Being a teenager (and a young adult) can be incredibly stressful. In a recent survey, the American Institute of Stress found that 64% of people between ages 15-29 are experiencing high levels of stress. Meanwhile, 61% of middle schoolers reporting feeling a high level of pressure to get good grades.
“If you look at stress surveys for teenagers from ten years ago, we are looking at statistically significant gains in their stress levels,” said Sheryl Ziegler, a licensed professional counselor and author of the book Mommy Burnout: How to Reclaim Your Life and Raise Healthier Children in the Process. “Relative to just a decade ago, it’s significantly higher.”
Even a decade ago, though, teenagers reported feeling higher levels of stress than their parents, with 31% of them reporting feeling overwhelmed due to their stress, and 30% reporting feeling sadness as a result.
How to recognize signs of burnout in your teen
Burnout is the result of chronic stress. Signs of burnout include mental and physical exhaustion, irritability, changes in sleeping patterns, whether it’s sleeping too much or too little, along with physical symptoms like recurring headaches or stomachaches.
“Emotional exhaustion in a teenager a lot of times looks like depression,” Ziegler said. If a teenager is losing interest in their usual activities, seems unusually irritable, distracted or cynical, or otherwise seems to be under a lot of stress, it might be a sign that burnout is the culprit.
As Ziegler notes, burnout is a combination of these mental, physical, and emotional symptoms. “You are looking for all of this colliding together,” she said. “Burnout is chronic stress that goes untreated.”
The distinction between a teenager dealing with manageable levels of stress versus being burnt out is whether a break from the stress is enough to help them recharge. If going on vacation or recharging over the weekend helps them feel better, that’s a sign that they are stressed, but not burnt out. If a vacation or change of scenery doesn’t help them feel better, that’s a sign that their stress has progressed to burnout.
How parents can help burnt-out teens
If your teenager does seem to be dealing with burnout, there are a number of ways parents can help. The most important thing parents can do is to “watch for the level of pressure that is in your child’s life,” Ziegler said. “Try and get a sense of their subjective level of pressure. We cannot function for a full year at a 10 out of 10. That’s a recipe for burnout.”
When it comes to the stresses that teenagers are experiencing, it may be all too easy to dismiss their concerns as trivial, or to try and comfort them by saying that it will be alright. Ziegler cautions against this impulse. “Do your very best to not judge it, because it leaves the door open for more conversation,” she said.
As parents, our instinct is often to try and solve their problems for them. Instead, “brainstorm with them things that make them feel more relaxed,” Ziegler said. “Teenagers are often very resistant to what their parents have to say.” Instead, working with them to find ways of relaxing or letting off steam can help teenagers find the answer that is best for them.
“Another really good balance is helping your teenager understand how they can have quiet downtime,” Ziegler said. “We all need quiet time and alone time.” When it comes to helping them figure out ways to have quiet downtime, this will often include having a conversation about their phone use. “Teenagers, what they do is retreat to their rooms, where they are on their device, and that’s not relaxing,” Ziegler said. “It feels like it is relaxing, but actually, for your brain, it’s not.”
Instead, parents can help their teenagers brainstorm ways of relaxing—taking a nap, meditating, or even just staring at the ceiling for ten minutes. “What that’s doing is learning to quiet the mind without it being stimulated,” Ziegler said.