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How do I Help My Busy Teen from Burning Out?

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Concerned parents want to know how to help their stressed out, overworked, too-active kids.

Today, more than ever it seems, teenagers are at no loss for involvement in activities. Family, school, church, friends, neighborhood sports leagues and clubs. But can anyone — even an energetic teenager — do it all?

It’s tempting to look at young people as having unlimited energy reserves, but they don’t. Concerned parents want to know how to help their stressed-out, over-worked, too active kids. And with good reason: Stress, lack of sleep and constant emotional and physical overexertion can wear on teens, just as it does on adults.

Maybe you’re asking yourself what many parents have asked: What can I do about my teenager having too many activities that can lead to burn out? How do I deal with emotional distance as a result of fatigue? How can I help my teen who is just plain stressed out from being on the go too much?

You’re not alone. Other parents want to know how to help their kids slow down, too. Noticing there’s a problem and asking for help is a good place to start.

Too Many Activities

Q. My teenager is involved in so many activities: school, babysitting, church, sports. She just can’t say no to people, and I’m afraid she’s a candidate for burnout. How can I help her find a healthy balance in her life?

A. Kids learn by example, and most parents are over-committed themselves. You may have passed this “trait” down without even realizing it. Remember, every time we say yes to something, we must necessarily say no to something else, whether we want to or not. I guarantee it.

Keep this principle in mind: Choose your no’s carefully. Before saying yes, stop and identify exactly what you will be saying no to. It’s usually life’s less tangible things — down time, sleep, family, quiet time with God — that get pushed aside. Those are the items we say no to most frequently.

Before making a new commitment, consider what might be sacrificed. Then ask yourself, “What will be the cost of saying no to (X)?” “Can I afford to say no to (X)?” “Is (X) wise to say no to?” Be honest with yourself and ask God to reveal the best option. Base your decision on your ability or willingness to say no to (X) rather than your desire to say “yes” to something new. It’s harder than you might think. Most choices will not be between the bad and the good; they’ll be between the good and the better.

Telling someone yes is easy. That’s why so many adults — and teens — are overcommitted and bordering upon burnout. Also, insecurity can drive us into “performance” mode and make us reluctant to say no to others out of fear of rejection. Your daughter needs reassurance that her value lies in who she is, not how many hoops she jumps through for the people she wants to please.

One more note for parents: If you’re overcommitted, you may need to say no to some good things in order to say yes to the best thing . . . your teenager.

Emotional Distance

Q. My son seems burned out, but when I ask him, all I hear is “I dunno.” How can I get past that invisible wall?

A. I understand your frustration. His response is just another clue that you may be right about his being burned out. When pushed beyond their limits, teens can lose perspective on their own busyness. That’s why your sensitivity to his state is crucial to healing.

First, assist him in evaluating his life. Simply reviewing his schedule may help illustrate that a problem exists. Then ask him about — and observe personally — sleeping patterns, study habits, relational demands, etc. Once you agree a problem exists, you can begin to develop solutions together.

In his “burned out” condition, it would be natural for conflicts to bubble up. If issues surface here, deal with them before trying to pull him out of the more general rut of burnout. Then brainstorm some options for healthier overall balance. Can he cut back on work? Adjust class schedules? Delay a project? Get some help with relational issues? Be sure to reserve time for fun, relaxation and “recharging the batteries” so to speak.

This process should develop a sense of hope and direction in your teen, as well as accountability. Monitor and encourage him, but also make him responsible for following through on the changes discussed. If you don’t see improvement, it may be time to consult a professional counselor (or your family physician to rule out medical problems).

As a caring parent, you can lift your teen out of the burnout ditch by

  1. gathering data together
  2. creating new lifestyle options to reduce stress
  3. following up to assess progress

Stressed Out

Q. As a youth pastor, I see many teens who are stressed out from being too busy. Is there a way I can help them?

A. Sure. First, plan a “Stress Release Weekend.” No schedule. No agenda. Pick a relaxing place and simple meals. The ultimate goal is to “detox” from the pressures of daily life.

Second, plan a “Day Alone with God” at a retreat center, park, lake — any place where the teens can spread out, have privacy and avoid distraction. (You may want to get each teen a copy of How to Spend a Day In Prayer by Lorne Sanny.) The focus of this time is not to keep busy praying. Rather, use that dialogue (which includes quietly listening to God) as a way of slowing down and regaining perspective on life.

Finally, be sensitive to the amount of youth group responsibility you assign to any one teen. It’s easy to overload a reliable youngster without realizing it — simply because you know you can count on them to do the job right. You can lighten the load.

Action Steps

  1. Do a “too-busy” checkup:
    • List all the activities you’re committed to — daily, weekly, seasonally, occasionally
    • Divide them into 3 groups: essential, important and pleasurable
    • Beside each, write down something you must say “no” to in order to make that item a priority. Take your time and be honest.
    • Determine if you’re doing too much, and how you can adjust your schedule
  2. Schedule a prayerful “Day Alone with God” in a quiet, secluded place.
  3. Consider picking up these related resources at your local Christian bookstore:
    • When I Relax I Feel Guilty, a book by Tim Hansel, David C. Cook
    • “Adrenaline and Stress,” Focus on the Family audiocassette (Available by calling Focus on the Family at 1-800-232-6459.)

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