High school can be stressful, particularly for students who plan to pursue a higher degree. They fret about their exams, the degree of rigor in their course load, and whether their extracurricular activities demonstrate the character traits that college admissions officers value most—responsibility, leadership, and dedication. Add to that concern about the cost of college tuition and the stage is set for some understandably amped up teens.
Of course, some stress is normal in the life of a teen. And it can, in small doses, even help them optimize performance. But when it starts to affect emotional or physical well-being, it’s time to rein it in. Parents can take steps, financially and emotionally, to help teens through the stress of this transitional time.
Understanding the pressure
Roughly 70 percent of teens today (ages 13 to 17) view anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers, according to the Pew Research Center.1
And frequently cited older research found that teens report their stress level during the school year, and even during the summer, far exceeds what they believe to be healthy. In fact, it surpasses the stress levels reported by average adults, according to a study by the American Psychological Association (APA). Many teens also report feeling overwhelmed and depressed as a result of stress, while others report fatigue and meal skipping due to stress.2
“Stress and anxiety have become increasingly prevalent among adolescents,” said Lynn Linde, senior director of the Center for Counseling Practice, Policy and Research, in an email interview. She noted that many students today feel they need to excel at everything they do and simultaneously be popular on social media. “For many students, perfectionism spills over to the need to be accepted into a specific college that will reinforce their sense of worth — or give their parents bragging rights. So high school students find themselves with no free time as they take on more advanced classes and extracurricular activities to make themselves more ‘marketable’ to college admissions officers.”
Fortunately, there is much that college-bound teens can do to reduce stress during their high school career.
For example, students can:
- Focus on that which they can control — grades, healthy lifestyles.
- Practice relaxation techniques.
- Educate themselves about ways to keep college costs under control.
- Talk with school counselors to be sure they are on track to meet their goals.
Focus on grades
Anxiety often stems from a lack of control. Put teens back in the driver’s seat by coaching them to focus on that which they can control—their grades. Higher academic achievement improves their odds of not only getting accepted to their top-choice schools, but also potentially landing partial or full scholarships to lower the cost.
Similarly, students can also take prep courses, or use free online practice tutorials, to better their SAT or ACT scores.
And they should meet regularly with their school counselor to be sure that their course selections are positioning them properly for their post-graduation goals, which can be a significant source of reassurance.
“Helping students plan their high school program to ensure that the courses they take will allow them to transition to the next step after high school is important, both for college-bound students and those students who may be less sure of their career path,” said Linde, noting college is just one pathway to employment. Others enter the military, enroll in trade schools, or take time off to do meaningful volunteer work while they map out their future. “Students and families are often not aware of the options available, and a knowledgeable school counselor can be extremely helpful in assisting with this exploration process.”
Healthy lifestyle choices
That said, students should not be solely focused on their grades. Students who balance academics with a healthy social life, after-school activities, and unscheduled down time are generally better able to cope with stress.
The American Psychological Association reports on its website that exercise is one of the most effective stress reducers. You need not run five miles a day, but you should engage in activities you enjoy such as team sports, hiking, biking, or walking — and make them part of your regular routine.3
The benefit is that much greater when your physical activity involves a social component, the APA suggests: “Whether you’re into team sports, or prefer kayaking or rollerblading with a friend or two, you’re more likely to have fun — and keep at it — if you’re being active with friends.”
“To maximize your chance of sleeping soundly, cut back on watching TV or engaging in a lot of screen time in the late evening hours,” the APA writes on its website. “Don’t drink caffeine late in the day and try not to do stimulating activities too close to bedtime.”
Yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises can improve focus and help students deal with the demands of daily life, another life skill that can come in handy both personally and professionally as they mature.
Research ways to cut costs in half
High school students who see college in their future should also educate themselves about the costs involved.
Indeed, the sticker price can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
According to the College Board, which administers the SAT, the average published annual cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at a public four-year university was $27,330 for in-state students and $41,150 for nonresidents in 2020-2021. Private nonprofit four-year colleges charged closer to $55,800 per year.4 Most students, however, pay far less than full fare, after factoring in scholarships, grants, and financial aid.
The average annual net price for 2020-2021 for tuition, fees, and room and board at public four-year colleges was $19,490.5
Students should also educate themselves on the various ways to slash the cost of a college degree. For example, they may be able to reduce tuition expenses by half or more by starting at a community college and transferring to a four-year school, leveling down to a less prestigious campus (which may offer high-achieving students more merit aid), choosing a zero-tuition school, or choosing a regional reciprocity program to secure in-state tuition at an out-of-state school. (Learn more: 6 ways to cut college costs in half)
Save for tomorrow
Students can also start saving today for their future tuition, putting birthday money, a portion of their earnings from part-time jobs, and any graduation money they receive aside.
A 529 college savings account, which offers tax-free growth if used for qualified education expenses, can potentially help students make a dent in their future tuition costs before they even start, which can minimize the debt they incur.
Tucking money away in a traditional savings account, however, will also help students establish the all-important discipline of saving, a lifelong habit that may save them from the cycle of debt that many adults experience.
In some cases, teens may not feel capable of managing stress on their own.
Students who feel overwhelmed by school or aren’t sure how to manage the pressure of daily life should never hesitate to talk with a parent, teacher, or trusted adult, the APA suggests. A trained therapist can help them make healthy choices and suggest tools for managing stress that the student may not have thought of.
Parents should also look for signs that their child may be burdened by undue stress and intervene. That includes a change in sleep or eating habits, anxiety, fatigue, and social withdrawal.
“It is important for teens to find someone with whom they can talk about their stress and issues,” said Linde. “Adolescents often lack perspective, so they need help in figuring out that what they are experiencing is normal and that things can get better. A counselor or other trusted adult can help the teen with stress management techniques, help the teen with figuring out what is really doable and time management strategies.”
Perhaps most important, she said, they can help high school students establish realistic expectations and goals.
College-bound teens should be told that there are many schools at which they would be happy and coached to maintain a positive self-image if they get rejected from a school they had hoped to attend.
High school students can maintain a healthy balance by focusing on their grades, their physical and emotional well-being, and speaking with a trusted adult. Those headed for college should also explore their options, meet with school counselors, and research ways to cut tuition costs down to size.
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This article was originally published in August 2018. It has been updated.
1 Pew Research Center, “Most U.S. Teens See Anxiety and Depression as a Major Problem Among Their Peers,” Feb. 20, 2019..
2American Psychological Association, “Stress in America: Are Teens Adopting Adults’ Stress Habits?” 2013.
3American Psychological Association, “How to help children and teens manage their stress” July 6, 2022.
4 College Board, “Trends in Higher Education: Published Prices – National; Table 1: Average Published Undergraduate Charges by Sector and by Carnegie Classification, 2021-22.”
5 College Board, “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020.”