Teenagers in the modern day are under a tremendous amount of pressure. Though it is difficult to imagine, the truth is that the very word “teenager” has been in use for less than 100 years. In the 19th century, there was no marked transition of adolescence; rather a person simply went from being a child to being an adult. Today’s teens require so much time to make the transition that a third stage is even gaining popularity: the stage of emerging adulthood.
All change has both positive and negative aspects. While this cultural development of the teenage years has certainly led to a host of positive benefits, it has also had the unfortunate consequence of making today’s teens more stressed than ever before. Luckily, recent psychological research has provided a key insight into how this stress can be prevented, or at least effectively managed.
Let’s take a look at the most common stressors for teenagers, the mindsets that they generally employ to deal with this stress, and the new strategy that can help teenagers cope.
The Many Pressures of the Teen Years
There are four primary types of stressors that can begin to manifest in adolescence: physical stressors, emotional stressors, academic stressors, and social stressors.
Physically, the teenage years are a period of immense growth and change. There is a massive cascade of hormones that causes a host of physical changes including the development of the sexual organs and body hair. Not only do these changes often lead to confusion and embarrassment, but with underdeveloped emotional maturity, these difficulties can sometimes fester and go unaddressed.
Additionally, on an emotional level teenagers are feeling a struggle to find their unique identity. Author Jeanne Elium writes: “The conflict between the need to belong to a group and the need to be seen as unique and individual is the dominant struggle of adolescence.” This combined with other cognitive developments can lead to an enormous feeling of pressure for teenagers.
Academically, there has never been more pressure placed on academic performance in middle and high school than there is today. Standardized testing for placement in better schools provides an additional pressure on teens.
And as if this academic pressure wasn’t enough, the priority to perform well is often completely subsumed under a much more urgent need for social acceptance. David Brooks, in his work “The Social Animal,” writes thus: “The purpose of high school is to give young people a sense of where they fit into the social structure...Students correctly understand, though adults appear not to, that socialization is the most intellectually demanding and morally important thing they will do in high school.”
The takeaway here is that it is the teenage years can be a time of immense stress for teenagers, and stressors can arise from a variety of sources. Let’s take a look now at the different ways teenagers generally deal with this stress.
Growth vs. Fixed Mindset
Developmental psychologist Carol Dweck has performed research for many years on the idea of mindset. This theory of mindset provides a comprehensive organizational structure that gives insight into the approaches that teenagers take, generally speaking, in dealing with all of the various categories of stress described above. According to the theory, all responses to stress manifest either a growth or fixed mindset.
A fixed mindset is a belief that a person’s abilities come primarily from innate ability or natural talent, and that these abilities are fixed traits that do not change throughout the lifespan. A growth mindset, on the other hand, maintains that performance is based primarily on hard work and effort, and that through dedicated practice anyone can develop skills and grow.
The best example of this difference in mindsets and how it relates to teenage stress is in the classroom. If two teenagers – one with a growth mindset and one with a fixed mindset – both receive a poor grade in a difficult class, they are likely to have two very different responses. A fixed mindset is likely to internalize the event, and think that a bad grade indicates certain negative traits about the individual student such as that they are stupid, worthless, or bad at that subject. A growth mindset would be more likely to take the bad grade in stride, noting how situational factors such as study time, physical state, and content difficulty played more of a role than innate ability.
In this way, it is easy to extrapolate to the various other types of stressors noted above, and to see how having a growth mindset can keep stress from manifesting in the teenage years. Importantly, recent research by Carol Dweck and her colleagues has demonstrated a simple but effective strategy for teaching teenagers how to develop the resilience to stress that marks a growth mindset.
Teaching Teenagers that People Can Change
The simple strategy employed by researchers to teach teenagers how to cope with stress involved one simple message: people can change. Across multiple different research studies, teenagers were given a simple reading and writing task which taught an incremental theory of personality change, where the social aspects of a person’s personality are demonstrated to change over time. The results were nothing short of amazing.
In one study, participating only in this single brief activity led to a nearly 40% decrease in levels of self-reported depressive symptoms after a 9-month gap. In another study, after less than two weeks of daily diary writing about people’s ability to change, teenagers showed reduced stress response and better performance. A later check-in on these diary-writing students showed that they received better grades overall in their first year of high school than those who did not participate in the intervention.
In conclusion, we are in the midst of a period of transition for teenagers, where the amount of responsibility and stress they have to deal with is higher than ever before. However, research supports the idea that if teenagers gain a belief that people can change, which leads to a growth mindset and a feeling of resilience, they can overcome the challenges of the teenage years and go on to lead happy and fulfilling lives.
Oakville Wellness Team
Brooks, D. (2012). The Social Animal: The hidden sources of love, character, and achievement. Random House Incorporated.
Elium, J., & Elium, D. (2012). Raising a Teenager: Parents and the nurturing of a responsible teen. Celestial Arts.
Miu, A. S., & Yeager, D. S. (2015). Preventing symptoms of depression by teaching adolescents that people can change effects of a brief incremental theory of personality intervention at 9-month follow-up. Clinical Psychological Science, 3(5), 726-743.
Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.
Yeager, D. S., Lee, H. Y., & Jamieson, J. P. (2016). How to Improve Adolescent Stress Responses Insights from Integrating Implicit Theories of Personality and Biopsychosocial Models. Psychological Science, 27(8), 1078-1091.