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Are We Overstressing Our Teens?

Are We Overstressing Our Teens?

Does it feel like the standards keep rising while opportunities dwindle? No longer is a Bachelor’s degree sufficient. You now need a Master’s, and even then, you might end up in the unemployment line. This is the financial climate our teens are growing up in. The climate we parents are raising our teens in. With so much at stake, how can we help position our children for long-term success without destroying them in the process?

It was ten o’clock on a school night, and my daughter was just getting home from a four hour play rehearsal. Play practices were stealing our family time, her study time, and her ability to get the rest she needed to stay healthy and alert. As an A student with a challenging course load, she’s overtired and overwhelmed on a good day. Add in the demands of an extra-curricular activity, and it’s enough to send her over the edge. My husband and I were faced with a difficult and confusing dilemma: Did we encourage her to persevere, even if it hurt her academics? Or did we pull her out to allow her to focus on other commitments?

According to child psychologist, Dr. LeaAnn Lape-Brinkman from Woodhaven Counseling Association in Omaha, Nebraska, many families face the same challenges. “It seems children and teens have more pressure and stress placed on them than ever before,” Dr. Lape-Brinkman says. “School has very high expectations of children, and children are learning to read or write earlier than in past generations. Many schools also assign homework.”

In fact, it’s not unusual for a high schooler to have four to six hours of homework in one night. Add that to the eight hours they already spend in school, another two or three for extra-curricular activities, and they’re pulling a fifteen hour shift easy.

“Many families I work with have appointments, practices, lessons, etc., until eight or nine pm every night,” Dr. Lape-Brinkman says. “There’s no opportunity for family dinners or for children to relax.”

On the other end of the spectrum, statistics tell us our children are spending more time than ever using media devices.

Is it any wonder, then, that parents and educators are seeing an increase in student anxiety and aggression and a decrease in school performance? So what’s the answer? Unplug all cell phones, cancel all activities, and spend every night gathered around the dinner table? There might be times when parents indeed need to do just that, but what about the other necessary character traits our students need to develop? Traits like determination, perseverance, and time management? Because let’s face it, in the real world, there are times when an unexpected deadline hits and we have to muscle through.

These are the things my husband and I continue to wrestle with, but in the wrestling, we’ve found a few solutions. For us, most of our business comes from a failure to plan ahead or fully think things through. Therefore, we determined to become more pro-active with our schedules and to prayerfully prioritize each opportunity.

This does numerous things: First, it centers our family in unity by reminding everyone that each person’s activity level affects the family as a whole. Unity is crucial for a healthy and thriving family (Mark 3:25). Second, it allows us to consistently align our hearts and priorities with God’s. Third, it shows our daughter how important it is she does the same. Finally, it takes the sense of urgency of the decision. If you have a teen, you understand what I mean. They often feel they need to make every decision right now! Unfortunately, when they do, they may very well regret their decision later.

When discussing priorities, we consider the long and short-term effects. Using our daughter’s involvement in the school play as an example, we discussed her current academic course load and the study time she’d need to succeed academically. We also discussed her emotional needs, a large part of which is developing healthy friendships at school.  Some other questions we considered: How would play rehearsals affect family time and youth group attendance? What character traits (positive and negative) would be developed during this activity? How might participation affect future college admittance? Most importantly, was she physically and emotionally capable to take on the added commitment?

“Teens, just like adults, need time to relax,” Dr. Lape-Brinkman says. “They also need more sleep, which is why many teens sleep the day away when they have the opportunity. For some children, it may be necessary for parents to help them choose between activities. Forcing your child to give up something he or she wants to participate in may feel hard, but children need to learn to balance work and play.”

If your family is like ours, life seems to come in bursts and lulls. Because of this, there are times when our daughter must persevere through an event or activity, knowing downtime is coming. In our family, commitment is a big deal. This includes every area of her life, from volunteer commitments, academics, to extra-curricular activities. We realize we are not monitoring behaviors so much as training attitudes, character traits, and habits. For as Jesus pointed out in Luke 16:10, “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones…” (NLT).

That doesn’t mean we expect her to excel in everything. Rather, we expect her to do her best. In other words, we focus on excellence rather than perfection. Perfection sets a paralyzing and unreachable standard that ultimately hinders our child’s growth. Conversely, excellence encourages inner growth by allowing our child to use their strengths while learning from their weaknesses.

However, if we’re not careful, our desire to buffer out children could lead us to expect too little from them. “Kids whose parents do not have appropriate expectations are often over-indulged and have a sense of entitlement, “ Dr. Lape-Brinkman says. This in turn hinders their growth and ultimately, their ability to succeed as an adult. “These kids often have low self-esteem and fell like no one cares for them.”

Therefore, she reminds parents to encourage children to focus on their strengths without stressing over their weaknesses. “Kids need to learn they don’t have to be good at everything,” she says. “If certain subjects are more difficult for your child, it’s perfectly fine to be content with a lower grade in that particular subject. Children should be able to explore many activities and opportunities when they are young. As they get older, it’s important for parents to help kids choose their areas of strength and focus mainly on those areas.”

Even then, there may be times when parents need to encourage their students to cut back. According to former Children’s Pastor, Paula Pugh, parents can often see signs of over-commitment. “These can be an increase of tension, dropping grades, outbursts of anger or frustration at family members, and verbal complaints of having too much to do.” When this happens, parents need to either help their teens cope or reevaluate their schedules. Sometimes they will need to do both.

Most teens have overly emotional and largely black and white thinking. When they see a long list of homework assignments, they may quickly become overwhelmed. By speaking words of encouragement and helping them to focus on one task at a time, parents can help them relax and gain the confidence necessary to complete the task. Teens also have difficulty seeing the all the options available to them. For example, they may think the only way to get into college is to take AP classes, or perhaps the only way to establish friendships is to go out for track. But by helping them brainstorm other options, we can give them a sense of hope and peace. In our home, I must frequently remind our daughter that her entire career is not dependent on one test or class. In addition, I remind her that her happiness and contentment is not dependent on her achievements, but instead, her attitude and moment-by-moment decisions. Decisions that impact her emotionally, relationally, physically, and spiritually.

To protect health of our children and family, times of high stress should be an occurrence, not a lifestyle. “Being over-scheduled constantly can lead to depression and anxiety,” Dr. Lape-Brinkman says. “We all know constant stress can lead to physical ailments. Unfortunately, when teens become overwhelmed, they are unlikely to discuss their stresses with adults. This can lead to self harming behavior, eating disorders, and drug or alcohol use. Many of these symptoms can carry into adulthood, which has long term effects on career and relationship success.”

Because of this, Dr. Lape Brinkman encourages parents and professional to give kids permission to relax and enjoy their teen years. “Furthermore, children need to learn to be assertive and to say, ‘no’. It’s up to parents and professionals to teach kids these important skills,” she says.

This can be extremely hard in today’s ever-changing economy. College tuition has grown more expensive and admission requirements have become more stringent. In addition, many of us are still recovering from the 2008 recession and are looking for recession proof degrees and jobs. Because of this, many teens immediately assume failure. That is when, in my opinion, we need to bring it back to prayer and surrender. According to the Bible, God has a glorious, hope-filled plan for our children (Jeremiah 29:11), and He will perfect that which concerns them (Psalm 138:8). In fact, He already knows what grade they will get in chemistry, what college they will go to, and what career they will one day hold (Psalm 139). He doesn’t expect them to do everything perfectly. What He does expect, however, is that they will seek Him and His will above all else, following after Him with surrendered obedience. When they do that, they can quit stressing about all the details and start enjoying the journey.

Jennifer Slattery lives in the midwest with her husband and their teenage daughter. She writes for Christ to the World Ministries, Internet Cafe Devotions, and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and compilation projects.

Publication date: November 25, 2013