Teen pitfall: Stress can lead to depression, drug use

Why it's important to understand teen development

What happens when a teen becomes overloaded by stress? Is it more than just a bad day at school?

"Stress can be compared with the pressure that a sculptor places on a piece of marble: the right pressure and it becomes a masterpiece, but too much pressure and the marble breaks into pieces," according to researchers at the National Science Foundation .

About half of the 600 teens surveyed for a 2013 HealthFocus International study said they were "extremely or very concerned" with stress. A lot of them said they were "stressed about their stress."

Because adults and adolescents react differently to stress, the "obvious" signs displayed by adults may not be as recognizable in children. Tuning into emotional or behavioral cues is key to identifying a problem, said the American Psychology Association .

How can you know what's stressing them?

It's a tough question.

But take note, parents -- although there is a mile-long list about what stresses your child, you are the No. 1 factor.

"Data suggest that the greatest sources of stress for teens are parents, while for adults, stress tends to come from work or schoolwork," said neuroscientist Adriana Galván of UCLA.

This type of stress can stem from high expectations, family problems, unstable living conditions, neglect and-or utter avoidance of "family time." 

"While adults are most stressed in the morning, teens are most stressed in the early evening. Data also suggest that teens show greater cognitive impairment when stressed than adults," reports from the UCLA brain study show.

"Family should be part of the solution, not the problem," says Dr. Stuart Bassman, a Cincinnati psychologist.

Dr. Bassman deals with child psychology and depression, saying he tries to mend the child's "emotional muscle" to make their outlook on life stronger.

Stress in teens can also be brought on by a wide-variety of events and changes such as school pressures, poverty, hormones and sexuality, periods of experimentation, bullying, dating, and the pressure to live up to other kids at school or in society.

Stress can come in physical form, too. Headaches, stomach aches, loss or increase in appetite, increased irritability or anger in the form of fits, changing in sleeping habits, crying and uncontrolled reactions, John Hopkins University reports.

Let's take a look at our brains

When we are exposed to stress, our brain interprets the situation as a threat. Our body secrets a hormone that stimulates the pituitary gland to produce another hormone called adrenocorticotrophic (ACTH). This hormone stimulates the adrenal gland which produces adrenaline, increasing our blood pressure and heart rate. We must then react to whatever situation we are in.

The part of the brain that perceives reward from risk, the limbic system, kicks into high gear during adolescence. The part of the brain that controls impulses and engages in longer-term perspective matures later, according to the Developmental Review.

Adolescents have a much harder time stepping back from risky situations than adults. In return, they have a harder time understanding the consequences from these decisions. 

Teens read emotions through a different part of the brain than adults. The John Hopkins study, 'The Teen Years Explained'  reveals results of an MRI study between adults and teens at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. They were shown faces that expressed fear in order to identify with the emotion. About half of the teens got it wrong, mistaking the expression as that of shock, sadness, or confusion. 

"The adolescent brain pours out adrenal stress hormones, sex hormones, and growth hormone, which in turn influence brain development. The production of testosterone increases 10 times in adolescent boys. Sex hormones act in the limbic system and in the raphe nucleus, source of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is important for the regulation of arousal and mood," reports Harvard Mental Health.

What happens next?

If teen stress is not dealt with properly, the chance of them engaging in 'worsening' behavior increases. 

Roughly half of all 12 to 17-year-olds leave their homes during school nights, most of the time without their parents being aware, according to a XIII Teens and Parents Columbia University  report. Imagine it's 10 p.m. -- do you know where your child is, who she or he is with and what they are doing? 

The risk that teens will smoke, drink or use illegal drugs increases if they are highly stressed, frequently bored or have substantial amounts of spending money, according to a study by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Drugs and alcohol lead to insurmountable consequences, not only physically but mentally, in teens. 

An unfortunate result of teen stress can be depression. This can become a serious issue that could result in the teen hurting themselves or others.

Dr. Bassman said he uses the 'Rule of H' to deal with childhood and teen depression. Hopeless, helpless, hapless and hateful are the four H's that he targets. He prefers to incorporate parents into therapy before medicine, saying parents need to play the 'helpful' role in their child's life.

He practices teaching counter-emotional reactions to his patients. Instead of asking, "Why is this happening to me?" he teaches his patients to tighten their emotion muscle and help them see opportunity -- turning the question into a statement, "This is happening to me because... [insert acceptance and responsibility]."

If this becomes a prolonging issue, experts say to seek professional help. For further information on teen depression, click here.

What you can do to help

Addressing the problem is the first step -- and it needs to happen immediately, according to reports from John Hopkins University.

Have daily conversations with your children, even if you feel like you're pulling information out of them. Simple engagements can open the door to a better and healthier relationship. The American Psychology Association recommends listening and interpreting. If your child says "nothing is fun" that should be an indicator that the child isn't enjoying typical activities and you should ask yourself 'why?'

Learn how to manage stress, for you and your child. Learning breathing patterns has proven to help deal with stress so try taking some deep breaths and reassuring yourself that you can handle it. Doctors and experts say that learning to focus on dealing what is realistic, or "what you can control," will help you feel like a weight has been lifted. Dealing with smaller issues will lead to a feeling of accomplishment.

Do what you can to ensure the child or teen is getting proper sleep and exercise. 

If the problem reaches further than your home, seek professional advice and care. Psychologists can devise a plan to help work through the issues.

Resources for help

Directory for teen help

Crisis Center

Indiana Crisis Hotlines

John Hopkins University 'The Teen Years Explained' Resource Guide (105 pgs. total. Stress information on page 38.)

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