The Pressure to be Busy is Breaking Your Teen

I was stressed out long before I got to high school. By 6th grade, I was staying up until 2am doing homework at least once a week. I was on the basketball team and part of several clubs. Even on days when I didn’t stay after school, I had a two-hour bus ride home. I would guess I got 5 hours of sleep a night. And that’s definitely not because I had to spend hours waiting for our dial-up internet to connect to AOL Instant Messenger.

All of this went down because I chose to be part of advanced academic programs and all kinds of extracurriculars. My parents didn’t force me to, but they paid attention to my goals and found the right places and people to support me in becoming the high achiever I thought I wanted to be. And the truth is, despite the crazy workload, I wasn’t entirely miserable about it. All my friends were doing the same thing, and it was cool to be busy.

Much like parents who can’t make a playdate because their child has too many activities to attend, I was part of a squad of frazzled 12-year-olds who thought having no free time made us important.

Harming ourselves with never-ending overwhelm was normal.

Twenty years later, it’s even worse.

Teens Pressure to be Busy - Big Bad Brainery

Teens are now taking high school classes in middle school, and college classes in high school. AP classes and dual enrollment used to be reserved for 11th and 12th graders, and limited to just a few classes a year. Now, kids are graduating from high school with an AA degree and nothing but high cortisol levels to show for it, since those credits don’t always save them money or years in college.

The buzzwords ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ are all over the place these days. Thanks to the social media that didn’t exist when I was a kid, we can all now publicly pretend to be doing something about our stress levels, as we do nothing to stop this cycle in real life. It’s unpopular and feels difficult to decide to meditate instead of doing homework, or get some exercise instead of sitting inside studying for an exam.

It’s a human thing. Even if we value something and know it’s best for us, we often choose to follow our heads and cultural patterning rather than that intuition.

The last thing any of us parents wants to feel is that we’re perpetuating the problem, but the truth is…we absolutely are.

There seem to be two knee-jerk reactions parents have to teens’ school-related stress:

  1. “Yea, what else is new?”…AKA “Welcome to the real world, kid.”

  2. “Don’t worry, honey. I’ll help you.” (Translation: “I’ll do it all for you.")

I’m here to tell you there is a middle ground between throwing your kid to the wolves and helicoptering them through adolescence. The reason a lot of people shy away from it, though, is because it requires vigilance and uncomfortable choices.

First, moving into this supportive space means completely changing your desired outcome. Instead of doing everything in the name of high SAT scores, college acceptance, or career acquisition, we have to have make our child’s mental and physical health our top priority.

What does this look like? That’s the tough part.

It might look like taking your stressed-out high schooler to get ice cream after school and making them take a night off from homework, even if they protest. It might look like fighting for your weekends to be family time again by saying no to all the activities. Or it may look like getting them some outside help in the form of therapy.

This is the ultimate test for parents because it can feel like you’re right back in school, choosing to go against the grain while all the other parents go another way. Standing up for your child when a teacher insists on building the pressure. Considering that a traditional college track may not be right for them.

Can you handle the stress of not wanting your teen to be stressed, and the line of questioning that is sure to follow from your own peers and advisors?

I say we have no choice. The primary responsibility we take on as parents is to prepare our kids for adulthood. How we define a healthy, happy future for them is what determines our actions now.

Do we want teens to think that this depressed and anxious world we’ve created is normal? Even if your teen seems to have it all together now, it’s only a matter of time before the emotional breakdown. No one is immune…not even the type-A kids.

It’s because I was one of those kids, who became one of those adults, that I believe so strongly in the need for a change. I transitioned from offering just tutoring, which felt like emphasizing the problem, to a more holistic type of support for the teens who so desperately need an adult to tell them that it’s okay to slow down.

I wish someone had shown me this when I was filling out college applications while doing Calculus homework.

If you barely see your teen or only see the anxious, overwhelmed version of them, it’s time to break the cycle. Let’s talk about how to take them from panic to ease with all the academic things.

Click below to see my customizable anti-anxiety coaching package. I’d love nothing more than to help your teen recover from the busy disease. I promise it’s entirely curable.

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Chelsea Torres