Why Teens Are So Stressed—And It’s Not Exams, Bullying or Break-ups.
The latest stats show that 1 in 5 students have a mental health issue. I’m sure that as a teacher or parent, that comes as no surprise to you. You experience first hand the tantrums, doors slammed, papers torn, colourful language and outright meltdowns on a nearly daily basis. So why are they so stressed out? Why can’t they seem to cope with the pressures of their final years at school? What’s going on that’s got them lashing out and reacting in such out of control ways?
I bet the list in your head was something like -
Exams and not getting the marks they want.
Social media and not getting the attention they want.
Friends and not getting the boy they want.
Family and not getting the support they need.
I know my list definitely would have gone something like that when I was at high school.
But what if I told you, it’s none of those things?
It’s not even possible for it to be.
Wait - what? How can I even make a big claim like this?
When I was finishing High School I would have instantly retaliated with “Excuse me! You do not know what I deal with on a daily basis! How dare you even suggest it’s not stressful to be in Year 12.. !”
But the truth is - whatever circumstance we face in life, whether it’s failing an exam or going through a family divorce, it is not the factual circumstance itself that determines how we feel and react to it - but our perspective and the way we think about and interpret these situations.
How do we know this is true?
Because if circumstances in and of themselves caused our feelings, then we’d all have the exact same experience for every circumstance.
But we don’t.
We all experience circumstances different because we all apply meaning differently.
It sounds so ‘common sense’, yet so many don’t slow down enough to become aware of our own thinking - we don’t separate it out from circumstances (the factual things we can’t control about our life) to see it’s the true cause of how we feel.
Let’s take a ‘bad exam mark’ for example - your teen may be absolute desolate at their mark because they wanted 70% but ended up with 55%.
They’re woefully spinning in what a ‘bad mark’ it is and how they ‘can’t do this subject’.
But, if we pull apart the factual circumstance from the story their telling themselves about it, we can see there’s a big difference between the objective exam mark (55%) and what they’re making that exam mark mean in their thinking (“That’s such a bad mark”). It is that thought, the meaning they’re attaching to the mark, that is the true cause of their shame or stress or frustration.
Another student could interpret 55% and think ‘Wow, not as high as I was hoping - I wonder what feedback my teacher can give so I can improve for next time?’ - and feel far more empowered or motivated. Same circumstance, different thoughts → different feelings and reactions.
Or perhaps a student is devastated about an ex-boyfriend because he is now dating someone else, just weeks after they broke up. “He is such a liar. He never cared about me. I’m clearly not good enough.” If again we pull apart the neutral circumstance from her thoughts about the situation - you can see the most painful part of the situation is how she’s interpreting her ex-boyfriend’s actions. Of course you’re going to feel devastated if you’re thinking your ex dating someone else means you ‘aren’t good enough’.
But what if the same girl approached the situation with the perspective of ‘Well, at least him moving on means I can close the door on that now, and I wonder when I’ll find another guy who makes me just as happy?” Of course she may naturally feel some sadness as she heals from the loss of relationship, but she is far more likely to feel accepting of the situation and curious about what may come next - as opposed to digging herself deeper into the ditch of self-pity.
I wanted to use these examples as evidence for the fundamental truth that -
Exam marks do not cause feelings.
Break-ups do not cause feelings.
Our thoughts about them do.
This is true for every single situation in your life.
Whether it’s losing your team’s grand final by 1 point,
or losing your sister in split second -
The true cause of how you feel and respond to things is never the factual circumstance.
But our thoughts beliefs about them - what we make our circumstances mean in our own minds about our lives, our world and our worth.
If there was one lesson I wish someone had sat me down and taught me at high school, it is this:
It is that we do not need to try control the world to try control how we feel (because every day there are situations where this isn’t even possible!),
We simply need to learn how to control how we think about and interpret these things.
That is where we have power.
That is where we can develop the strength, courage, creativity and flexibility we need to become resilient.
I know this, because this is my story. This is my truth. This is how I grew from a broken hearted sister battling an eating disorder, through to become one of Australia’s 100 Women Influence and building an entire Charity from the ground up.
I believe it is our responsibility as teachers, parents, mentors and role models, to teach students this lessons about emotional empowerment.
To properly educate them about where their feelings really come from - and how much influence we have over changing them for the better, if we are willing to step up and take responsibility for our own perspectives on things.
This is not easy work - (trust me. I am still practicing this daily myself!)
But it is entirely possible - reframing our perspective to change how we feel and experience our lives for the better is a skill that can be learned, developed and nurtured.
Because our thoughts are all optional, they’re change-able, they are sentences in our mind that we DO how the power to reflect upon, question and redirect to focus on things that bring us more strength, peace and inspiration when we need it most.
Please note, this isn’t teaching them to escape pain or diminish times they may want to feel hurt, or afraid, or grief - of course negative emotion is all a healthy part of the human experience. it’s just helping them understand they can lean into these emotions without fearing they’ll forever engulfed by their existence - because they’ll have a new-found understanding that all the power to change how you feel is in your thinking, and it’s the one place they do have control over.
Teaching our youth this lesson is new my greatest mission.
Because right now, 1 in 14 students are suffering anxiety - and feeling trapped by it.
And rightly so - I mean it makes sense to feel constantly anxious when you’re constantly focused on trying to control the uncontrollable outside of you to try and feel better. It just does not work. Because as hard as they try, there’s always going to be things beyond their control - like having 2 exams on the same day, finding out their friend told someone else a secret about them, or that their Mum walked out on their Dad and now their family life has changed forever.
If we leave them believing that their thoughts are facts, that life just is ‘unfair’ and they can’t change how they feel because they can’t control these circumstances - then we leave them feeling victimised, helpless and out of control. Which naturally leads them to react and lash out in potentially harmful ways to try to escape these uncomfortable emotions - like alcohol, drugs, bullying, sexting or for me it was an over obsession with body image, causing me to lose over 10 kilos and weigh just a wafer-thin 41kg when I finished school.
But, if we can begin to teach them that the true cause of their feelings is something they do always power over, that is when I believe we will begin to put an end to the tragic pandemic of helplessness, hopelessness and youth suicide we are currently facing. Because they will realise they do always have a choice - and from that place of empowerment, true resilience can be built. I know it’s been the case for my journey, and what saved me from completely spiralling into depression after losing my sister.
Now currently your student’s ability to manage their own minds is likely to be lacking, because as kids they didn’t have the capacity to reflect upon their own thinking. But now they’re at an age where they do - which is where my coaching comes in. Because just like any skill, reframing your perspective is something you get better at with practice. But first, we need to equip students with the right strategies and techniques to do this - and after my own personal experience, coaching qualification and hours upon hours of personal development training, I believe I have among the best cognitive-behavioural tools out there to help your students do this.
Through my presentations and coaching I help students understand that the ‘power of our thoughts’ isn’t just fluff, and through practicing how to shift unhelpful thought patterns and beliefs, even in subtle ways, we can change how we feel for the better.
Throughout this blog I will share with you strategies, stories and techniques you can use to teach your teens how to harness the power of their perspective, and develop their ability to choose courage over comfort, compassion over hate, and growth over victimhood -
That is how we build up a generation of resilient individuals fulfilled with their lives - regardless of their circumstances.
Worried that your students won’t listen to these lessons coming from you? Yep, let’s face it - teens are naturally at an age where they resist hearing advice from authority figures. So how about inviting me to deliver these messages personally in a way that they’ll both respect and connect with? If there’s one thing I have a knack for, it’s leaving a lasting impact in their hearts of teens - because they can feel I’m speaking directly from mine. To enquire about a presentation with your Year 10 - 12 students, please CLICK HERE.