Is It Okay For Kids To Feel Stressed Out?

Two weeks ago, I ran a professional development workshop for K-12 teachers about using hip-hop and culturally relevant pedagogy in the classroom

The attendees had a wealth of knowledge and experience in working with students from different cultural backgrounds, and I learned a great deal from these teachers’ perspectives and “best practices” in reaching their students. 

One of the interesting insights was that several schools in the district have a trend that differs from many schools in America.  Because many of the students in this district come from families who place a high value on education and professional success, the students feel like they must be perfect. 

These students are so focused on getting the best grades and becoming highly paid professionals that they stress themselves out and don’t engage in many typical teen socializing activities (including social media). 

The teachers in the workshop felt like the students’ lives were unbalanced, and it made me think back to my own educational experience. 

I definitely felt stressed out in school and college.  I worked late into the night on papers, projects, and assignments.  I didn’t always eat consistently, and any exercise was intermittent at best.  I put ridiculously high expectations on myself to be perfect, which often led to extreme worry, self-doubt, procrastination, and panic before assignments were due. 

But when I look back on those years of my life, I think there was one major factor that made a difference for me: I had supportive parents and friends who cared about me.

It’s okay for kids to feel stressed out if they also feel supported. 

It’s hard for children to become independent when they don’t have their dependent needs met. If kids are worrying about when they will eat next, if they will be victims of violence or abuse, or if anyone loves them, then it is harder for them to feel secure in themselves and their relationships. 

That lack of security can prompt all kinds of sub-optimal behaviors and thought patterns, ranging from depression and dropping out of school to becoming criminals or abusers themselves. 

On the other side of the spectrum, high-achieving students who feel stressed out and unsupported are susceptible to anxiety, destructive coping mechanisms like drug use or self-harm, depression, and a crippling fear of failure. 

Regardless of how students feel unsupported, that feeling is not necessarily a determinant for the negative outcomes listed above.  Plenty of students deal with less-than-ideal family situations and grow up to become positive and productive adults.  But for other students, having unmet dependent needs can limit them and their options in the future. 

So for parents, educators, and caring adults who worry about stressed out young people in their lives, I would encourage you to let those young people know that you are there to support them without judgment.  Sometimes giving those students a safe space to be vulnerable and permission to fail can be the most freeing and helpful act that any adult can do. 

For some specific ways to be that supportive voice in a young person’s life, I recommend listening to teen expert Josh Shipp’s podcast “Parental Guidance,” where he discusses strategies for listening and reaching out to teens. 

When I look back on my educational journey, I don’t regret being stressed out.  I think it helped prepare me for the “real world” and staying focused in the midst of deadlines and uncertainty.  But I also think that I was able to navigate it successfully in part because I didn’t burn out, thanks in large part to the support of my family and community. 

How do you feel about the amount of stress in the lives of young people you know?  Do you think they have adequate support, and what ways have you found to support them?  I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

All the best,


Posted on February 12, 2015 .