US Kids’ Mental Health Hits Record Low

by | Feb 17, 2011 | Depression and Suicide, School Success and Learning, Stress

The Kids Are NOT All Right Folks!

Report shows U.S. college freshman stress hitting record high levels and their mental health plummeting to a 25 year all-time low. Findings and solutions I shared on the TODAY Show last week.

We spend all that time drop our kids off college and promise them that they’re going to have the “best four years of their lives.” But a new report shows that our offspring may be in for a rude awakening and not be faring as well as we’d hoped. Oh, they’re smart all right, but recently-released research finds that they appear to be the saddest and overwhelmed group in a quarter of a century

A recent study, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,” from UCLA researchers shows that college freshman are more stressed out than ever, with pressures ranging from academic competition to the economy to financially-pinced parents.

The study surveyed more than 200,000 incoming freshman and found that only 52 percent rated their emotional health as above average, compared to 64 percent in 1985. The results mark the 45th year of the study, which has involved over 15 million American students. This year’s survey was administered at 279 colleges and universities.

Results show more students are arriving on campus feeling overwhelmed and with lower emotional health indicating higher stress in college and the need for mental health support.

Of course, stress doesn’t just happen to teens. It can start mounting at an early age (as early as preschool!) and can turn into physical ailments, hinder their immune system, behavioral problems as well as increase our children’s likelihood for depression. In fact, unhealthy stress can impact our children’s physical, mental, cognitive, moral, and social development.

If you’re feeling stressed yourself, there’s hope. You can learn to recognize your kids’ stress signs and teach them healthy ways to manage it.

Research shows that those college freshman who are more likely to be adjusted and have lower stress levels did so because they learned healthy ways to reduce stress before going away.

Raising Mentally Healthier, Less-Stressed Kids

The TODAY show asked me to report on the study and provide solutions to turn this troubling trend around. Here are the tips I gave.

Get your home stress in check!

A recent study found that 85% of teens say they are stressed. The number one cause: stress at home!

Take a home climate check. Are there opportunities for your family to relax? Make sure your home is a place where your kids can de-stress. Is there time for laughs and fun? Are there opportunities for the kids and you to enjoy one another? Are there regular family meals?

Build in times where you and your kids can relax. Turn the garage into a gym. Set up a basketball hoop. Buy bikes at a garage sale or a yoga tape to pop into the DVD player and do together with your daughter.

Check the schedule: Is there time for your child to decompress? Is there one thing on that calendar that can be cut to free up time?

Watch for stress builders. Sleep deprivation, poor nutrition and lack of exercise can exacerbate stress. Try to keep your child to a regular sleep schedule. Watch caffeine intake in items such as coffee, energy drinks, cold and cough syrup medication which can rob sleep. Turn off any digital screen 30 minutes prior to light’s out.

Take care of yourself! Parents can be a “stress generator” so watch your own behavior. Are you for the most part calm and relaxed or stressed and uptight? Kids mirror our behavior and take our cues from us.

Learn your kid’s stress signs

Each kid responds to stress differently, but the key is to identify your child’s “normal” behavior and then what deviates from that norm especially during the time he or she feels “pushed” or “frustrated” or “overwhelmed.” If you tune into those times you usually will recognize a pattern — the child does the same physical behavioral or emotions signs emerge right before on overload. That will be your cue to help him decompress. It is critical that your teen learn to recognize his own signs so when away he can learn to manage or cope that stress load. Here are common stress signs to look for.

Possible Physical Stress Signs

Headache, neck aches and backaches

Nausea, stomachache

Shaky hands, sweaty palms, feeling shaky, lightheadedness

Trouble sleeping

Change in appetite


Frequent colds, fatigue

Possible Emotional or Behavior Stress Signs

New or reoccurring fears, anxiety and worries

Trouble concentrating, frequent daydreaming

Restlessness or irritability

Social withdrawal, unwilling to participate in school or family activities

Moodiness or sulking

Inability to control emotions

Acting out, anger, aggressive behaviors such as tantrums, disorderly conduct

Teach stress reducers

There is no “right” stress reducers. The trick is to find the one that works best for your child.

For younger children (preschoolers):

Blow those worries away. Teach breathing skills by telling kids to blow up a balloon in their tummy as you slowly count to three, and then let out with an exaggerated “ahhh” sounds they use at the doctor’s office. Kids can also practice taking slow, deep breaths using a bubble blower until they get the right “feel.”

Melt the tension. Tell your child to make his body feel stiff and straight like a wooden solider so that every bone from his head to toe is “tense” (or “stressed”). Then tell him to make his body limp (or “relaxed”) like a rag doll. Once he can make himself relax, he can find the spot in his body where he feels the most tension; perhaps his neck, should muscles, or jaw. He then closes his eyes, concentrates on the spot, tensing it up for three of four seconds, and then lets it go.

For school age children:

Teach a stress buster formula of 1 + 3 + 10. This is three step approach that kids can apply wen they feel their body getting tense. The “1” is to first stop and tell yourself, “Be calm.” The “3” reminds them to take three deep breaths. Then they should count slowly to ten inside their heads. You might print the formula on large pieces of paper to help kids remember it.

Make a ‘Stress Box.’ Invite the whole family to fill a shoebox with simple and proven stress reducers such as a notepad and pencil (to draw or write their stress away); a small Koosh ball, Playdoh or clay to work their stress out; an MP3 or CD player and relaxation sounds to listen to with earphones. Then suggest your kids go to the stress box whenever you see stress start to mount.

For teens:

Bring on the tunes. Suggest that they load their iPod with music that helps them tune out and relax.

Exercise: Walking. Bike riding. Rowing. Swimming. Playing basketball. Encourage your son or daughter to take advantage of the health facilities that are usually on a college campus.

Get some yoga on. Adolescents credit yoga as teaching relaxation and breath control. So why not do it with them? Purchase a yoga DVD that you can do at home together, or invite another parent and teen to join and make it a weekly routine.

Get help from a mental health professional!

All kids will show signs of stress now and then, but be concerned when you see a marked change in what is ‘normal’ for your child’s behavior that lasts longer than two weeks. When you see your child struggling and feeling overwhelmed, it’s time to seek help from a mental health professional.

Don’t wait:  Stressed-out kids are two to four times more likely to develop depression, and as teens they are much more likely to become involved with substance abuse.

If you suspect your teen is depressed, share your concerns: “I’m worried about how stressed you are.” Or “I’m concerned you may be depressed. Let’s get help.” If your teen is in college print off the depression signs posted on your teen’s college website or at and show him. Give him the phone number of the counseling services.

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books.

You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development.

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba

You can also find dozens more research-based and practical tips in my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. For more tips about helping stressed kids refer to specific chapters: Angry (pg 232) Dependent (pg 240); Overscheduled (pg 568); Perfectionist (pg 272);  Stressed (pg 303); Worried About the World (pg 310)