I’m astonished at what teens are required to accomplish on a daily basis. In a world where there is scientific evidence to support the need for adults to slow down and “just breathe,” teens are blatantly not able to follow the same recommendations and are significantly overworked, overstressed, and severely sleep deprived. Their very physical and emotional health is at risk.
As I sit and listen to all that they are undertaking in any given week, I wonder and worry
how they are able do it all -- especially knowing where they are developmentally. They are going through dramatic physical, cognitive, social, and emotional changes and are expected to succeed at what seems like three full-time jobs -- academics, sports/extracurricular activities and friendships. I tell you from first handed experience, that they’re struggling and it is very much to their detriment.
I speak with teens who must organize their lives around a minimum of three hours to a maximum of eight hours of homework every night. On any given day or week they can have multiple projects, tests, reports and papers due, seemingly with no reprieve in sight. They are also inundated with the need to study for their ACT’s (for others SAT’s), Advanced Placement (AP) classes, participate in school sports (varsity, Jr varsity, etc.), take driver’s education, and simultaneously are completing college applications. They also try to fit in TV, social media and socializing. Their bedtime is on the average between 1 and 2am with a 6:30-7am morning wakeup.
Just before leaving for vacation, I heard a teen complaining about having to complete homework over her vacation and expressing that she was disappointed that she would not have the opportunity to “veg” and “rest her brain.” Another teen complained that vacation is just too short and he’s anticipating coming back to chaos because of the need to “catch up.” Even during time when they have the opportunity to rest and revive, teens sit with the anxiety of it being very short-lived and non-sustaining.
Teens are expected to have acquired good time-management skills to organize their lives (e.g., with long and short-term projects, studying for tests, etc.), stamina to sustain all the rigor of what they’re doing (e.g., have energy, be fit, etc.), the cognitive ability to have sharp long-term and short-term memory (e.g., for tests, to remember their responsibilities, schedules, etc.), focusing and concentration strategies (e.g., asked to multi-task and do assignments off of Google Docs while their social media is streaming in and continually distracts them, etc.), and good coping skills (e.g., to manage stress and anxiety, peer pressure, deal with transitions such as preparing for and going off to college, etc.). Where are they effectively acquiring all of this? For most teens, it just isn’t feasible, nor do they have the time to learn all of this.
When I ask the question, “How are you doing with all of this?” as opposed to “Did you get everything done?” I am met with a stream of tears and the outpouring of feelings that get evoked. I’m told about how “no one told me it was going to be so hard,” “I don’t know how else to motivate myself other than being stressed,” “it’s hard to know if others have similar feelings because we all hide it so well,” “we don’t share our stress because it will only make others more stressed,” “we just have to deal with it,” and “we all have to be okay because it’s expected of us.” I hear a lot about how they don’t feel “gotten.” Not just by their parents but by friends, teachers and the world at large. I have heard diatribes about how they feel isolated, hopeless and misunderstood.
According to a major study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high school students are known to engage in unhealthy dietary behaviors such as not eating a nutritionally based diet of the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, drinking sugared beverages, and not eating breakfast consistently. Also, they are not participating in enough physical activity during the week.[i]
Obviously there are policy and institutional changes that need to be enacted at schools. School districts need to re-consider curtailing the amount of homework and assignments that are required and taking individual students learning needs into account, as opposed to teaching to the test, abiding by the CDC recommendations of one hour of physical education a day for all teens, and instituting physical and nutritional education as part of the curriculum, etc. These modifications can only be made if parents and advocacy groups band together to advocate for these necessary instrumental changes (I highly recommend reading the book “Beyond Measure” by Vicki Abeles for other compelling recommendations).
The ways that parents can be supportive to their teens include:
1. Periodically checking in with your child and asking how they’re coping emotionally. You can ask, “I know you’re managing a lot, I’m thinking of you and am wondering how you’re doing?” or “I know you have a lot on your plate, how are you feeling about it all?”
2. Instead of becoming incited when your child isn’t fulfilling their responsibilities (teens report to me that this just makes them feel even more stressed), instead ask them what’s getting in the way, how you can help and what resources they might need to put in place.
3. Getting them in touch with mindfulness, meditation and stress management resources. In 2012, there were 477 scientific journal articles verifying the effectiveness of mindfulness and meditative practices. It has been proven as an effective method with kids and teens and assists with focusing and attention, executive functioning, sleep, emotional regulation, stress reduction, aggressive behavior, anxiety, and social skills/behaviors.[ii] I highly recommend Transcendental Meditation (TM), the apps “Insight Timer,” “Take a Chill,” and “Stop, Breathe, and Think,” 10 teen meditations at: http://www.doyouyoga.com/10-cool-meditations-for-pre-teens-and-teens-67578/ and the book “The Mindful Teen” by Dr. Dzung X. Vo.
4. Encouraging them to get involved in consistent physical activities of their choice. Also, it may be beneficial to offer to help them select the activity, facilitate enrollment in the activity, and offer to participate with them.
5. Helping them with their organizational skills or provide them with the resources so they can effectively work on this. More specifically, hone in on how to best manage their time and expectations so that they are setting themselves up for success, rather than for perceived failure or disappointment.
6. Monitoring their use of social media and TV viewing and ensuring that they’re getting 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night (National Sleep Foundation recommendations for teens).
7. Facilitating that they work with a therapist or coach to help them identify adaptive coping strategies to manage their stress (other than drugs or alcohol and/or overeating which can be maladaptive) and work on specified and manageable goals where they can readily note progress.
8. Guiding them on how to eliminate ever present distractions when they are studying and completing school assignments.
9. Assisting them in identifying what their core values are. Also, getting in touch with what is meaningful to them and personally motivates them (other than stress which can also be maladaptive).
10. Participating in activities with them that they personally choose and enjoy that allow for connected, engaging and relaxed time together.
Teens are anxious because of their plethora of responsibilities. They are at risk of becoming physically ill because they are not engaging in healthful behaviors, are overstressed, and are sleep deprived. All of these factors negatively impacts their ability to focus and concentrate and their general overall health. Teens who have challenges with their learning and/or have a predisposition to physical or mental health issues are at even greater risk.
I am privileged to work with teens and hear all that they have to share with me. It’s amazing what happens when they have the space to “just be” and feel fully accepted just as they are. Unwavering empathy and support goes a long way in helping to improve the lives of our impressionable teens.
It’s a different world today than the one in which we all grew up in. We need to be attuned to our teens’ new challenges if we truly want to be there to effectively support them. If we wish to ensure that they thrive in the future, they too are in need of the opportunity to slow down and “just breathe.” Are we collectively doing enough to make this happen for them?
[i] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2013.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), 63(4).
[ii] Pickert, K. (2014). “The Art of Being Mindful: Finding Peace in a Stressed-Out, Digitally Dependent Culture May Just Be a Matter of Thinking Differently.” Time, February 3, 2014.
Black, D.S., Milam, J., and Sussman, S. (2009). “Sitting-Meditation Interventions Among Youth: A Review of Treatment Efficacy.” Pediatrics, 124(3): e532–41.
Broderick, P.C., and Metz, S. (2009). “Learning to BREATHE: A Pilot Trial of a Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents.” Advances in Social Mental Health Promotion, 2(1), 35–46.
Burke, C.A. (2009). “Mindfulness-Based Approaches with Children and Adolescents: A Preliminary Review of Current Research in an Emergent Field.” Journal of Child and Family Studies, published online June 27, 2009.
Greenberg, M.T., and Harris, A.R. (2011). “Nurturing Mindfulness in Children and Youth: Current State of Research.” Child Development Perspectives, published online October 31, 2011.
Harrison, L.J., Manocha, R., and Rubia, K. (2004). “Sahaja Yoga Meditation as a Family Treatment Programme with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder.” Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 9(4), 479–97.
Meiklejohn, J., Phillips, C., Freedman, M.L., et al. (2012). “Integrating Mindfulness Training into K–12 Education: Fostering the Resilience of Teachers and Students.” Mindfulness, March 14, 2012.
Rosaen, C., and Benn, R. (2006). “The Experience of Transcendental Meditation in Middle School Students: A Qualitative Report.” Explore, 2(5), 422–25.
Sibinga, E.M., Kerrigan, D., Stewart, M., et al. (2011). “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Urban Youth.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 17(3), 213–18.
Singh, N., Lancioni, G.E., Singh Joy, S.E., et al. (2007). “Adolescents with Conduct Disorder Can Be Mindful of Their Aggressive Behavior.” Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 15(1), 56–63.
Wall, R.B. (2005). “Tai Chi and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in a Boston Public Middle School.” Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 19(4), 230–37.