What stresses teens in the suburbs? School, competition, peers

A survey of nearly 4,700 suburban seventh- and tenth-graders determined the top three sources of their stress: School, competition and peers.

Not necessarily surprising results, say researchers with North Central College and the Naperville nonprofit organization KidsMatter, who developed and administered the survey last October.

But delving deeper, officials say the survey revealed some concerning coping mechanisms among high-school sophomores, 16 percent of whom reported using alcohol to alleviate stress and 6 percent of whom said they use drugs for that purpose, including marijuana, pain pills, anti-anxiety medications and stimulants.

The survey also revealed what teens think would best relieve their stress, including less homework, more time, better sleep and more opportunities to have their concerns heard and validated by adults.

"Basically we flat-out said, 'What can we do to help you,'" said Patricia Schacht, associate professor of psychology at North Central College and developer of the survey, called the State of the Kids.

Although given to Western suburban residents from Aurora, Bolingbrook, Lisle, Naperville, Plainfield and Woodridge, State of the Kids survey results are representative of students across the region, Schacht said, because they get at common pressure points that make today's teen experience tough.

Things like hefty homework loads, pressure to achieve good grades and overbooked schedules - all ranked as major contributors to school-related stress - affect teens across the region, Schacht said. So do other factors revealed as significant stressors under the competition and peer categories, such as competition for athletic wins, top test scores and personal popularity; or worries about fitting in, being accepted, not having a significant other or being bullied.

Ranked lower among teen stressors were personal pressure, home life, society and personal health. Competition on social media also was not a high stressor, although cyberbullying was.

"There really is not a single answer to what is going on in our children's lives right now," Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico said. "It's complex."

An average of 73.5 percent of all students surveyed reported feeling moderate or high levels of daily stress. This is detrimental because constant stress can cause difficulty with concentration, focus and functioning, said Gina Sharp, president and CEO of Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville.

"Stress is good, to a degree. We need stress; it gives us a little energy boost," Sharp said. "We want to make sure we capitalize on good stress, not have prolonged bad stress."

So the survey should serve as a starting point, officials said, for adults who want to help teens handle the challenges of their lives without turning to drugs, alcohol or other risky behaviors.

The question becomes, "what can we do as community leaders to help them cope with some of the stressors that they're experiencing?" Naperville police Chief Robert Marshall said. "How can we empower them?"

Naperville leaders so far have responded by hosting a resource fair before Tuesday's State of the Kids presentation and creating a local crisis text line, by which anyone who texts "reach" to 741741 will be connected with a trained volunteer who can be a guide to resources. Survey administrator KidsMatter also is offering a service that allows parents to schedule free, casual meetings with mental health professionals to get advice.

IdaLynn Wenhold, executive director of KidsMatter, said she hopes the State of the Kids survey and the programs developed after it can be a model to other communities looking to address teen stress.

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