stressed out girl

Tips for overextended teens

Our college-bound kids are talented and goal-oriented, but that comes with challenges. What happens when they become overextended? How can parents help teens find balance? Florida Prepaid sat down recently with Dr. Kimberly Renk, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida, to discuss this.  Here are a few of her helpful insights.

Once you hit high school, that’s kind of parents’ last chance to have a big influence on kids. What have you modeled throughout their childhood? What kind of person do you want to encourage them to be? It’s your last time to take the family vacations and spend time with them.

What does life look like for an overextended teen?

They’re doing the high-level classes, so they have Advanced Placement, IB, honors. Some are doing dual enrollment. So, they have that piece, but if they’re really high achieving, they’re going to have heavy extracurriculars, too. Sometimes that means sports, clubs, student representation, things like that. Their schedule is so crazy because they have to get up so early, and then they’re working or having activities after school, and then they’re doing homework until 11, 12 o’clock at night and getting like 5 hours of sleep. And that’s just insanity.

How is the pandemic impacting this dynamic?

When COVID hit, things kind of chilled out. Some of the extracurriculars were down for the count or they were virtual, so there was less travel and trying to coordinate. I saw a little bit of a lull. But now that we’re transitioning back in, I think everybody is trying to figure out, do we go back to that? Some parents are kind of fighting it, but I think a lot have just gone back and said, “OK, we’re just doing this thing.”

Can it be hard to tell that our kids are getting stretched too thin? 

Yes. Our high achievers look like they can manage it all. Part of their dilemma is they enjoy all the things that they have access to. On the surface, they’re going to look like they’re good jugglers. But just because they’re good jugglers doesn’t mean they should be engaging in all those activities all of the time. Those high-achieving kids come from high-achieving parents, usually. And I think, as a society, we’ve been really bad at modeling what is appropriate work-life balance.

What warning signs can parents look for?

Sometimes the way it comes out is irritability. You’re going to ask your teen, what’s up with the homework? And they’re going to snap at you, or they get very curt or short. They can kind of come across as having an attitude, and the parent kind of says, “Don’t give me that attitude!” But what it is – is that they’re tired.  They’re trying to keep up with all of these things and it’s just too much.

When a parent suspects something’s wrong, what should they do?

I think the first thing is to have a frank discussion. That could be starting between the parents themselves to say, what does the schedule look like? Is there downtime in our family to just hang out? And I know teens rarely want to just hang out with their parents, but there needs to be some pause in there, so that everybody can breathe for a minute.

That’s kind of step one, and then have a discussion with the teenager: How is this really going? How are you feeling? What are the worries?

What coping skills can we encourage in our teens?

Exercise, yoga, journaling. Even meditation is another good one that a lot of the high achievers like because their brains are kind of busy all the time. Even when they lie down to go to sleep, their brains are probably still active, thinking about 300 different topics. Helping them learn how to be quiet is a really important skill.

And they need life skills, too. We don’t always think of: Are they doing their own laundry? Can they cook a couple of meals? How do you make sure you get enough sleep? How do you say no to being out with your friends when you’ve got a test the next day? And you need your rest; you can’t do all-nighters every night of the week and still be functional. Sometimes we assume that they acquire these organically, but those practical skills sometimes get lost in the mix. Especially if we like to do things for our kids.

The teen years for college-bound students are challenging on many levels, but we hope this expert advice helps you navigate them. The reward is worth the effort!

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