The thing I struggle with the most when it comes to raising teenagers is: what is too much for them to handle and when should I push them more.
Last weekend, while driving down the highway on a Sunday afternoon, I looked back to see my young teen daughter out like a light in the rear seat of our car. She finished playing a full soccer game in blazing Midwest heat a few hours before, after playing two other games the prior day.
We drove more than four and a half hours for the weekend so she could play with a team where she wasn’t even a regular part of their roster. Of course, I did the trip alone because my older daughters had a cross-country meet where they needed to be at school by 6:05 a.m.–on a Saturday–so my husband handled that part of the parental duties.
Balance is tough to achieve for most modern families
I justified the extra trip packed into our already busy Fall schedule because my daughter would be able to play with some of her best friends from school. But any soccer parent knows that the more touches you get on the ball, the more your game improves. So, after she enthusiastically said she wanted to play, we committed.
Add to that two of my daughters are in a competitive orchestra program and two are trying to accumulate volunteer hours for a club at the high school. One is trying to play two Fall sports and another is babysitting on the side. And have we mentioned that tiny thing called getting an education and trying to get into college?
I ask my kids all the time, “Do you still want to play X” or “Is this class too hard?”
They always say, “Yes I want to do this and no it’s not too hard.”
“Don’t do it to please me,” I tell them. “Or your dad. I just want you to be happy.”
But sometimes, I’m just not sure what happiness looks like anymore.
Poor mental health is an epidemic among today’s teens
So, I worry. I worry about their stress and anxiety, and even my own. I worry about their sleep. I worry about their health and missing out on their childhood. I worry I push them too hard. I worry I don’t push them hard enough.
And when I know, when I truly know, that they are hitting their max, I finally say no. When I look into their eyes brimming with tears or when I see the dark circles that hang to their cheeks. When I notice they can’t drag themselves out of bed or negativity creeps into every corner of their existence.
In those moments, I say no to an extra tournament so we can have a weekend at home instead.
I say no to going to practice.
I say no to signing up for anything else or pushing ourselves any harder or taking too many advanced classes.
And when we say no, even though I am positive it is the right thing to do, I still worry. Will they be left behind or will they miss out? Can they keep up with the frenetic pace of today’s performance-based world where everyone wants to be the best and do the most and push harder? Could they have handled it?
There is no balance, no perfect formula for knowing what we do is right for our kids. We only have our best guess, our intuition, and our gut. Some kids thrive on a jam-packed schedule. Others need hours of downtime every day.
But I don’t want to parent out of fear. I don’t want to parent thinking my kid has to be the best or do the most or go the farthest. There probably is never an instance where I have to push my kids to do more.
Because stars that burn brightly too soon burn out, and when it comes to my kids, I am playing the long-game. They don’t need to peak in high school. They just need to learn the lessons to get through this life.
Work hard. Be kind. Do your best. Everything else is gravy.
The most important lesson I’ve learned is to read between the lines when your kids want to do something extra. Is it another layer of stress, or will it bring them joy?
But you can’t keep saying yes just to try to keep up, because there is just no end to this hamster wheel.
As for the backseat Sleeping Beauty, she awoke as we pulled off the highway. She groggily said, “Mom, I had a great time this weekend. Thanks so much for taking me. I just needed a little nap.”
I think I got it right. At least this time.
Are you worried your teen is pushing themselves too hard?
Because of their developing teen brains, it can be hard to know what is typical adolescent behavior and what are signs of exhaustion or a mental health issue. Here are a few signs that your teen may be overdoing it.
1. Physical Exhaustion and Health Symptoms :
If your teen constantly complains of fatigue, lack of energy, or seems physically drained, it could be a sign that they’re pushing themselves beyond their limits. Monitor their sleep habits, and encourage them to get at least 8 hours each night (although doctors encourage 10.) If your teen can’t settle down at night or is waking up repeatedly, this could be a sign that they are dealing with excessive stress or pressure.
Persistent headaches, stomachaches, or other physical symptoms that don’t have a clear medical cause might be related to stress and pushing too hard.
Consider having your teen focus on some self-care, such as yoga or meditation, physical activity, or other downtime activities. This can make a big difference in how they manage demands.
2. A Decline in Academic Performance:
A sudden drop in academic performance, such as not turning in assignments, wanting to skip class, test anxiety, etc., can be signs that your teen is overwhelmed and struggling to manage their workload.
Parents can reassess their child’s schedule and talk to teachers to ensure their exhaustion doesn’t lead to a breakdown.
3. Mood Changes and Increased Irritability
If you see sudden mood changes, or your usually good-natured teen turns moody, sullen, or snappy at minor stuff, this could be a sign that your teen is overwhelmed. Neglecting their basic care, like skipping meals, personal hygiene, or engaging with a pet or sibling, can also be a warning sign of excessive pressure and burnout.
4. Perfectionistic Tendencies
Perfectionism in all areas and an inability to accept mistakes is a sign that your teen is putting too much pressure on themselves and may hit a breaking point. This also manifests itself as a teen’s inability to relax or take advantage of downtime because they feel guilty. For example, even though a student may have an A in a class, they feel the need to do an extra credit assignment.
5. Increased anxiety
If you are noticing any of these issues in your teen, it’s important to have some open and honest discussions with them about their schedule and how it is impacting their mental health. And if they won’t talk to you, they need to talk to a trusted adult, counselor or mental health therapist.
Give them permission to scale-back and ask for help.
And most importantly, try to model behavior such as self-care, good tech habits, eating well, and exercising.
Nothing is more important than their mental health. Period.