Look at the demands you place on your teens. Are they overstressed, overscheduled, and overwhelmed? Here are tips to help them create happier, healthier, more balanced lives.
1. Realize you’re doing damage.
Of course parents don’t set out to harm their children when they push them to succeed; it’s natural to want your child to realize his potential and maximize every opportunity. But a student who feels brief chagrin at a teacher’s disappointment might beat himself up for days if Mom and Dad are unsatisfied with his performance.
Ask yourself these questions when your kids come home with four great grades and one that’s not so good (for example, four A's and one B): Do you focus on how great the A’s are? Or is your first response, “Why did you get the B?” By celebrating the A’s, you let your child know top marks are the goal, but you do it in a healthier and more celebratory way than by being disappointed over the one grade that was lacking. Teens might act indifferent to their parents, but they want to please us.
2. Accept that not all kids are the same.
Resist the natural tendency to compare your children to each other, to their classmates, and to your friends’ kids.
3. Let some things go.
All parents struggle with striking a balance between holding their kids accountable and letting them get away with too much. It’s easy to err on the side of expecting too much, so evaluate what expectations are realistic and what achievements are important.
Come to terms with the fact that your teen may never get up on time or make her bed before school. And realize that neither of those things is likely to ruin her life. Keep the big picture in mind. Everyone will be less stressed if you can resist the urge to micro-manage every task.
4. Seek balance and happiness.
Determine what your child’s personal best looks like. If your child puts in a reasonable amount of effort at school, accept that B if it’s the best he can do. Don’t push for more.
5. Get help if it’s needed.
You had your “bad” subjects, and chances are your child will, too. If she’s giving this subject her all but is still too far below the mark, search for ways to get academic help. Even with parental support, what a child perceives as a failure can affect her self-esteem. If your child needs academic help, a tutor is a good idea. Or ask your child’s teacher if she can spend extra time with her or recommend someone who could give out-of-school help.
6. Teach kids to be easier on themselves.
Chances are that a majority of students spend more time brooding over the test they bombed than celebrating the one they aced. As a result of magnifying what they perceive as failures, these young people reinforce in their minds how “subpar” they think they are. If you suspect your child beats himself up, help him to refocus the way he looks at life. Try to direct your child’s attention to the things he does well. The best way to teach this is to model such behavior. Everyone—not just young people—can benefit from showing ourselves more compassion and love.
7. Discourage over-scheduling.
With school, soccer practice, dance class, church, friends, family, community service, and more, it’s easy for kids to become overextended. It’s not unusual for young people to crack under the pressure of what can be 16- (or more) hour days. Parents often don’t recognize the strain until their children become physically affected. Outside of what’s required of them in school, encourage your kids to focus on activities that bring them joy. In the long run, developing their skills in a few things they’re good at—and maybe even passionate about—will help them more than trying to do a little of everything and burning out on all of it. If you see your teen becoming overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to say no to the next time commitment request he makes.
8. Discuss perceived stress vs. what’s real.
Stress and anxiety are insidious: once they take root in your mind, they grow. It’s easy for every waking moment to be consumed by fretting about what might go wrong. So it’s important to talk with your teen about what’s stressing him and to help him determine which worries are productive and which aren’t.
Explain to your child that it can be productive to worry a little about his upcoming biology test because that worry will prompt him to study. However, point out that it’s not productive—and actually unhealthy—to worry that he might get too many B’s and C’s, which might prevent him from getting into the college he wants, which might prevent him from pursuing a successful career. Talk about what reasonable expectations look like for each week, grading period, and year. And share your own experiences to help your child put his situation into perspective.
9. Help kids live in the present.
If your child obsesses about what she could have done better or stresses about what might go wrong, she’ll miss out on actually living her life. (This problem plagues adults, too.) To reduce stress, help your teen focus her attention on the good things in her life now.
And living in the present goes for you, too. Don’t be so focused on the future that you forget to enjoy the time you have with your child today. Kids are smart—even from early childhood they can tell when you’re not really “with” them mentally, and that’s how they’ll learn to behave, too.
10. Focus on the importance of organization.
Knowing exactly where everything is, what needs to be done, and the best way to do it never hurt anyone. Teach your children to keep an updated calendar, to make thorough to-do lists, and to keep their school papers in order. Being organized will eliminate needless worry along the lines of, “I forget what I’m supposed to do for history class tonight!”
Help your children with school and home to-do lists. Also, establish a weekly time to clean out sports bags and backpacks. Consider designating a homework area, complete with storage folders for each child and class. Being organized sets you up for success not just in school, but throughout your life.
11. Teach kids to utilize the most efficient times of their day.
As a parent, you might be unable to significantly decrease your child’s workload, but you can help him to work as efficiently as possible. If your child is a morning person, encourage him to get up 20 minutes early to practice violin or review for a test. Likewise, if he’s a night owl, let him sleep as late as possible in the morning. Remember that the standard breakfast-school-everything-else schedule may or may not work best for your son; within reason, encourage him to do what’s most efficient.
12. Help kids work toward the big things.
You don’t want your kids to make themselves sick over things like finals or college applications, but at the same time, they can’t ignore these tasks. Help them approach major milestones with a plan and a realistic perspective that won’t give them ulcers.
Sit down with your child several times a year to talk about major changes and upcoming goals and how best to approach them. Until you broach the subject, you might not be aware of how worried your teen is about something. And this is a great opportunity to teach her how to break a big project into manageable chunks.
13. Promote exercise.
If your child is already involved in a sport or athletic activity, great! It will help him feel more relaxed and stronger, it will improve his sleep, and it’s a natural anti-depressant. If physical activity isn’t part of your teen’s life, encourage him to find a way to be active that he enjoys.
Exercise is the single most important thing we can do to become less stressed and happier. It’s an energizer, and it makes us receptive to change by invigorating our mind and body. So consider making physical activity a family event. Take a hike in the mountains, a swim at the YMCA, or a walk around the block.
14. Encourage kids to spend time with positive people.
Encourage your child to spend time with peers as well as teachers and other mentors who are positive influences. This is also something you can model yourself. Stop having gripe-fests at the kitchen table with your friends if you want your child to spend more time around happy people.
The ability to cultivate happiness and balance is one of the best ways to set your child up for success. Yes, performance and doing one’s best are important—but not at the price of your child’s wellbeing.
Todd Patkin lives with his wife, son, and two dogs. His book, Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011) is available at bookstores and online.