Stressed for success

Experts agree that a little stress motivates teens. But how much is too much and what do area kids do to unwind?

After a typically full day, Alina Allen, 15, comes home to hit the books.

A high-achiever, the La Salle-Peru Township High School honor student from Peru keeps busy in choir, various clubs and year-long conditioning and rehearsals for her place on the Cavelettes school dance team. When the stress comes, she goes online, but not to veg on Netflix; instead, she may learn a new song that she perfects on her keyboard over the course of a few days or weeks.

Her brother Jaiden, 13, is equally busy, as a member of the Parkside Middle School’s bands and choirs. In the summers he plays organized baseball, and, at any given time of the year. He treads the boards of area theaters as an actor, where he enjoys the camaraderie of the cast and crew and fully embraces his time there.

When stress hits, Jaiden goes online as his sister does. But instead of learning songs and then expressing himself, he’s more introspective, researching topics that interest him, currently politics and the ongoing trade issues with China.

Teens always have been busy with after-school and weekend jobs, extracurricular activities, and of course, studies. But today’s young people are busier than ever, with the rising popularity of travel sports and other activities that take place outside the school.

Emily Carney, school counselor and chairwoman of Student Support Services at L-P, said she see more stress in youth today than before. A lot of students participate in club sports and travel teams, she says.

Carney points out that these out-of-school activities have existed for a while, but she contends they weren’t as popular as they are today.

“It’s a lot more time-consuming, with weekend events in different places, even out-of-state commitments,” Carney said.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Carney says there are pluses and minuses to students’ increased involvement in travel sports and other outside activities, but she thinks it’s good for students to be involved in general.

“Involved students have a lot more success indicators, so we want them to do those things,” she says. To her, the problem is that kids often don’t handle the responsibilities well.

Missy Killian is a counselor at Illinois Valley Community College.

“Stress and anxiety have been on the uptick for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Students are constantly plugged in, scheduled in a number of activities, with lots of pressure to succeed. This manifests itself in anxiety, and in perfectionism, which can lead to overachievement — ‘I have to succeed at this’ — or underachievement – ‘If I can’t do this perfectly, why should I try?’”

Killian said balance is key.

“Students have to achieve goals and manage responsibilities and get good grades, but they also have to engage in self-care, and a lot of times that isn’t emphasized,” she says. “Getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising, staying connected with people, fostering relationships, and maintaining support networks. It’s important to laugh and feel calm and settled, and relationships can often help that.”

“Stress can be motivating,” she said. “It can put a little adrenaline in our system, and give us a little oomph to accomplish a task, but decompression is part of the equation.”

One family deals with the load

Nikki Mertes of Utica is busy. Her five children range from 19 to 9, and each one is involved in at least one activity.

Seventeen-year-old Emma, 15-year-old Luke and 9-year-old Quinn swim competitively. One activity. Easy, right? Not really.

Emma is on the L-P swim team and her practices are at the school, while Luke and Quinn swim at the Illinois Valley YMCA. Their practice times also are all over the clock. Thirteen-year-old Will chose football, with a completely different schedule and location, and the Waltham eighth-grader also takes freshman algebra at L-P in the mornings.

Her oldest, Jack, goes to Marquette University, and while on the surface managing four kids’ schedules seems easier than managing five, Nikki also is out one driver when Jack is away. It may take a spreadsheet to work out the family schedule each week, but that’s about the limit for the Merteses.

While it’s important to Nikki and husband, Tim, that each child participate in activities, they also understand those activities should be fun and not strictly about achieving goals.

That’s a healthy approach, according to the experts. Structure is OK, according to Killian, “but you don’t see little kids rolling down a hill anymore. I think we’ve gotten away from that.”

Mindfulness – training your brain to slow down and focus and relax – is crucial, she says.

Carney agreed.

“Students are stretching their time as much as they can, and they have to find a balance between ‘What’s my limit?’ and ‘What’s too far?’” she said.

And it depends on the student.

“Some people know their limits or know how to keep a balance, or over time they’ve figured it out what they need to do to be successful,” Carney said.

For instance, the Allen kids have found online resources helpful in decompressing. But one teen’s stress-reliever is another’s enabler of procrastination.

Strike a balance

To help find balance, Carney suggests achieving the proper mindset with music.

“I want the students to have a playlist specific to what they want – a pump-me-up playlist for a few minutes if they need a boost. Or, if they’re stressed, calming music. Music can impact moods. And we’re capable of changing those moods,” she said.

Carney also is a fan of physical activity. Yoga seems to be today’s go-to solution. But she feels an excellent physical-activity option is right in our backyard, and unique to the Illinois Valley.

“Hiking at the state parks is the perfect stress reliever,” she said.