High school years should be a great experience, but many demands and rapid changes can make them one of the most stressful times of life. Students today face increasing amounts of schoolwork, a rapidly changing curriculum, assignment deadlines and exams; they worry about selecting careers and post secondary programs, and they must balance schoolwork with sports, hobbies and social life. They have conflicts with parents, friends, siblings; have to cope with unpredictable moods, concerns about appearance, fitting in with a peer group - and also handle love relationships and sexuality. Money is always a worry, as is dealing with issues of alcohol and drugs - and now there's a new fear of violence in and around schools. As if that wasn't enough, they have to deal with all this while undergoing rapid physical and emotional changes - and without the benefit of life experience.
But on the positive side, these challenges are perfect for developing what many experts believe is more important than IQ in predicting future success in work, personal and financial life: the 'Emotional Quotient' or 'EQ' . The EQ includes: awareness of one's emotions, strengths and limits, developing self esteem, taking responsibility, having empathy for others, self-control, and setting high standards while being persistent in the face of obstacles. Here are some other skills that will help students thrive at high school - and beyond:
Learn to balance the demands on your time. Plan well in advance (leaving time to just veg out!), get organised - and fight procrastination. With a vivid picture of your goals in mind, stay ahead of schoolwork from day one - do it first, limit TV, and refuse to waste 20 hours a week working to buy stuff you don't really need.
Practise effective worrying: list stresses and look for solutions - or change your attitude. Understand stress symptoms: tiredness, poor concentration, headaches, stomach trouble and insomnia. To control symptoms, learn relaxation and mental imagery techniques, then adapt them to improve memory, sleep - and performance in presentations and exams. Hard exercise relaxes and makes you feel stronger and more confident, but too much caffeine, alcohol and other drugs will do the opposite.
Anxiety levels depend largely on our thoughts about a situation, so be accurate - how bad is it on a scale of 1-10? Is it terrible - or just inconvenient? Learn from mistakes or bad situations and realize they won't last forever. Don't forget to use laughter to reduce tension and put things in perspective. Volunteer work doesn't just look good on a resume - it reduces stress and makes you feel better about yourself.
Communication skills - assertiveness, listening, resolving conflicts and dealing with difficult people - help you make friends and deal effectively with teachers (and parents!) Find support from friends, family and teachers - how have others you respect handled similar situations? Many schools now provide information and courses on stress.
Prolonged stress can lead to depression and even thoughts of suicide, so if you feel totally overloaded, or life seems hopeless, seriously consider professional counselling, it's not a sign of weakness.
Parents often feel stressed and frustrated too, but they must realize that the brains of teens are physically different from adults, they don't see things in the same way, and they react differently. Parents can help enormously by setting a good example, being patient, spending time with teens and really listening to them , accepting and loving them unconditionally, setting limits according to maturity - but allowing them to learn from mistakes. They can help teens recognise their emotions, develop coping strategies, and build on their talents so that they leave high school ready to take on the new challenges of adult life.
Dr. Rainham is the author of the book 'Stressed Out' - Taking Control of Student Stress', an interactive Teacher's Guide, and other student stress and coping materials. For more information, visit www.optimumhealth.ca or call 1-800-771-5776
Dr. David Rainham is a family physician, author and speaker.