Teens have more on their plate than the previous generations, and it's leading to burnout. As parents, we can give them a PLAN to help them recover.
In yesterday's post, I explained a bit about my background and what led me to start working with teens to help support them on their journey to become seen.
Over the past 20 years, I've seen more and more cases of overwhelm and burnout affect the teens who I work with. Many of these have been athletes, but several have also fallen into the "driven teen" category, and honestly, the mindset between these two groups of teens isn't that different.
I've looked back on why we're seeing so much more cases of burnout in our teens, and it really comes down to how much we're asking of them. Teens today are being asked to juggle much more than we ever did and to push themselves to goals that even seasoned professionals find challenging.
As a Gen X kid growing up in the 80s, my life revolved around "The Breakfast Club" type of organization. You found your group, your adolescent goal was often set by the group identity you assumed. You were a Brain, a Criminal, an Athlete, a Princess, or a Basket Case. And while our identity might cross over into one of the other groups, for the most part, we toed the line. Athletes were great on the field and average in class. Geeks excelled academically but maybe didn't have the best athletic skills. The Princess usually had her path laid out for her by her parents and she followed suit. And well, the other two were really up in the air.
The difference is that our teens today are asked to be all of these identities rolled into one. They are skilled athletes who have been training since toddlerhood and often participate in both high school and club teams. Add onto that the academic rigors with our teens taking multiple AP classes, usually starting their Freshman years. Oh, and we need our teens to be unique with an edge in order for them to stand out to the admission committees, often at high-performing colleges where competition for admission is tough. Our teens have a backpack full of masks that they are asked to pull out at will, and sometimes required to wear simultaneously.
In other words, our teens are tired.
No wonder we're seeing more signs of anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and low self-esteem. Just talking to my teen clients about everything there are trying to balance is exhausting.
But what I'm finding is that the parents are often clueless about the struggle that's going on with their teens. They come to me concerned but having run out of options to help and feel lost of what to do next. However, when I talk to them more, they often don't fully see what their teens are up against, and this is often because the teen is trying their best to hold it all together and put on that "It's OK. Everything's OK. I'm fine." mask to keep their parents off their backs.
Through my work, I've identified 3 main mistakes that parents make when trying to help their overwhelmed teens.
Dismiss what teens have on their plates. Sometimes the different commitments that end up on a teen's plate build up over time, and so the weight of them goes unnoticed. Parents often tell me that their teen was the one who agreed to it all. They wanted to play on both teams and take those AP classes, and that might be true. However, part of our job as parents is to model boundaries and how to make sure you're only taking on what benefits your wellness. We need to show them how to look beyond the perceived goal of college and instead map out a plan where they can incorporate their interests and goals, while also maintaining their physical and mental health. And competing for two different sports teams isn't always the answer. If we can step back and fully assess the situation, then we can help guide our teens through their choices. At times, we may need to set boundaries for them and be ready for them to be upset with us for protecting them. It's ok. We have to remember that while our teens may look like adults, their brains aren't there yet. We talk about the inability of teens to make good decisions around risky behaviors because of this immaturity, but we also need to include their ability to make decisions about the seemingly benign decisions they make - even when they are aspiring goals.
Assume that a day or two off will solve the problem. If we're lucky enough to recognize the signs of burnout, then we need to make sure that we're fully addressing the situation with our teens. Too often we see the mood changes, the social withdrawal, the dropping grades, and the decreased performance and just assume that our teens are "just tired" and need a few days of R&R in order to get it together. And while there is some truth to this, recovering from burnout takes much more than a few days of chillin' at home. This is where the fully present conversation with your teen is so important. Don't go into the discussion with your ideas of what's wrong and how to fix it. That's not letting your teen be seen and heard. Instead, go in with guiding questions that help your teen verbalize the struggle and hold that silent space that allows them to unpack their emotions. Silence is powerful. Don't fill it with talking - unless it's your teens' voice. Let them get it all out, and try not to contradict them, even if you truly feel that they are wrong. Once it's all out, it gives you both a chance to examine everything and decide what to keep and where to pull back. Not only does your teen need physical rest to start moving forward again, but they need a break from the mental load of emotions and commitments that's often at the root of the burnout. Let them have that break. There is always a chance to come back to an activity or class when they are ready.
Not implementing a wellness plan to help their teen cope. Believe it or not, our mental wellness is directly tied to our physical health. Feeling of burnout can make the most active teen adopt sedentary behaviors and start eating every processed carb and sugar-filled food in sight. This is what the brain that is in a chronic fight or flight state does. In the case of burnout, we're still in a chronic stress state, but we're more likely "playing dead" and have become immobile because we no longer have the energy to either fight or flight. We play dead and hope the problem goes away. One of the best things you can do for your teen to help reduce this stress and get them moving forward again is to implement a PLAN - Positive Mindset, Letting Go of Perfection, Allowing for Rest, Nourish through gentle movement, and plant-based foods. Teaching them how to implement a wellness plan that addresses each of these pieces, as well as encouraging them to reach out to their circles of support, is key. This PLAN not only helps us to recover from burnout and overwhelm but can also prevent it from recurring. Sometimes it takes a bit of exploration to find a good fit here, but I find that when I bring the approach back to play and allowing my teen clients to approach their wellness in a "Choose Your Own Adventure" manner, then their unique fit naturally reveals itself. And that's a beautiful thing to see.
We often associate overwhelm and burnout as conditions best left to adults in the midlife crisis years, but the truth is that our teens are experiencing this more and more. The worst part about burnout in teens is that they have little experience to reflect back on and to understand that what they are feeling isn't normal. Often, that state of overly scheduled and overly stressed is their normal resting state, because it's all they know. It's what they've been dealing with their entire life - just adding something more onto their plate because they feel it's needed in order to level up. We know that's not the case, and it's our job as parents to teach them a better way. We need to show them how to stay on track to their high-level goals without literally killing themselves in the process. Because, if they don't learn these tools in their teens, then it's just going to get worse as they move into college and adulthood. Recognizing burnout and having the tools to manage it are basic life skills that our teens are not being taught, but we can change that. Not only can we help them implement PLAN for better wellness and life balance, but we can also change our own habits and start modeling what healthy aspiration can look like.