Your teen can only work so hard before burnout 

Balancing success and burnout puts teens in a difficult situation. School and extracurriculars are more competitive than ever. When applying to an elite university a 4.0 isn’t special anymore. A varsity letter on a jacket is no more than a nice to have. The best universities are packed with valedictorians, young entrepreneurs, and state champions. Nowadays, your teen needs to produce results to be competitive. Engineering schools ask for “maker portfolios”, others need proof of projects, leadership positions, and community service involvement around your teens’ true passions.

My kids definitely show some frustration when we talk about how much things have changed in the last 30 years, since I applied for college.  They know that so much more is expected of them, and somehow it doesn’t seem fair.  And so this just adds on to their feelings of stress and anxiety, and total overwhelm that lead to burnout.   It’s no wonder that the APA reported nearly a third of all teens (31%) in the US reported they feel overwhelmed.  

Burnout brings everything to a halt.

Why is burnout bad?  

Once burnout occurs, it can be difficult to get going again. The consequences go beyond just becoming unproductive for a short period of time.

It can create a negative connotation with hard work. It can also be demoralizing.  Progress simply grinds to a halt despite having time or resources to get tasks done.

 Isn’t burnout inevitable when working hard?  

Burnout often seems like a natural consequence of high achievement. However, it doesn’t t have to be.  Teens need to learn to balance hard work with proper breaks, and take the time needed to recharge that will ultimately make them more productive, and more successful.

Pit stops don’t prevent race car drivers from winning a race, however, running out of gas or a blown tire certainly will.  

The key here is a balance. We don’t want our teens living in absolutes.  

3 Practices for Managing Burnout 

The good news is that minimizing burnout can be simple to do with a few routines and planned breaks in their schedule. Teens can help develop a healthy relationship with hard work by yielding more traction from their efforts.  

WebMD has a great article on minimizing stress in teens that provides several effective exercises and practices. Most importantly, this article doesn’t advocate choosing less achievement. Instead, the focus is really on longevity. Here are some of the key messages that we found the most useful:

1. DOWN time 

Turn the phone off for some digital detox to help prevent burnout.

This is simple and applies to everyone in your family, not just your teen. You need power DOWN time. Downtime does not mean sitting on the couch watching Netflix or scrolling endlessly on social media. It means a true detox for your brain. It can involve time outside, but a rigorous hike might not be ideal if your teen just had two hours of soccer practice. Books, a family dinner, or a gentle stroll outdoors are a great place to start.  

2. Regular exercise, eat healthy, and plenty of sleep

This is probably not the first time you’ve read that these are important. I’m sure you work hard to help your teen live a healthy and well-rested lifestyle. However, as I learned while leading a summer camp, no matter your intentions, it’s simply impossible to have sustained improvement for something you don’t track.  

ENough sleep each night helps minimize burnout. IT can also help with decreasing the time it takes to come back from burnout.

Try recording your teen’s hours of sleep and meals for a week. Take a moment to review at the end of the week and make sure your perceptions match reality.  

Don’t simply look at your teen’s schedule as evidence. Try writing down what actually happened for each day. You might agree that SOMETIMES teens are running late, and they don’t need the full 45 minutes for dinner. It’s POSSIBLE that they forgot a homework assignment that had to stay up late to finish. An honest audit of your teen’s meals and sleep can help identify an unrealistic schedule.     

3. Focus on activities that are a real passion

too many activitiesEncourage your teen to focus on a few activities they are passionate about, and cut out commitments that are contributing to stress and don’t directly advance a goal. Even colleges give more weight to applicants who show leadership and longevity in one or two extracurriculars, over those who participate in many activities and don’t show depth in any.

For example, an athlete who plays year-round sports like tennis might benefit from focusing on doing that year-round. If they’re trying to fit in schoolwork, and tennis practices, and maybe golf and cross country running, well you can imagine how it could be difficult to have any time off, and at the same time make progress in any of their goals for each sport. Instead, they can take advantage of their limited time to make sure they can excel at the sport that brings them the most joy by fitting in daily practices, workouts, and tournaments.  

They can continue to play other sports they enjoy, but don’t have them commit to a school affiliated team in which they are obligated to attend regular practices. Newly freed time can be used for school work, relaxing with friends, or true downtime.  

Setting SMART Goals to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Why do we say you and your teens should work SMARTer, not harder? One of the key reasons why we’re big proponents of SMART goals for teens is that when goals are set without details, or definition, they end up causing more stress and anxiety.  When a goal is too general, like “I want to be a better tennis player”, and doesn’t have an action plan or deadline, it causes more stress and anxiety because you feel like you should be making progress, and you’re not, but you don’t know how to fix it.

With a goal that is defined the SMART way (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Time-bound), your teen can benefit in a variety of ways:

  • When your teen sets a plan and work the plan, they will get a dopamine boost from making progress, which makes them happy, and in turn motivates them to work toward achieving your end result.
  • Setting goals can make your teen feel more positive about themselves, and working in their action plan will feed their confidence.
  • When your teen goes through the process of creating a plan that they know they can follow, it will give them clarity on what steps they take and they’ll feel ownership over what they want to do.

A great bonus is that goal setting the SMART way will reduce your teen’s stress levels because they won’t have to spend time figuring out what they are supposed to be doing.

Back to Basics  

I’m sure at a high level these steps weren’t a shocking revelation, but that should be reassuring. This issue is straightforward to tackle, it just takes creating some new simple habits. Start with a conversation with your teen to get their take on stress and feelings of burnout. You can try these activities with your teen to minimize burnout and increase their emotional wellbeing.  

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