Keeping your teen busy outside of school is a good thing, right? Absolutely! But if your teen’s weekly calendar is downright stressful, it may be time to reassess.
And how do we put this gently … there’s a good chance you could be the problem.
Be honest about your motivation for encouraging your teen’s busy after-school life: do you subscribe to the “more is better” approach—the more teams, clubs, and other activities, the more impressive your teen will appear on a college or job application?
Or perhaps you fear that unstructured time leads to trouble—and so you resist teen downtime at every turn?
Being busy isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Finding the right balance, however, of organized activities and unscheduled time is key to your teen’s overall health and happiness. The result of overscheduling with too many activities may show up in the form of physical ailments, sleeplessness, and slipping grades.
Extracurricular overload can also put too much focus on “doing” at the expense of “becoming your authentic self,” says Lauren Graham, founder of Approaching College, an online course that prepares teens and their parents for the transition to college.
“The authentic self is who we are when we feel most centered, conscious, self-actualized, and comfortable in our own skin,” explains Graham. “It’s about uncoupling ‘who you are’ from ‘what you do.’”
“Your authentic self goes beyond just identifying your passions to having a deep understanding of your unique personal gifts and how to best cultivate and use them.”
Worthwhile organized activities, Graham says, can help teens develop their true identity. “Parents can encourage their teen’s discovery process by helping them to engage in activities that use their strengths for the benefit of others. For example, a teen who is a star swimmer can teach free lessons at a local swim club.”
In reality, only six percent of teens meet the definition of “overscheduled,” spending 20 or more hours a week in extracurriculars, according to research from Yale University. Five to seven hours per week is the average. But how much your teen can handle is a personal matter.
“This is not a one-size-fits-all concept,” notes Laura Kastner, Ph.D., author of Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Raising Tweens and Teens. “One teen’s overschedule could be two days of sports and one volunteer activity. If he is shy, anxious, or introverted and needs more home-time for refueling, he might need to scale back. Another child could be involved five afternoons per week with two teams, volunteer work, and worship youth groups and absolutely thrive.”
While your teen should have a say in determining their organized activities, parental guidance is still important.
Kastner advises, “Parents are right in thinking they should give greater autonomy to their teens. But let them choose which activity, not whether to have one. Sometimes the anxious child wants to opt out of everything. Or an obsessive-compulsive teen wants to do more to the point of overload.”
How do you decide which of the many activities should stay on the roster? Graham advises teens to design a “Personal Growth Roadmap” in order to define their personal goals, milestones, and definitions of success. This focus helps to avoid overscheduling, she says. “Activities that don’t resonate with your teen’s roadmap will become unfulfilling by comparison and harder to keep on the calendar. The things that genuinely excite can take priority.”
It takes effort to identify and prioritize fulfilling extracurricular activities for your teen, but it’s time well spent. By helping our teens focus on who they are, rather than just what they do, we set them on a path to genuine self-discovery. And who knows? You just might save some wear and tear on your tires, too.