Moms (and Dads) on a Mission–Teen Stress

Last year, Kerry Dickinson wrote often for this blog about the ways in which she was trying to change homework policy in her Danville, California, community. At the end of the school year, the school instituted a new homework policy. That doesn’t mean that Kerry has stopped. (Type her name into the search box to read about all of her prior activities.)

Recently, she wrote an article for the San Ramon Valley PTSA Healthy Choices Newsletter. I urge you to read it and I encourage you to write for the print media in your community as well.

Teen Stress
by Kerry Dickinson

The San Ramon Valley is a beautiful, privileged, affluent, and successful community. At times, life can seem almost perfect here. Even in this community, however, serious problems affect our teens. “Affluent kids are two to three times more likely to suffer from depression and to self-medicate with drugs than any population,” according to Dr. Denise Pope, speaking at a recent conference in Marin(i). Teen stress can come from different sources in our teens’ lives, including school, family, friends, and even extra curricular activities, for example.

There are many aspects of school that can cause stress for teens. Ideally, teens should be engaged in school and self motivated (see “Commitment to Learning” from the 40 Developmental Assets)(ii). Often, instead of focusing on learning, however, teens find themselves under pressure with regard to grades, test scores, homework, and the college application process. Teens are rewarded for their performance with regard to school, and this external motivation places much stress on them. Dr. Michael Riera spoke at SRVHS in October and reminded parents that praise should be limited to comments about their students’ effort, not their performance. For example, instead of saying, “You are really smart, you got an A,” say, “You really worked hard on that assignment (iii).”

The family should be the ultimate source of love and support for the teenager (see “Support” from the 40 Developmental Assets). Dr. Ken Ginsberg tells us that in order for our teens to be resilient, parents need to unconditionally believe in them and hold them to high standards(iv). Because this is the time in life when teens shift from concrete to abstract thinking, teens will argue with parents, practicing their ability to use abstract thinking. Unconditional acceptance and love will foster greater communication between parents and teens during these times of argumentation. As Dr. Riera explained during his lecture, parents are essentially the “managers” of their children while they are young. But as children become teenagers, parents are essentially fired as the children’s “managers” until their children are ready to rehire them at a later date as “consultants.” Consultants don’t lecture, but remind teens to listen to the voice in their head that knows what is right and to operate within established family boundaries and expectations.

A teen’s daily life can be stressful because of problems with friends as well. The 40 Developmental Assets remind us that a positive peer influence plays a major role in a teen’s life (see “Boundaries & Expectations”). A young person’s best friends model behavior for the teen. However, Dr. Riera reminds us that teen attitudes are influenced more by parents than peers. Parents should be sensitive to the fact that a teen can have a difficult day at school because of issues that arise with friends. Dr. Denise Pope, co-founder of, advises parents to connect with teens at the end of the school day by asking them questions about how their day went with their friends, instead of focusing on academic questions.

While extracurricular activities are important for teens, maintaining balance for a healthy lifestyle is critical for teens so that they do not feel overburdened or stressed on a daily basis. As Madeline Levine noted at the recent Stressed Out Student conference at Stanford University, “we don’t have families on school nights anymore, we have machines.” Teens should be able to participate in some creative activities while also spending quality, down-time at home (see “Constructive Use of Time” in the 40 Developmental Assets). Their lives should not be overly structured and adult-directed during their waking hours. When teens are constantly told what to do by adults (e.g., parents, teachers, coaches) they become fragile and afraid to make decisions and take risks on their own(v). Parents need to remember that it is acceptable not to sign up their teenager for every available extracurricular activity. Down time, especially for teens, is critical for their mental, emotional and social growth and development. It is also critical for students to get plenty of sleep(vi).

Teen stress is real and some of the causes can be related to school, family, friends and extracurricular activities. Stress in teens can result in depression, anxiety, bulimia, anorexia, ulcers, cutting, drugs, drinking, cheating, lying and even suicide(vii). While families are fortunate to live in an area that offers so many choices to our teens, parents must realize that providing teens with everything, both in terms of material possessions as well as over-crowded schedules, isn’t always the right decision for the student. Dr. Wendy Mogel noted at a recent lecture in San Francisco that “we worship at the idol of our children’s achievements” instead of having a broader vision of our students(viii). When adults focus on teens’ performance and achievement over effort and a healthy balance in life, they unwittingly rob teens of their young years and often cause them stress.**

Titles referenced in this article listed in the endnotes below marked by * can be checked out from the SRVHS Parent Resource Library located in the Career Center.
**Dr. J.B. Humphrey will be speaking at the SRVHS Parent Evening, January 13th, 7PM, in the SRVHS Commons. His topic, “Got Moods?”, will cover adolescent brain development and related mood disorders, such as depression, ADD/ADHD, addiction and more. Some of the symptoms of these various disorders are common teen issues, some have other causes, such as stress and physical or other emotional issues. All parents are invited to attend; there will be time for Q&A.

(i) Pope, Dr. Denise. Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, Miseducated Students* (Integrated Publishing Solutions: Grand Rapids, MI) 2001.

(ii) See the 40 Developmental Assets on the SRVUSD web site. Or follow the links from the SRVUSD home page: “Community,” “Safe School Resources,” “Healthy Kids Survey,” and “40 Developmental Assets Presentation.” This site also has a checklist parents can use to assess how many assets exist in their students’ lives to encourage positive development and success.

(iii) Riera, Dr. Michael. Staying Connected to Your Teenager* (Da Capo Press: Cambridge, MA) 2003.
— Uncommon Sense for Parents with Teenagers* (Celestial Arts: Berkeley, CA) 2004.

(iv) Ginsberg, Dr. Ken. A Parent’s Guide to Build in Resilience in Children and Teens (Printed in the United States of America) 2006.

(v) Honore, Carl. Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting.* (Harper Collins: NY) 2008, pp12, 15.

(vi) See the EPIC article on Teen Sleep on the SRVHS website at

(vii) See the EPIC newsletter on Child and Adolescent Depression in the November SRVUSD “Community Newsletter” or read it on the District website or follow the links from the SRVUSD homepage to “Community,” “Safe School Resources,” and “Parent Education Resources.” The article contains a number of book and website references on symptoms of adolescent depression.

(viii) Mogel, Dr. Wendy. The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. (Penguin Group: New York, NY), 2001.

5 thoughts on “Moms (and Dads) on a Mission–Teen Stress

  1. I have lot of homework due in the next few days as the school year ends and is causing me a lot of stress. The reason I found this is that i have to do a speech for my English class, and i had currently completed a major grade in my science class.


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