Worrying is a universal currency that spans generations, but the world of teenage worry is relatively self-contained and probably no different to the one I inhabited as a teenager more than 30 years ago.
The teenage years are an emotional roller coaster, full of highs and lows which create a permanent sense of high drama and the perfect breeding ground for worry. The truth is teenagers can be just as worried as adults sometimes but managing our teenagers’ worry requires a different skill set.
I may have been there, I may have got the t-shirt, but that doesn’t mean that I have all the answers and I need to be careful not to trivialise my teens’ concerns with dismissive comments of assurance that they are worrying about nothing and everything will be fine. That just doesn’t wash. Even if I have heard the same worry emerge from their mouths before, the important thing is always for them to feel that each and every time it is unique both to them and me.
So what are the main things that teenagers worry about?
- School Work & Exams
Well it is no surprise at all that this is the primary source of worry for teenagers. Now more than ever before our teens are under increasing pressure to secure those top pass grades, the A’s and the A*’s in order to stand out in the crowd of high achievers. Once they get to secondary school it is a cycle of constant assessments, all geared towards encouraging them to aim higher. The pressure to succeed is monumental and as a parent you can do little to remove that pressure just alleviate it.
As well as the external pressures at school there are also the internal ones too. No-one likes to be at the bottom of the class and this creates a level of competitiveness among the teens as they worry what each other will think if they don’t do well. With good grades comes success and with success comes admiration. Whilst this can be productive in terms of encouraging them to work harder, it also results in more undue stress.
Without question friends are one, if not the most important elements of a teenager’s life and have a significant impact upon their sense of self-worth. The family takes more of a back seat as they strike out on the road to independence as a teenager and developing their own friendships as a result of emotional connections they have made on their own without parental input is a big part of this.
As well as making friends, with the secondary stage also comes the inevitable crises around falling out with friends and a teenagers’ stress levels can be greatly affected by what’s happening within their circle of friends.
I have written previously about my daughter’s own traumatic toxic friendship scenario, but there is rarely a week goes by when she does not return from school with news of yet more “beef” (ie arguments) between various girl groups at her school, which can range from a minor disagreement to a full blown cat fight.
As a parent to both sexes, however, I have to say girls are definitely the worst in this regard. If boys fall out they just draw a line under it, move on and never look back. Not so with girls. There are layers and layers of analysis and debate that go into every disagreement and lots of worry, tears and drama!
- Peer Pressure & Opinion
Unfortunately people are often judged on who their friends are but nowhere so much as at school. In every secondary school there are different tribes or cliques and there is always a “cool” gang, generally made up of those who are not afraid to push the boundaries of authority, whether this is wearing make-up, hitching their skirt up, wearing trainers instead of school shoes or going to a party and drinking underage.
Their behaviour is attention seeking but to those teens on the outside they are brave and cool. They are revered not because everyone else necessarily wants to do what they are doing but because they have the courage to do it and seemingly get away with it.
At my daughter’s school the “cool” gang is referred to as the Queen Bees and there is a bizarre anxiousness among those on the outside as to what the Queen Bees might think of them. No-one wants to be thought of as the geek after all.
As a result of situations like this, it is easy to see why some teens worried that they don’t fit in may feel pressure to do things which are normally out of character, to secure a place with the “in crowd”. My son battled for a while with being part of the “in crowd” but his refusal to take up smoking resulted in him being ostracised. It is a time when a teenager’s self-confidence and strength of character is really tested. As a parent there is little you can do other than hope they will stand true to the values you have instilled since birth.
Teens experience a whole range of different bodily changes, some of which can affect the way they look quite drastically like acne and this can cause a lot of worry. I have written about how this has affected my teens previously and it is without doubt one of the most debilitating phases of growing up. Even now with the worst behind them my teens are still very conscious of their skin and what others may think.
It affects boys and girls in different ways but the fact remains that appearance is important. We all worry at some point in our lives about how we appear to others but for teenagers more than most it is a big deal. Teenagers are all about working out who they are and what they want to be and how they present themselves to the outside world is a large part of that. No-one wants to be the odd one out or god forbid laughed at for wearing the wrong thing. As ridiculous as it might seem, in teenager world how you look speaks volumes.
An unsettled home environment is very stressful and having experienced the breakdown of a marriage firsthand I am only too aware how destructive that can be for a child of any age, but teenagers more than most are highly tuned to changes in the household status quo and to conflict.
Life is not perfect and there will be moments of unrest in everyone’s life but as a parent it is our job to recognise the impact our actions may have upon our teens and to alleviate any worry they may have by protecting them from exposure to our own periods of angst as much as possible. For our worried teenagers the family unit provides them with a safe haven and respite from their anxieties.
In my relatively limited experience of 18 years as a mother to two teenagers I have found myself faced with a range of scenarios I went through myself, yet whilst my worries may have been the same, there is no doubt that there are far more external pressures in this world our teenagers are in than the one I grew up in, that only serve to exacerbate the worry they feel.
Parenting teenagers is stressful and joyful in equal measure and as parents we worry for them. Mac at Reflections From Me wrote a great post about Letting go of worry which reminded me that sometimes we do need to learn how to manage worry and let it go as many of the things we worry about just don’t happen. That is a tough message for our worried teens to digest but they can benefit from our guidance to minimise any growing anxiety.
Like many other parents I don’t have all the answers but I have certainly gained from sharing my experiences and taking advice from others. Just as I say to my teens, talking about life’s stresses and knowing you are not alone makes a huge difference, after all a problem shared is a problem halved.