Michaela Horn is a regular high school girl with a fun personality who enjoys playing the violin and piano. But those things do not define her. In an insightful TED Talk, Michaela discusses the one thing that seems to overpower all else in her life: stress. She’s stressed about her classes. She’s stressed about the hours of homework required for each of those classes. She’s stressed about not getting enough sleep because of her mountain of obligations from school work to extracurricular activities that she has to do to submit a perfect college application to get into a good school after graduation—that’s a mouthful! “It all takes time,” she says, and lack of time creates incredible stress. In thinking about her own stress, Michaela wanted to know what caused other peers her age stress. So she decided to survey them.
What teens said about their stress
Michaela hypothesized that most teenagers were probably in the same boat, so she surveyed roughly 160 teenagers from across the world to find out. The results surprised her. “After reading the responses, I realized that many of them were stressed about the same things I was,” she said. “But what surprised me was how open they were about the other things that were stressing them out. Things they weren’t telling other people.”
She found herself privy to sensitive, difficult stories that the teenagers weren’t telling their parents, teachers, counselors—no one, except for her via an anonymous survey. She received, with great empathy, heartbreaking stories of self-harm, suicide, depression, and identity. She even had a student confess they’d set a date to commit suicide. “I was upset,” she said, “and then I saw the date. It was only a week away.” Scared and confused, Michaela didn’t know what to do, but she desperately wanted to help. Hoping they were watching, she told them from the TED stage that she saw them and care for them, then left the audience with an encouragement: “There is so much more that young people are not telling and sharing with you…this is only the beginning of the conversation. My hope is that together we can do something about this.”
Teen responses to her heartfelt message
Michaela’s video was flooded with comments from teens sharing their own personal struggles with stress and mental health:
I cried in four classes today at school due to stress. Only one teacher asked me if I was okay (and then the only thing she did was pat my shoulder), and only one friend comforted me. My own parents yelled at me after school, saying it was my fault that I was stressed about my four AP tests coming up and that it was my fault I don’t get enough sleep.
The reason why kids don’t tell parents everything is because parents can judge them rather harshly, and that just makes the situation worse, so why bother saying a word?
When I say I’m stressed my mother tells me that’s only a thing adults experience. If only she knew.
I know so many people who are suffering so much more than I am. But I still get stressed and upset. I never tell anyone, I don’t know why.
I really wish schools took into account mental illness more often, and did it with care.
It’s important to note that parents may not be trying to send the message to their kids that their stress doesn’t matter. Teens who make these statements may speak out of a place of hurt or of feeling misunderstood. But our words and actions do matter because our kids are internalizing them daily. And whether or not our kids say it, they are stressed, and all they want is to be listened to. The core issue that forms the bedrock of each of these cries for help is a lack of genuine communication. These teens don’t feel heard, understood, or really cared for in their times of need. And that’s what Michaela, a regular teen who cares about her peers, found in her survey: “[A student who self-harmed] used my survey to talk about it, to reach out and share with me. Because they didn’t feel they were being listened to.”
Maybe all we parents need to do is listen. If your kids aren’t coming to you with their problems, it’s not necessarily a shot at your parenting. They just might not feel confident that an adult—their teachers, counselors, or even you—will understand their struggles and listen with empathy. Be honest with yourself for a second: Do you foster an environment of openness, vulnerability, and honesty with your kids? Do your conversations generally center on achievement, success, and grades, rather than rest, non-judgmental empathy, and safety? These are hard questions, and being a parent is no easy feat, so please take this as an encouragement to be honest and willing to change, rather than as condemnation. It’s important to evaluate the types of questions we discuss with our kids, because it’s often from those things that they source their sense of self-worth and purpose.