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I have two teenage boys. Our lives are busy and chaotic, between school, homework, sports and other obligations. My house is messy and teenagers smell really bad. I find myself constantly yelling at them to hurry up, clean up, do this or do that. It never made sense to me that they couldn’t do the simple tasks they were being asked to do in a timely manner. After all, how hard is to run up to your room, put your clothes in the hamper and brush your teeth?

Then it occurred to me that we are always in a rush and rarely have “down time”. The therapist in me began to ponder. Maybe my kids are stressed and overwhelmed. Could it be that I didn’t notice that they’re having a hard time? Me? The therapist who is so attuned to the feelings and struggles of others? There was only one way to know for sure…I had to ask them.

Knowing that if you ask a teenager a question directly face-to-face that one will get, at best, a one-word answer, I took it to text messaging. My older son was in car with his carpool on his way home from high school, and I asked him, “What makes teenagers feel stressed?” I was initially met with “I don’t know”, but I was persistent. I said, “Ask the other kids in the car”, and I told him I wanted to know for an article I’m writing, as I didn’t want him to think it was personal.

The answers were very telling. Here is what they said stresses teenagers:

1)         School

2)         Homework

3)         Relationships

4)         Jobs

5)         Friends

Nowhere is this list was there even any mention of annoying parents or siblings. That seems to be the least of their worries. What are we doing wrong that our teens are so stressed? Or is this just a normal part of growing up? I’m going to say that it is both. Maybe our teens just have too much on their plates. Hours of homework and hours of sports and other activities might be too much. Pressuring them about SAT’s and college doesn’t help either. They have enough to deal with just navigating the waters of friendships and peers at this stage.

So how can you help your teen minimize and manage the stress in his or her life? Here are some useful tips.

Most importantly, just be there. Be supportive and understanding and encouraging. It’s not easy being a teen.

A recent study conducted in The Netherlands demonstrates that participation in regular exercise improves teenagers’ mood, friendship and school success. Yale University child psychologist Alan Kazdin., speaking on NPR, said, “I think it would be too strong to call it an elixir, but it has the broad effects of something like that.”

We all know that exercise is good for you. But this study takes that commonplace idea a step further. It found that teens’ regular exercise – in the form of organized sports, WII activities, or regular jogging or walking – is linked to greater self-esteem and happiness and fewer mood disorders and troublemaking. Because of the large scale of this study, which surveyed 7,000 students between ages of 11 and 16, it’s clear that it’s not that happy kids exercise more. It’s that exercising more makes happier kids.

So what does this mean for parents? It means that gym class should not be cut from the school day, even if by skipping gym there’s room in the schedule for more science or for chorus. It means that kids should be encouraged to actually participate in gym class, instead of sitting on the sidelines.

Participation in daily exercise is easier when commitment is enforced, so participation in team sports is another answer, along with continued training in the off-season. Team sports – anything from field hockey to Ultimate frisbee to soccer – get teens moving. But not everyone likes team sports or has time to fit in regular practices. For these teens, individual daily exercise is a good alternative so long as it is daily.

It’s easy to imagine that being active is only for teens who like running around or only for teens who need to lose weight. In actuality, being active is important for everyone and it seems to have particularly good effects at an age when kids struggle most with social relationships and achievement.

The connection between exercise and achievement is well-established. More active students do better in school. But now we know something more: more active students are easier to live with. That’s an outcome the parent of every teen would like to see.

One more thing: you know you can’t get your child to exercise more just by telling him to do so. If your teen is interested in joining a sports team, encourage that. But if your child is not interested in team sports, then support whatever interest in exercise you can: WII, bike-riding, mountain climbing, swimming, walking the dog. Anything will do as a place to start.

And, as always, setting a good example is important. You still feel like a teenager at heart, don’t you? Get moving and feel like a teenager in your heart and in your core and brain as well!

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.