peer issues at school, the success level, cognitive pressure, and conflicts with parents or teachers. The researchers had also found that girls had been expressing more concerns regarding their relationship with peers and academic achievements, whether boys had been experiencing more discomfort regarding conflicts with parents and teachers.

Chaplin, Gilham and Seligman (2009) state in their study that gender correlates with the relation between depression and anxiety (p. 309). Citing a long-term longitudinal study by Block, Gjerde and Block (1991) the researchers claim that “girls, who reported higher levels of depressive symptoms at age 18, were described by psychologist interviewers at ages 11 and 14 as overcontrolled, shy, and anxious” (Chaplin, Gilham & Seligman, 2009, p. 309). Albeit, the aggressive, undisciplined, misbehaved boys at age 11-14, find themselves at risk of experiencing depressive syndromes. The researchers suggest that the depression in girls is related to the early anxiety, such as being more sensitive to fulfilling social standards, being anxious or worry about others, overreact about certain manners, etc.

Similar results had been found in a longitudinal study by Haavel, Sagalun and Lien (2010), where they had been researching “possible changes in depressive symptoms related to various adverse experiences” (p. 58) in students from Oslo, aged from 15 to 18 years old. The authors refer to the previous studies, which had been done on this topic that had indicated statistically significant correlation between gender and ethnicity and the number of stressful life events, such as death of a close person, serious illness, for girls; and exposure to violence and fights for boys. The results had indicated that there is a gender difference in perceiving stress and depression at the middle adolescence stage. It was also found that it is easier for boys to recover from a mental distress, such as death of a friend, parent, or other difficult event, than for girls. Nonetheless, for both genders the mental distress seem to last considerably and there is a need in coping with a stressful situation, otherwise long and painful depression is inevitable.

The symptoms, which cause stress in middle adolescents, were lowering cognitive abilities and self-esteem, conflict with family members and peers, low academic performance, depression and delinquency commitment, dropping job performance (Babinski, 2011, p. 208). One can prevent or reduce the stress level by identifying these symptoms and deal with the developmental changes than t the adolescents face at this age by trying to accept one as he is with all the positive and negative sides he addresses, establish communicational connection by conversing about personal affairs and attitude regarding the matters at school, home, with peers, or close people.

Late Adolescents (19 to 25 years old)

Late adolescents face more serious problems than early and middle adolescents do. These problems are related to taking responsibility, parenthood, economic and social issues, employment, etc. The stress in late adolescents often results in alcohol, drug, and illegal substance use. The stress can be also related to traumas in childhood. For instance, Babinski et al. (2011), using a sample of 58 women (34 of them had been diagnosed with ADHD, the remaining 24 had not), had been studying the stress level in late adolescents and early adults outcomes of ADHD diagnosed girls in their childhood through self- and parent-assessed reports, using such stress related criteria as psychopathology, interpersonal communication, performance at school or work, and substances use. The results had indicated that ADHD diagnosed children were more predisposed to stress and stress related symptoms, such as substances use, for instance, in their late adolescence and early adulthood. Also, these participants had also been recorded being more withdrawing from the parents and significant others, expressing hostility and depressive symptoms than did the control group.

The research by Stevens, Murphy and Mc Knight (2003), which included the sample of 274 male and 104 female adolescents, inquires that the traumatic stress has a small correlation with the substance use in adolescents. The reports indicate that not all traumatized adolescents use illegal substances. In addition, the researchers have found that females are more predisposed for reporting traumatic life experiences or stress associated symptoms. It was found that more females than males, who report substance abuse, relate it to traumatic stress. Among the causes of stress, there had been reported physical and mental health problems, HIV risk behaviors (Stevens, Murphy & Mc Knight, 2003, p.47).

The symptoms of stress for this age group can be miscellaneous. Among them, the researchers report failure to establish good relationships within and outside the family. Babinski et al. (2011) state that “Parent and sibling relationships for probands appear to suffer” (p. 210). Stevens, Murphy and Mc Knight (2003) identify substance abuse as the follow up symptom of stress in late adolescents. They tend to be inclined to sudden mood swings, anxiety on public, express dissatisfaction with the flow of their life. The performance in educational establishments or at work places might also be at risk of suffering from stress. Due to these facts, the level of aggression also rises, which results in failure of interpersonal communication establishment and lack of romantic relations, crowned by low self-esteem and negative perception of the self. It was also discovered that stress in adolescents can also be a subconscious symptomatic reaction to a stressful situation in the family or family members. Moreover, adolescents tend to react by the symptoms of stress more if the mother is depressed, whereas no correlation between the stressful state of the father and the adolescent was found. No significant difference between the stressful reaction of adolescent boys and girls was found.

The post-traumatic stress can be reduced clinically or with the help of a psychiatrist. Individual coping strategies in this age category include active coping strategies, distraction of self with other activities, self-acceptance, and striving for changes. The family members and significant others can also be of a help when try to accept the individual and help one through emotional support, acceptance, and understanding. The symptoms of stress caused by the negative situation can be dealt with psychological help in family group or private sessions, as well as opening up by reproaching the needs and communicating the concerns and issues within the family circle. Searching for a solution as a group will make the adolescent feel a part of the community and raise the level of the feeling of belonging, acceptance, and understanding.

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Adolescence is found to be one of the most stressful periods in a life of an individual. The causes and the symptoms are causes by a series of changes in emotional, cognitive, and physical states of stress, and may vary depending on the age group of adolescents: early adolescents, middle adolescents, and late adolescents. These changes construe the behavior of adolescent individuals and influence the reaction towards stress enhancing situations. Not only the reaction towards stress is age sensitive, but also coping with stress is very individualistic and delicate affair.

The main causes of stress in early adolescents are issues at school relating to peers, teachers and achievement, self-esteem and fear of meeting the expectations of others; problems at home, such as lack or too much discipline, unclear structure, abusive relatives, undernourishment, alcoholism and drug use among the members of the family members; acceptance and understanding; new surrounding, such as school or home; sickness. Middle adolescents face such stress enhancing issues as puberty, social anxiety, relationships, achievements, and overall success. At this stage, adolescence is more predisposed for prolonged depressions. Girls are especially sensitive to becoming overemotional regarding the issues concerning social engagement, whether boys are more predisposed to become stressed over the problems with the teachers or parents. Both genders might be exposed to experiences with alcohol. The late adolescents are at the door of transition into adulthood; therefore, causes of the stress they face are alike to those of adults. Among the stressful causes are found social stratification, relationships, self-esteem, achievement, economic and social pressure, responsibility, alcohol abuse, childhood trauma. At all ages the situation in the family might also be a very influential factor of the stress level in adolescents.

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It is important for the parents to designate when their child is down, as continuous stress might result in much more serious problems as depression, substance abuse and even psychological diseases. The symptoms for stress are linked to the psychological and emotional state of the adolescent, his family or its’ separate members. Among the most widespread is social withdrawal signified by the sudden mood swings, extreme aggression, hostile behavior towards the peers and the members of the family. Emotional disbalance might also be a symptom of the stress. It is designated by low the level of productivity, energy, interest and even. The cognitive dysfunctions include distraction and inability to think and understand clearly.

To sum up, the stress is a very individual reaction of the organism towards an unpredictable action. Despise these differences of stress expression, all age categories of the adolescents have a few common coping strategies. Emotional support from the social circle is also extremely important. Acceptance by the peers and the members of the family helps to support the level of self-esteem and positive self-attitude and normal level of self-criticism. Clear structure of life and good understanding of what one does in life and discipline also helps to keep the low level of stress. Coping with stress at this age is a difficult task, but it is possible if one recognizes the symptoms and has the closest people help overcome the stressful situation by offering comfort, understanding, and support.

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