Homework. Sports. Hanging out with friends. Part-time jobs. Other commitments. Teens have a ton to do. Many are focused on racking up experiences for their post-high school plans. But as they build up their resume for adult life, there is one skill experts say they are missing -- knowing how to relax.
Sound ridiculous? Teens with too much to do are at risk of burning out. Stress can zap the energy they need to focus and make good choices. When they run themselves ragged, unhealthy choices can seem like the easiest option. What teen hasn’t been tempted to veg out on the couch instead of going for a walk, grab chips for a snack instead of yogurt, or stay up all night to cram for a test instead of getting sleep? The problem is that all of those can set them up for unhealthy weight gain.
To make matters worse, when they're stressed, they can also turn to those same unhealthy behaviors -- like eating junk food, watching too much TV, and playing video games – to feel better and de-stress. It’s a trap.
Instead, teens need to learn how to break free. You can help teach them how to manage stress before it becomes overwhelming and deal with it in healthy ways when it does strike. Then they'll be able to have the energy to make fit choices. Knowing how to recharge is a life skill that is just as important as loading up on formal activities, classes, and lessons, say experts.
"I would be happiest if there were a required course in things like yoga or meditation, and I wouldn't have said that 10 or 20 years ago," says clinical psychologist Marsha Levy-Warren, PhD, author of The Adolescent Journey. "Kids [these days] don’t know how to turn off, calm down, and figure out what it is that’s important to them."
Signs of Too Much Stress
Your teen might not even notice when they are stressed out and overwhelmed. If you notice any of these signs, it's time to talk to your teen about the pressures and stress in their life:
When you talk, explain that stress can lead to unhealthy habits like eating junk food and choosing to play video games instead of exercising, which actually could make them feel better.
Movement and exercise are great choices for dealing with stress. Let them know that exercise can trigger "feel-good" chemicals in their brain that should make them feel better. Then work with them to come up with ways to get movement into their day.
Besides helping their moods, movement is important for teens’ health. Teens need to get 60 minutes of exercise throughout the day. Pushups in the morning, shooting hoops after school, a family walk after dinner -- it all adds up. Plus, people who are active are more likely to make better food choices. Teens who fuel their bodies right will have the energy they need to tackle their busy days. That’s a positive cycle.
To Manage Stress, Set Priorities
Teach your teen how to cut down on activities; that can also help relieve some pressure if they're stressed out.
"When parents say, 'That's too much, you have to choose,' you're helping kids learn how to prioritize, which is a very important skill they're going to need for the rest of their lives," says Roni Cohen-Sandler, PhD, author of Stressed-Out Girls.
Sit down with your teen and help her decide which activities are most important to her -- which ones she likes the best. Then, work together to decide which ones to continue and which ones to stop.
If your teen plays sports, limit them to one per season. Do the same with other commitments. Try to have at least one day where she comes home without any scheduled activities. On those days, encourage your teen to find healthy, unstructured ways to relax. Explain to her that listening to soothing music or taking a stroll in nature would be good ways to chill.
Cutting back on commitments can also help make sure your teen gets at least 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep a night. Not enough sleep can lead to unhealthy weight gain. Plus, when they don't get enough sleep, they’re also more likely to eat unhealthy foods and not want to move.
Be a Role Model
If you talk the talk of making time to recharge, you also need to walk the walk.
"If you're a type A personality who is a workaholic who never takes time off, your kids are going to do that, too," says child and adolescent psychiatrist Shamina Henkel, MD, director of psychiatric services for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
Children learn by example. Try to dial back on your commitments, when possible. If you don't ease off your over-scheduled life, your child won't understand why they should. If they see you reach for junk food or plop down in front of the TV in order to relax and recharge, they'll learn to copy those unhealthy behaviors.
Instead, when you're stressed, show that you can deal with it in healthy ways: Ride your bike, meditate, listen to relaxing music. Then explain to your teen what you're doing and why you’re doing it. You can even invite them to join you.
"Eat right, exercise, take time off," says Henkel. "Teach them, 'This is good for me, it feels good for me, it helps keep my stress level down.'"
That, in turn, can make it easier to have a clear mind and the energy to be mindful of the choices you make when it comes to fueling your body right with healthy foods.
Encourage Downtime to Avoid Burnout
To keep stress at bay, also offer kids a break. Parents are often in a frenzy, rushing from one thing to the next, says Cohen-Sandler. But don't get on teens as soon as they get home from school to "be productive" or start on school work. This can add unnecessary stress.
"Give them relaxation time and model that skill yourself," she says.
Carve out time during your day to unwind, just like you’d make time for meals. You might suggest that your teen walk the dog or dance to some music before starting on homework, for example. Moving around helps get their brains ready to study as well as lowers stress.