April 14, 2016 -- Parents say their teenage daughters have higher levels of stress than their teen sons, citing causes such as college prep tests and poor body image, a WebMD survey shows.
While we all feel some tension at times, more than half of parents (54%) rate their teens' stress at moderate to high levels, according to the survey of 579 parents of kids 13 to 17 years old.
And nearly one-third of parents (28%) say their teen is sad or depressed, with the level higher in girls (32%) than boys (24%).
”Stress is inevitable,” says Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, a professor of pediatrics at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. But “the choices (teens) make to react to stress will determine their health and well-being for a lifetime.”
Girls were more likely than boys to tell their parents they were stressed (58% vs 45%) and parents were more likely to say their daughters had symptoms that could indicate stress.
Those red flags include:
- Physical symptoms such as stomach problems, headaches, and chest pain (44% for teen girls, 31% for teen boys)
- Sadness or depression (32% vs. 24%)
- Problems sleeping (31% vs. 29%)
- Feeling constantly pressured, hassled, and hurried (31% vs. 28%)
- Anxiety or panic attacks (25% vs. 17%)
It’s unclear why parents report higher levels of stress in girls, says WebMD medical editor Hansa Bhargava, MD.
“It could be that girls are more likely to show outward signs or to express that they’re stressed. Boys may also be more likely to internalize their stress and not express it. The key for parents is to keep communication lines open and talk to their teens often, regardless of whether they’re boys or girls.”
Other warning signs could be misinterpreted as “bad” or as typical teenage behavior, Ginsburg says.
“I am so happy that parents recognize that there is stress in their kids’ lives, but it’s very important that they understand how stress might appear. It’s not just what they say. It’s also those kids who might act out really irritably or those kids who might have rage.”
The tension can also lead to destructive habits. Asked about those, parents said overeating was the top behavior, in about 15% of both boys and girls. Cutting, or self-mutilation, was second, with 9% of teen girls and 3% of teen boys.
Parents who reported moderate to high levels of stress in their teens cited homework (68%) and conflicts with parents (36%) as the top two causes of stress for both genders. But parents of teen girls were also more likely to report higher levels for causes of stress in their daughters in five areas. They were:
- Friends (38% vs. 20% for boys)
- Getting into a good college or deciding the future after high school (33% vs. 20%)
- Poor body image (32% vs. 19%)
- Dating or relationships (27% vs. 17%)
- Standardized tests/college entrance tests (24% vs. 17%)
"It seems that teen girls continue to be stressed about body image while also dealing with the other pressures of homework and friends,” Bhargava says. “We need to continue to help them better define themselves by who they are, not what they look like.”
The top reported stress causes aren’t surprising, says Ginsburg, author of several books including Building Resilience in Children and Teens and Raising Kids to Thrive.
But, he says, “remember, this is what parents know, because it’s what kids talk about.”
“The most important thing in parenting,” Ginsburg says, “is to be the kind of parent that kids will tell when there’s something going on in their lives, and that is about open communication, holding down dramatic reactions, and being a sounding board.”
How do teenagers deal with their stress? Listening to music (71%) was the top choice, parents of both boys and girls say, followed by watching movies or television (58%).
But girls are more likely than boys to turn to:
- Texting or social media (57% vs. 38% of boys)
- Reading (38% vs. 22%)
- Art, music, or creative activities (36% vs. 22%)
Boys, meanwhile, were more likely than girls to turn to:
- Playing video games (66% vs. 22%)
- Sports/exercise (46% vs. 40%)
Feared habits such as drug use stem from teens' attempts to manage stress, Ginsburg says.
“Telling kids what not to do is a small part of the battle. Prepare kids to know what to do to manage stress,” he says.
“Sometimes you want to escape your emotions through a book or mindfulness, but sometimes you have to express your emotions in healthy ways,” such as singing, writing, or talking with someone, he says.
Parents are also concerned about their teen’s social media use. More than half say they talk to their child about web sites they should use and when to use them, while more than 4 in 10 say they “follow” their teen on social media and/or look at their phones or text messages. One-third say they restrict use of electronic devices before bedtime.
Tiffany Hansen, of Lee’s Summit, MO, says she tends to trust her 16-year-old daughter, Dayne, on social media. She is friends with her daughter on Facebook, but Dayne doesn’t use it often. She’s also peeked at her daughter’s Twitter and Instagram accounts. Dayne’s 22-year-old brother is also watching on Twitter, though, and “I’m very confident he would make me aware” of any problems, Hansen says.
While Dayne has a tracker on her phone, Hansen says she’s told her she won’t use it unless it’s an emergency.
”The best way to cope with social media and increased usage of the Internet is better relationships and talking,” Bhargava says. “The Internet and social media is a reality of today. It’s a hangout place. How are you going to deal with it? Like you’d deal with them going to any other physical place -- set parameters around where, when, how long, and talk to them about it frequently.”
Hansen tells her daughter, “I’m going to trust until you give me a reason not to. That’s a sign of respect, and she doesn’t want to lose that.”
Even with good communication, teens may still try to keep things from their folks. Nearly half of parents (48%) say their teen has tried to hide something from them. Teen boys tended to hide a problem with school or grades, with 35% compared to 26% of girls.
Teen girls were more likely to hide social problems, such as:
- Problems with friends or a boyfriend/girlfriend (21% of teen girls vs. 11% of teen boys)
- Bullying/teasing or altercations (17% vs. 11%)
- Inappropriate use of social media, such as sexting (14% vs. 9%)
Slightly more than 1 in 4 parents say someone else has informed them about problems their teen might be having -- particularly for teen boys. Teachers are the top informers, with parents hearing more about boys (23%) than girls (13%).
“The takeaway here is to listen to your child’s village,” Bhargava says. “Sometimes teachers, uncles, aunts, and friends may be able to let you know what’s going on in your teen’s life.”