High Schoolers Are Less Stressed When You Remind Them People Eventually Stop Being High Schoolers

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Photo: Maria Taglienti-Molinari/Getty Images

Looking back to high school can be a little bit like looking at your past through one of those fun-house mirrors. When I compare my high-school problems to my current, real-life problems, I’m struck by how much everything is inverted: In hindsight, the issues that my 16-year-old self had to deal with were all pretty small potatoes, but everything just felt so much bigger.

High school’s stressful like that — it’s a time characterized by a lopsided ratio of drama to perspective, with too much of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. But a study published last month in Psychological Science and recently highlighted by the New York Times hit on a simple but strikingly effective way to ease teens’ stress: Just adjust that ratio. Or, to be more specific, remind them that people are capable of change — that high schoolers, in other words, won’t be high schoolers forever.

From the Times:

At the beginning of the school year, students participated in a reading and writing exercise intended to instill a basic, almost banal message to help them manage tension: People can change.

The students who completed the exercise subsequently had lower levels of stress, reported more confidence in coping and achieved slightly higher grades at year’s end, compared to a control group. These results were measured through the students’ self-reporting in online diaries and through cardiovascular and hormone measurements.

The exercise consisted of a few parts: First, the participants read a scientific blurb about how personality changes, followed by testimonials from older students (all the study participants were juniors or below) describing how they’d learned that lesson in their own lives. Afterward, they wrote encouraging messages to younger students explaining the same thing — a combination that, over time, helped them to view their problems in a different light.

“In the real-world context of high school, adolescents may struggle with making friends, feel excluded or left out by peers, encounter direct victimization, or face myriad other normal evaluative experiences,” the study authors wrote. “Yet when adolescents come to view social difficulties as events that can be overcome, they may appraise them as challenges” rather than insurmountable obstacles.

The promise of the study, though, is only true up to a point: As my colleague Melissa Dahl has reported, our personalities become more fixed around age 30, following the more tumultuous years that make up your 20s and adolescence. That’s not to say that you can’t choose to change after the 30-year mark, just that it will be less of a natural evolution and more of a conscious effort. Then again, to a high schooler, that’s probably not a worry that deserves too much brain space — just getting to graduation can seem like a lifetime.