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Teenage health in Hong Kong: How to tackle teen stress

Dr Quratulain Zaidi of MindNLife discusses the pressure we put on our teens to achieve, some of the possible ramifications of too much stress, and some strategies to help overcome it.

Screaming for attention
Screaming for attention


Our teens are exposed to the kind of stress that we, as adolescents, did not know. Daily stressors today include technology and social media, school demands, relationships, blurred boundaries, and academic expectations in a highly competitive educational environment.

On top of that, we are a generation of achievement-oriented parents. With all the well-meaning intentions to be good parents, we do place extra demands on our teens in the form of extra-curricular activities that often require proof of success. Their timetables are invariably planned to the minute.

The subtle, underlying message our kids receive is that they have to excel at everything they try. And even if parents don’t have these kinds of expectations, peer pressure is enough for them to know if they are falling behind. It places teens under a great deal of stress.

Research shows that unchecked stress can lead to depression, aggression, anxiety and physical illness. Teens often find ways to escape by spending hours in front of a computer screen, or getting involved in drug or alcohol use. These are unhealthy coping strategies, but fortunately there are ways that parents can help:

  •  Regularly monitor your children’s health, behaviour, thoughts and feelings for how stress may be affecting them.
  • Listen carefully to your children and curb the temptation to enrol them in too many activities. It’s often enough for them to finish their homework and kick a ball around.
  • Support involvement in sports and other pro-social activities.
  • Most importantly, learn to manage your own stress and to model stress management skills.

Teens can also benefit immensely from having a toolbox of skills and habits that will help reduce stress now and in future. Here are some ways your teen can establish a healthy physical and emotional lifestyle, with your help:

  •  Exercise regularly.
  • Get enough sleep. Teenagers need as much sleep as small children — about 10 hours. By comparison, eight hours is considered optimal for most adults.
  • Eat nutritious foods that support good health. Avoid sugary, highly processed foods.
  • Avoid excess caffeine intake to minimise feelings of anxiety and agitation.
  • Learn relaxation exercises (e.g., abdominal breathing and progressive muscle relaxation techniques).
  • Develop assertiveness training skills. For example, state your feelings in a polite but firm way: “I feel angry when you shout at me. Please stop shouting.”
  • Rehearse and practice situations that cause stress. For example, practice talking in front of your parents/friends if talking in front of a class makes you anxious.
  • Learn time management and organisation skills. For example, break a large task into smaller, more attainable tasks.
  • Challenge negative thoughts about yourself with alternative neutral or helpful thoughts. “My life will never get better” can be transformed into “My life will get better if I give myself permission to work at it and maybe get some help”.
  • Learn to feel good about doing a competent or “good enough” job rather than demanding perfection from yourself and others. Remember: a finished assignment is a good assignment.
  • Take a break from stressful situations; do things that fill you up – activities like listening to music, drawing, writing, or spending time with a friend who makes you laugh can reduce stress.