Teen Stress Culture: How A Little Empathy Can Go A Long Way

Could empathy be the key to stress reduction? 

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This blog post is over four weeks late, but you have to understand: I am absurdly stressed. First it was the SAT, then an application for a writing competition; then it was that pre-calculus test and an AP Spanish grammar quiz. After that, I auditioned for the musical, went to my internship at a non-profit, and volunteered at a community garden. Oh, and I have an in-class essay today, plus a presentation on the civil war in Syria. I slept only five hours last night. You slept four hours? Well, the night before I got three, so you can’t even complain. I just have so much on my plate! Wait—what do you mean, “maybe I should quit something”? Are you kidding me? I have to do everything; I just might need some coffee first.

The monologue above is a snapshot of the conversations that happen every day at every school across the nation. In our society, working hard and striving to be the best is highly valued—so much so that it sometimes pushes students to neglect their health in favor of achievement.

Students’ definition of success shouldn’t involve sacrificing mental and physical well being, but they're led to that destructive mindset due to a universal lack of empathy. 

Students lack empathy for each other, believing that only their own stress is valid. Teachers lack empathy for their students and ignore the fact that their class is not students’ only obligation. And parents lack empathy for their school kids, because it’s hard for them to understand the new stressors that 21st century teens face—including a more competitive college admissions process and the inevitable anxiety that emerges from the constant pressure to keep up with social media.  

And yes, my generation is also to blame. My friends and I overload ourselves with work, then babble about how much we have to do. We glamorize stress, but we need to stop. We need to learn how to take care of ourselves.

There are plenty of simple structural changes that schools can implement to help students de-stress, and they all start with just a little bit of empathy. Teachers can grant students occasional homework-free nights, or they can collaborate to create a staggered homework and exam schedule so that students aren’t walloped with a ton of work on the same day. Some schools go to even further lengths to reduce student stress, taking measures like pushing back their start time because it has been proven to lead to a boost in attendance, grades, and mental and physical health.

Stress is inherent to life in fast-moving, competitive societies; it can even be a healthy motivator. However, it is not worth the sacrifice of health and happiness. Young people want to learn how to balance hard work with self-care, so help us learn. Teach us that our well being comes before, not after, the exam we have tomorrow.