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Teenage Burnout: An Epidemic

Burnout. It’s a feeling that adults try their hardest to avoid. We learn about self-care and taking breaks, going on vacation and taking a mental health day from work, but have we taken a step back to think about what our teenagers in this generation are feeling? Something I see extensively in my office is teens that are getting burnt out from school, and honestly, life in general. They are pushed to the limits constantly with what classes they should take so that they can get into college (the more AP classes, the better!), and that not only should they take all honors or AP classes, they also need to get A’s in them. Oh! And not only that, they need extracurricular activities. And hobbies. And a social life. Tack on a healthy sleep pattern and healthy diet and they would be the most perfect human teenagers ever!

Except they’re not…they’re burning out faster than we can comprehend and the sad truth is that not enough people know about this epidemic. Our teens are struggling to maintain the GPA they want with all of these classes, they are struggling to perform well in their extracurriculars because after having eight hours of grueling classes they are expected to perform after school for hours on end. Then they get home at 7:00 pm (if they are lucky) and eat dinner and start tackling the 4-5 hours of homework they have per night. These individuals wake up between 5:00-6:30 am and may not go to bed until midnight; Rinse and repeat five days a week for four years. This schedule, without consistent breaks, isn’t healthy to maintain for any human.

The national teen suicide rate is also on the rise. In 2017 suicide was the second leading cause of death among Americans age 15-24 according to the National Center for Health Statistics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Santhanam, 2019). The worst and most severe burnout cases often add to these statistics because people in this age group see no end in sight. They inherit a thought process that includes, “Is this going to be my life forever?”

A frank definition of burnout is, “A feeling of chronic stress that leads to emotional and physical exhaustion,” (Patel, 2020). Some common emotions a high schooler might feel when they are burnt out include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Detachment
  • Cynicism
  • Lack of self-esteem/confidence
  • Lack of feeling accomplished
  • Lack of motivation

These emotions, when gone untreated, can lead to self-destructive behaviors such as,

  • Panic Attacks
  • Isolation
  • Unhealthy sleep habits
  • Unhealthy eating habits
  • Decreased attention span
  • Apathy
  • Physical symptoms such as stomachache, sore throat, headaches, sore muscles, etc.
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Acting out
  • Suicidal ideations and/or attempts

While the competition to get into college is on the rise, and it seems there is no end in sight, how do we cope with all of this? Our teenagers need help and guidance, their brains are not developed enough to handle this amount of stress and exhaustion at such a young age. As stated above, these individuals can have 18 hours (or longer) days, 5 days a week, and with extracurriculars, they may not even have much free time on the weekends. Adults with a 9-5 job have evenings and weekends off, AND (usually) have added benefits of paid time off and mental health days. Why do we put our young population through so much stress and not offer the same relief?

I often joke with people that I could never make it in this new generation. Let’s face it, these days our kids have it rough. Not only do they not get enough breaks from the work, but they also get minimal social breaks as well. With social media existing our youth are constantly talking to people in one way or another, which at the end of the day can add to the stress.

But you know what the real conundrum is? For some, that is the ONLY time of day they can socially interact. If we take away their phones completely they may literally never have time to have an actual conversation with a friend. No time in school (except maybe for lunch, if they’re not doing homework), no time after school due to the homework load, minimal time on the weekends…a social life just another difficult variable to juggle in their lives.

Teenage brain development is crucial, it is a giant part of the building blocks for our future self. As teenagers we need to socialize, we need to test the limits in relationships, we need to develop our identities, we figure out how independent we can be, we explore power struggles and our own personal limits, etc. These are all very important milestones that we will hit no matter the circumstance, so while these instincts kick in for this new generation life gets complicated. How can we develop appropriately if we do not have the time to do it? If we ignore positive development between the ages of 14-18, once our young adults leave for college they will have a skewed view of how life really is and not know how to cope once they leave their homes.

So how do we fix this? Unfortunately, this is a nation-wide problem that will not go away overnight.

There is also not enough uproar about this growing epidemic because American values are based on “success.” Be successful in high school so you can get a scholarship to a good college. Bust your butt in college so you can graduate and get a good job. A good job = A successful human. But if the human brain is not fully developed until ages 25/26, why do we expect our young adults to accomplish all of this by the time they are 22 years old?

As a nation, we should be encouraging our youth to define their own vision of what success would mean to them. We also need to lower the competition with schools so that kids and adolescents have time to also have a healthy overall lifestyle. It sounds like a fantasy, but we can begin to do this with some small steps:

  1. Teach Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the “Basic human ability to be present and aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us,” (Mindful Staff, 2014). Mindfulness is a skill. For some, it comes naturally and for others, we need to be trained, but in any case, it is a necessity. (See below for links and ideas to begin your mindfulness journey!). Having this skill can help our youth acknowledge and feel when they are burning out so they know when to implement self-care.

  1. Let Them Have Breaks

I encourage parents to actively listen to their teens. If they are showing signs of burnout then they need a break. You know how sometimes you need to take a day off of work just because you NEED it? Well, they do too. Let them have a mental health day during the semester if they need it. They don’t need to be sick, they don’t need a severe excuse. They just need a day to not do work and to relax. One day off can recharge a teenager and can be beneficial for their moral and work ethic.

  1. Time Management

Have you ever been so busy you had to put, “Eat Lunch,” in your planner? I have started encouraging my teenage clients to literally plan their days, including the minor stuff so that they learn to prioritize the small stuff (which actually ends up being big stuff at the end of the day). We need to teach them to put aside time for homework, time for socializing, and time for themselves.

  1. Teach Them Self-Care

We can agree that even as adults we need to remind ourselves to put aside time for self-care. As we grow up we need to learn what self-care techniques work for our own individual personalities. Allow your teens to explore what self-care means to them. It could be taking a long bath/shower, watching a tv show, going out with friends, being artistic, journaling, listening to music, going for a walk…the list can go on. But if we don’t actively teach them why these small things are important they will never learn to prioritize themselves.

  1. Teach Them How to Say “No”

Over-achieving is a common mindset in this generation, so many teenagers take on way too much at once. Telling them that they are allowed to say “no” when necessary is a skill that even some adults have a difficult time doing. But if we show our teens that we can do this in a healthy way it can help them in the long run.

This is an ongoing topic of concern in this generation, and I encourage every parent, teacher, coach, family member, and friend, to listen and validate our teenagers’ feelings. Yes, it is important for them to grow academically, but we also need to give them the space to grow emotionally and physically. Remind yourself how emotional you were as a teenager, and then pretend that you never had time to see friends, or eat, or pretend you were only getting four hours of sleep a night. High School is an entirely new ball game nowadays and as adults, we need to pull together to help our upcoming generations reach their own definition of success.

Kelly works extensively with the teenage and young adult population. If you have questions or want to discuss this topic feel free to reach out to Kelly directly at klaporte@napervillecounseling.com or comment below.

 

Mindfulness Links:

22 Mindfulness Exercises to Get You Started

Getting Started with Mindfulness

 

 

References

Jaret, P., Bullock, G., Kuyken, W., Hunter, J., Sofer, O. J., & Newman, K. M. (2020, February 11). What is Mindfulness? Retrieved February 20, 2020, from https://www.mindful.org/what-is-mindfulness/

Patel, S. (2020, January 3). High School Burnout Signs And Tips. Retrieved February 20, 2020, from https://prepexpert.com/high-school-burnout-signs-and-tips/

Santhanam, L. (2019, October 18). Youth suicide rates are on the rise in the U.S. Retrieved February 20, 2020, from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/youth-suicide-rates-are-on-the-rise-in-the-u-s