The Problems of Over-Scheduled Teens
There are many benefits to extracurricular activities in the lives of adolescents. These activities can instill values, such as discipline, cooperation, responsibility, respect, and teamwork. They can also teach teens important skills, such as time management, conflict resolution and problem solving. Extracurriculars can expose youth to new ideas that build their confidence, expand their creativity, and even prepare them for adulthood or for a specific career. Outside activities can help teens make quality friends that share common interests, as well as gain valuable resume-builders for their college and work applications. Finally, extracurricular activities can also help keep teens on a positive path when they are being tempted to engage in risky behaviors.
No one argues the value of extracurricular activities for teenagers. However, it appears more and more youth might be overdoing it.
Our culture seems to value the idea of “doing it all” and there is a huge increase in the number of teenagers that are overscheduled, overextended, and overtired. Many high school students enroll in more honors or advanced-placement courses than they can handle, and then pile extracurricular activities on top. Between school, sports, band, homework and other activities, their schedules may begin as early as 5:30 in the morning and continue to midnight. It’s an exhausting schedule that, over the long run, can cause mental and physical health problems, ranging from depression to injury.
Why are teens cramming their schedule so full? Sometimes teens feel the pressure to excel from their parents. Some parents, who equate being constantly busy with being successful in their own lives, compete to see whose kids can cram in and succeed at the most activities and most difficult academics. Sometimes teens feel the pressure from school. Colleges have become so competitive that teens who are seeking entry into top-level schools are afraid they won’t get accepted unless they are the best in a wide variety of activities. And sometimes the pressure comes from their peers. If all of their friends have crammed schedules, they may feel competitive with their peers, want to fit in, or think that busy schedules are “normal.”
As a result of over-scheduling, doctors are seeing more and more adolescents with stress-related symptoms: exhaustion, headaches, gastrointestinal issues like stomach cramps and ulcers, depression and irritability, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and sleeping disorders. Experts are concerned because it used to be unusual to see adolescents dealing with panic attacks, insomnia, and other stress-induced conditions. If they suffer from these issues in their adolescent years, they are much more likely to continue suffering as adults. Over-scheduled teens are missing enjoyment in life, and they are setting themselves up for poor mental and physical health.
Finding balance in life and work is a life-skill worth practicing, and parents are the key to getting teens on track to a better lifestyle. Here are some tips:
Encourage and role model healthy habits. Encourage and model basic healthy habits within your family. Parents should prioritize:
- Sleep. Almost half of American teenagers are sleep deprived, and almost none are getting the 9 hours of sleep adolescents need. Research has proven that teens who lack sleep are more likely to be overweight, depressed, use drugs, drive drunk, and suffer academically at school. Parents should make sure their teens get enough rest.
- Meals together. Family time is crucial to teens feeling connected and valued, as well as reducing stress. Studies show that teens who regularly have family meals have better grades, lower stress, and are less likely to be overweight or use drugs. Parents should try to sit down together at the table for at least 20 minutes 4-5 times per week, without TV or smartphones, to communicate with their children.
- Exercise. Exercise improves our health and is a great stress-reliever! Again, research has proven that kids who are physically active are less likely to be overweight, depressed, or use drugs. Parents should role model and encourage physical activity. That can be a sport or it can be family activities that get you all moving.
Value unstructured time. Experts say that unstructured time or “downtime” is essential to figuring out who one is and what one wants in life. It is also a very healthy form of stress relief. Unfortunately, many Americans tend to regard downtime as laziness or being unproductive. Counter this idea by protecting downtime, scheduling it in the calendar if you have to! Teach teens to value unstructured time and to use it to engage in stress-relieving activities, such as reading, listening to music, taking a walk, dancing, drawing, or journaling.
Review schedules to achieve balance. Life balance is an important skill we all must learn to enjoy healthy, rewarding lives. For a teen, balance is achieved through a blend of activities that includes academics, physical activity, downtime, and social connection. Teen stress appears when they cannot find enough time to complete everything they have committed to. Parents should guide teens to keep their schedules under control. For example, as your child’s interests grow, add extracurricular activities slowly. Give your teen time to adjust and see the impact on his or her schedule and stress level before adding more. Ask questions to determine if your child is involved in an activity because they enjoy it or because they feel pressure to do it. If your teen seems stressed, tired, overwhelmed, or is having changes in their appetite, moods, sleeping patterns, or grades, then you should talk to your teen about their schedule. Parents can teach teens a valuable life lesson by learning to recognize the signs of stress and then determining what can be eliminated from their schedule to make life enjoyable again.
Our busy culture can give impressionable teens the idea that, if they aren’t busy, they are being “lazy,” or that the only way they can be successful is to be constantly productive. Parents must combat this message by valuing downtime, limiting the number of activities in which they and their teens engage, discussing the importance of life balance, and expressing the idea that a person’s purpose is not to be busy every minute of their lives. Additionally, parents should make sure they are expressing value for their teen’s character, not for what they can accomplish.