School Officials Dissect 'Good' and Bad' Stress on Teens


(Saturday, April 5, 2008 2:22 PM EDT)

Some stress is good for teens: a big test makes them study more, an important soccer game pushes them to practice harder.

But, when does “good” stress turn into “bad” stress?

To help parents learn how to recognize different kinds of stress in their teens, school psychologists Kellen Mountain and Wendy Carria led a workshop on student stress in February, hosted by the Arlington Public Schools Parent Academy. They plan on offering the workshop again next school year.

“Our bodies interpret [good and bad] stress the same way,” Mountain said in a recent interview.

When the seemingly positive pressure from academic and recreational pursuits builds, it can morph into negative pressure and have adverse effects on teens, she said.

Many of today's high school students are taking multiple Advanced Placement classes, are involved in sports and other activities, and are doing everything they can to make sure they get into a good college. Many students push their limits too far.

“A little stress is good; it helps get things done,” Carria said. “But when students aren't getting enough sleep and sacrificing their social life, it's time to take a look their lives.”

If a teen starts to show changes in eating and sleeping patterns, display anxiety, irritability or sadness, or loses motivation to go to school, parents might want to help their child step back and reassess their schedule.

“Parents and students should talk about the difference between what they think they should do and what they actually need to do,” Carria said. “Ask if certain perceptions are true, like ‘Is it true that everyone takes five AP courses?'”

Parents should approach the issue with their teen as a conversation, and a chance to brainstorm on ways to help their child scale back.

But the burden is not only on teens to make the changes.

“Our area is particularly intense, we have highly educated and motivated parents, who want their kids to be even better than them,” Mountain said. “As parents, we need to model better behavior and take a better look at our lives.”

But how should teens handle the pressure if they are in the thick of school, sports and other activities, and not able to back out right now?

“Just stop and take a breath,” Carria said. “Ask yourself, ‘Can I survive this?' or ‘Can I recover?'”

If the answers are yes, then the teens should know they can afford to relax, and they should try and remember for the future that, “it's important to be happy, have a balanced life and have time with friends and family,” she said.

For more information on the Parent Academy and the workshops it hosts, see the Arlington Public Schools' Web site at

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