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If your teenager were suffering from burnout, would you be able to tell? It may not be easy as it sounds. According to Finnish research, girls and boys react to school stress in different ways.

A study of 770 Finnish students found that most boys entering high school are enthusiastic about their studies. But as the pressures of school life increase, boys become cynical about school and develop a negative attitude toward society, writes Katariina Salmela-Aro, a research director at the University of Helsinki and lead author of the study.

"Boys experience a strong crisis concerning a sense of disconnectedness," she says.

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Girls, however, internalize stress. They become vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy in high school, which may lead to depression, Ms. Salmela-Aro says.

In Canada, as in Finland, teenagers are struggling to cope with stress. A 2008 survey of 30,000 public school students in British Columbia found that 14 per cent described their stress as "almost more than I can take." A similar finding was made in Ontario.

Pressure at school isn't always negative, notes Ms. Salmela-Aro. Youth need enough stimulation to prepare them for the demands of life, she says, adding that the key is for educators to provide the right kind of challenges.

In Nordic countries, adolescents either attend vocational school or choose the academic track. The Finnish study found that boys and girls on the more competitive academic track were much more likely to suffer from burnout. Researchers theorized that the less demanding vocational track offered a more supportive environment that enhanced feelings of competence and relatedness.

"For youth, school can serve as the key turning point, when their development may turn toward either a positive or negative trend," Ms. Salmela-Aro says. "The most crucial task of the school is to instill the joy of learning."

Dial-down strategy

Parents can help kids prepare for setbacks, watch for signs of burnout and talk to educators about stress-management programs. Teens under stress ruminate about school-related issues and often have sleep problems, Ms. Salmela-Aro says. Boys in particular may make negative comments about school and begin to skip classes when their grades fall. "If a child talks about feeling exhausted, parents should take it seriously," she says.

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This is a monthly column that examines our response to fast-paced life in the 21st century.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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