Have you ever noticed how a day can just disappear before your eyes if there is no structure or plan in place? Or that you can feel “stuck” or directionless when you don’t spend your days working, at least in part, towards some purpose? This is especially true now after months of stay at home orders, and continued time at home. It is difficult to keep up with a routine if it’s not already established, and when a routine now feels like Groundhog Day, it’s just harder. This new reality is affecting our teens, who feel like their normalcy was taken away, and find refuge in spending hours and hours on their phones or playing video games. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make their day any easier. In fact, all the time spent watching videos and refreshing timelines ends up adding to their discontent and feelings of aimlessness, which only adds to their unhappiness during tough times. So, is there anything we can do about it? Choosing the right summer activities for teens can be the key to find a way out boredom and unhappiness.
As a mom of two teens, I can tell you that we’re definitely feeling the effects of all this time at home, together all the time, and the cancellation of every single thing that supported my kids’ goals and purpose. Plus, the ongoing restrictions on getting together with friends makes it difficult to have the normal summer fun activities to look forward to. With transition from the school year to summer, there is also no change in routine to get re-energized.
So yeah, the beginning of summer has been rough. Even at our house, where we are used to having at least some structure through the summer, my kids did not feel like moving on to a new project after finishing the school year. For at least the first week, the schedules stayed fluid and we kind of let them sleep in, play video games during the day, and spend too much time watching TV. But as the second week of summer started, we realized that this was just making our kids more sluggish, less motivated to do anything all day, and more bored and frustrated.
How did we get out of the rut?
Most people, but especially teens, are not great at spending time thinking about what they want to do, what they are really interested in. And now that distractions are available 24×7, we seem to fill our time with just “stuff” to do. Video apps, social app timelines, stories, you name it. Hours and hours of endless scrolling, with no purpose. But research tells us that the exact opposite of this is what we need to feel happier. The “Science of Happiness” podcast from UC Berkeley has a great episode on “What’s your ‘Why’ in Life?”, which explains way better than I can how finding a purpose leads to a happier life.
Researchers have found that there are many benefits linked to having a sense of purpose for people of all ages, and they all add up to a bigger sense of happiness and confidence. This is especially needed for our kids today, after months of staying at home, and losing their connections to their friends through school, sports, and other group activities.
To find the right summer activities for teens, focus on purpose
A sense of purpose can turn into better mental and physical health, and feelings of happiness. For teens, this can also mean improved grades, and a greater sense of confidence. But to find a sense of purpose or meaning, it takes spending time thinking about more than just today. In teens, that is especially difficult. That means that, as parents or coaches, they will need our guidance to spend some time figuring out what they’d like to do this year or next year, but also where they see themselves in the world.
Our teens face challenges of higher expectations, more disruptions and distractions, on top of distorted perceptions of what is meaningful and how to impact others. In a world of influencers, reality TV “celebrities” who are famous for being famous, there are fewer examples about people leading meaningful lives with focus on having a positive impact on others. If we let our teens get consumed by screens it only contributes to them feeling more directionless, like they’re just there to pass the time with no plan, no goals. Confusing # of followers or likes for the type of difference they can make in the world. Let’s see what happens when our kids do that all the time….
But it’s finally summer… shouldn’t we let kids be kids?
We may not have had a lot of structure when we were young, especially in middle school or high school, unless we had a job to do. But it is also true that most of us didn’t replace leisure time with hours upon hours of “screen time” (which of course at the time was just watching TV). We spent a lot more of our free time with friends, helping parents, making connections, working on something…
As kids get to the teenage years, parents want to help their kids find a sense of purpose, to help guide them into choosing the right major in college, staying motivated through studies and work, and eventually adulthood. Bill Damon, the leading Stanford researcher on purpose and adolescence points out that: “The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress, it’s meaninglessness.” A lack of purpose translates into a lack of interest and excitement, not just in their goals but it expands to daily life.
All of us, adults and teens alike, need help with a little direction, a little encouragement, to get going. But once we get started, finding a purpose can get us on the right path to happiness.
How can you help your teen find their “why”?
Self-discovery is not easy. It takes time to do self-reflection, to go over important questions over and over again, until it becomes specific and tangible, so you can actually do something about it. It feels so big and overwhelming, so where do you start?
Step 1: Self-Reflection
Start with some questions that can help your teen with self reflection such as: What matters to you? What difference do you want to make? How would you like to be remembered? If it’s tough thinking about later in college and adulthood, what about right now, in high school? This could be as vague as a teen saying they want to be remembered as a hard worker, or being persistent, or surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family. It can also be more specific, like an interest in tutoring peers or younger students that will translate into being an educator. Or a love of science and biology that will drive your teen towards patient care. Let them think about it and let them answer, without your prompting or guidance. This should be the start of them taking ownership over their self-reflection and work.
Step 2: Identify Small Goals
Then from that first answer, it’s time to break it down into something more tangible. So additional questions to dig deeper can include: Can you pick one thing you want to work towards right now, based on where you want to be headed? What activities would that include? How would these activities add up to help you? To be able to start with something, it’s super important to start breaking it down into smaller goals, no more than 6 months out. And considering we really only have about 2 months for summer, bonus points if you can define a goal that can be completed this summer!
Step 3: Make a SMART Goals Plan
Once your teen has a goal to work with, it’s time to make a plan. That means spelling out the goal with specific activities, due dates, resources, and tracking progress every week. Here we love the SMART goals methodology for that reason, because it helps you and your teen spell out exactly what they need to do. Once it’s planned out, there is no need to worry about what to do every day. Your teen will have a very clear plan with each activity or activities to work on, making it easy to just follow the plan. And by setting up a parent, mentor or coach as an accountability buddy, your teen could have a 95% chance of reaching their goal!
Step 4: Make a Time Commitment
Talk to your teen about committing to working on one productive thing every day. Figure out a fair amount of time based on their other activities or interests? My kids are both working on new projects this summer, but their schedules are different due to sports practices. My daughter can work about 1 hour every day on video production. My son can put in about 3 hours almost every day on creating a new mobile app, until summer school starts.
Step 5: Review Progress and Make Adjustments
It’s important to stay flexible and make adjustments as your weeks change. Your teen needs a little free time to catch up with friends. Also, sometimes schedules change. For example, my son will start a new summer class this week. His time working on mobile apps will be reduced significantly from 3 hours to 1 at the most per day.
The purpose or goal doesn’t have to be big
The summer activities for teens don’t even need to be something they’re great at, or be super efficient about getting there. Just getting through this summer can be about finding one small thing they care about, and making sure they do something productive every single day. That one thing will do wonders in improving their levels of happiness and confidence.
An hour a day will make a big difference in how they feel each day, and it will help build confidence and pride in themselves. Parents, coaches and mentors can all get involved in helping teens find a purpose by asking the first few questions, and keep digging in. Then we can help teens find opportunities to take the first few steps towards that interest. Teens may need some guidance learning how to connect with specific groups to learn more about their interests, or finding other young adults with the same interests.
Get organized for summer
Working towards a goal or purpose can play a big role in developing important life skills such as planning, time management, and staying motivated. These will be helpful for them from high school, but they will be critical for success in college and adulthood! If your teen is stuck not knowing where to start, a great book “What Color Is Your Parachute for Teens” can set them up to discover themselves, and start thinking about their perfect major or career.
Once your teen has decided on one small project to work on, go check out our article “Help your teen make this summer count with a Genius Project” for step-by-step help on how to break it down into pieces and stay on top of making progress.
Join our Facebook group Parenting Busy Teens, and let us help you with answers to any questions or challenges you may be having. We hope to be a resource for you and your teens, by providing ideas and encouragement, and celebrating success together!
Connect with Teen SMART Goals on social media!