the teen tightrope

It was the fourth night in a row that Brian G.* couldn’t sleep. With his jam-packed schedule, his anxiety was mounting. Lately, he’d been having trouble concentrating, and his appetite was non-existent. The high school junior was applying to college and for the last three years, he’d been determined to pack his résumé with everything he could—the toughest courses, the best grades, and nonstop extracurricular activity. He was a big success. So why did he feel so terrible?

“The attempt to get a competitive edge on college admission quite often backfires, causing teens to feel burnt out by high school graduation,” explains Stacie Sebastian, an Outreach Teen and Family Services counselor.

And it’s often a family problem, as concerned parents pressure their children to excel. “Teens and parents need to be on the same page—promoting a healthy life balance and avoiding a focus on living life for a competitive college admission résumé,” says Sebastian, a specialist with more than 12 years experience in helping teens manage depression, anxiety, anger and substance abuse issues.

Symptoms of teen burnout include the insomnia, difficulty concentrating and appetite change that Brian experienced, as well as anger and withdrawal. Left unchecked, such stress can lead to depression and drug and alcohol abuse.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that parents and teens can do to avoid this trap. First and foremost, they can step off the competitive treadmill, where success is judged in relation to community opinion and nothing less than perfection is acceptable.

Instead, they can focus on a child’s individual strengths and interests. “Carve an individual path—ultimately success will center more on whether a student is free to pursue passions than whether he goes to a top-ranked school,” notes Sebastian. “According to Alexandra Robbins in Overachievers: The Secret Life of Driven Kids, half of all students who attempt college do not graduate, perhaps in part because students aren’t going to schools that are right for them.”

Teenagers’ activities should be limited, ideally, to those they truly enjoy and where enjoyment is the primary objective. Parents can avoid becoming overinvested in their child’s success, reinforcing character development rather than mere performance. They can make family time a priority, including planning meals and activities where relaxed communication can build support.

So what can you do if you think your teen is suffering from burnout?

“Individual counseling can be beneficial,” Sebastian says. “Teens will learn skills that can help them manage life and enjoy it.” These skills, which can makes teens less vunerable to negative emotions, include  time management, prioritizing their activities, relaxation techniques, effective assertive communication, and improved physical self-care. Family counseling can help in improving family communication to strengthen much-needed supportive relationships.

Outreach offers a number of avenues for parents and teens to get help with this and many other issues. Caring professionals offer counseling, parent coaching, support groups such as Coffee Talk, held the first Thursday evening of each month, and TeenScreen, a free computerized health-screening tool.*

* Brian G. Represents a typical Outreach client. Details do not correspond with any specific case in order to protect patient anonymity. 

Outreach Teen & Family Services offers affordable, accessible, discreet counseling and educational programs for teens and parents. 412-561-5405.