sad kid with bowl of things to control

If you ask middle schoolers about what stresses them out, you will likely get a mile long list, with homework and social pressures near the top. Managing time in an increasingly frenetic world is challenging for most adults. Tweens are often dealing with an increased school workload, and many of my kids have very busy extracurricular lives. And of course, their social worlds are taking on a bigger role in their lives.

When I was young (and to be honest, not much has changed), I ferociously guarded my free time. Part of this was my introverted nature. I recharge my batteries in quiet still spaces. I remember several years ago feeling my own anxiety ramp up, and figured that I needed more downtime, as I must depleting my energy reserves. My solution was to lock down my weekends and evenings. This didn’t help. In fact, it made things worse, and I was at a loss to figure out ‘what my problem was’.

I started reading ‘The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook’ by Edmund J Bourne and came across a ‘Life Events Survey’ that shed a whole new light onto why I might be feeling so overwhelmed for no apparent reason. Upon completing the test I was shocked at how high my stress score was–especially given that I was taking time for myself, and my life was in a really good place.

What I hadn’t realized until that survey, was that the common link with stressors is change. Humans tend to psychologically hang onto changes for a good two years. Changes are not all bad either (changing to a job you love, a great new relationship, moving to a dream location, having a baby), but we have a finite capacity for change. Once we pass a certain point, no matter how good the changes are, we are likely to start exhibiting symptoms of stress and anxiety.

It is important to note that some changes also come with a bundle of other changes attached; If parents are going through a divorce, it may also include a change in living situation, a change in school, which would include a change in all daily routines and friendship circles. That change can change everything.

Some common symptoms include

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Digestive issues
  • Headaches
  • General aches and pains
  • Avoidance/withdrawal
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Moodiness

This realization changed a lot about how I view stress. Often when we feel overwhelmed, especially when we aren’t sure why we feel that way, there is the tendency to beat up on ourselves (and I’ll get into negative self talk later). Taking a moment to think about the changes we have undergone in the last two years can help to reframe our view and reduce the self blame.

Below is a middle school adapted version of that test, thanks to my colleague.

Life Events Survey

Life EventAverage Stress ScoreLife EventAverage Stress Score
Death of a parent100Family conflicts29
Divorce (parent/close family)73Outstanding achievement or award26
Marital Separation (parent/close family)65Change in living conditions25
Jail term in immediate family63Revision of personal habits24
Death of a close family member65Trouble with teacher23
Personal injury or illness53Change in routines at school20
Marriage in immediate family50Change in residence20
Failing an assignment or test47Change in school20
Marital problem in immediate family45Change in recreation19
Retirement in immediate family45Change in church activities19
Change in health of a family member44Change in social activities18
Pregnancy in immediate family40Paying off a big purchase17
Breakup39Change in sleeping habits16
Gain of a new family member39Change in number of family get togethers15
Change to a new school39Change in eating habits15
Change in finances in household37Parent stops work26
Fighting more with parents31Vacation13
Move from middle school to high school36Celebration12
Sibling leaving home29Minor violations of the law (e.g. shoplifting)11

Determine which life events have occurred in your life over the past two years and add up your total stress score.

Between 150 – 300You may be suffering from chronic stress
Over 300You may be experiencing some detrimental effects of cumulative stress

Please note that the stress scores are averaged over many people. The degree to which any particular event is stressful to you will depend on how you perceive it.

What Can You Do?

  • Take stock (and have the kids take stock) of changes kids have gone through in the past two years
  • Remind kids that feeling overwhelmed isn’t a sign of mental or emotional weakness; it is a natural reaction to life changes
  • Make a list of events/aspects of their lives they can and can’t control
  • Make a list of ‘change reducers’ (limiting new activities, creating some routines they can self manage)