Balancing It All: Are Teens Too Busy These Days?

For adolescents juggling school, homework, extracurricular activities, social commitments, SAT/ACTs, and maybe even college applications, the day may never seem long enough.

Phew…just writing out that list made us need to take a breath!

Teens these days are as busy as ever.

Is it good to be busy?

Many feel that it’s good to be busy.

“I don’t want my kids just sitting at home on their laptop or phone all day,” moms say.

“Getting involved in lots of activities boosts your application,” guidance counselors say.

“Being idle increases problematic behaviors, and extracurricular activities make you more successful in the long run,” researchers say.

The last one deserves a bit more explanation. Because it is true: engaging yourself in various hobbies and activities does boost academic and behavioral outcomes. Research shows that teens who participate in many extracurricular go further academically than their peers who don’t—even after controlling for intelligence level. And in cities where teens play more school sports, juvenile arrest rates and teen birth rates are lower.

Benefits of Extracurriculars

Further, not participating in any hobbies or extracurriculars is associated with high-risk behaviors. Data from a wide-ranging meta-analysis of how teens spend their time shows that teens who don’t spend any time at all on hobbies or activities are more likely to drop out of high school, use drugs, get arrested, and become teen parents.

But, is it just about being busy vs. being idle? Is it that teens who participate in extracurriculars don’t have time to get in trouble?

Not really. According to the research, participating in hobbies and activities gives teens the unique positive benefits of identify formation, peer membership, and forming mentor relationships with non-familial adults.

Hobbies are a great way for teens to establish an identity outside their family. It feels good to be able to say “I’m a band guy,” or “I’m an athlete,” or “I’m a big part of the drama club.” It’s about feeling like you belong to something greater than yourself. About having the support of your club/team. Forming positive relationships with your peers, coach or student advisor.

All of which, we must mention, are benefits that still apply even if you’re only participating in one extracurricular activity!

So Much to Do, So Little Time

We recognize the fundamental value and benefits of clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities, and unequivocally support teen participation in them.

But at a certain point, it can become too much.

Consider the schedule of 16-year-old high school junior Brooke Ross, who was recently featured in a Wall Street Journal article:

“Some Saturdays turned into a mad dash when volleyball games for her club team conflicted with dance competitions, leaving Brooke tearful and exhausted. Brooke…dropped Irish dance, which she misses, and club volleyball, but she’s still stretched this year trying to study for tough junior-year classes while playing on one volleyball team and working part-time on Saturdays.”

Or consider Sean Smith, 17 years old, who says he “overloaded himself in his freshman year by taking five courses, plus an online Spanish class, band, lacrosse, cross-country, and piano lessons and performances.”

“Since that initial period of awfulness, I’ve learned to manage my time better,” he told the WSJ.

The pressure to dedicate themselves to so many commitments can get overwhelming for certain teens. Faced with such demands on their time, and the desire to give their all to everything they do, some teens barely sleep. Forget the benefits of sitting down together to a family meal—some don’t even feel like they have time to eat.

That’s why, at this point, it’s important to mention:

If your teen is getting so overwhelmed that they’re getting depressed, developing anxiety, or resorting to substance use (including amphetamines like Ritalin) to try to keep up with everything, then there’s a problem.

While activities and grades are important, mental health should always come first.

Does being too busy lead to mental health issues?

There’s some speculation about whether overscheduling one’s time can actually lead to problematic behavior like substance abuse or mental health issues.

While it definitely seems like it can, the data doesn’t really prove a link. In a sample of more than 16,000 high schoolers in Brazil, many of whom participated in numerous extracurricular activities (including volunteering work, art, and sports) and many of whom abused drugs and alcohol, there was no association or correlation between the two factors.

Another study on extracurricular involvement in affluent teens tested the hypothesis that overscheduling leads to distress and risky behaviors like using drugs or alcohol. The researchers couldn’t find any link between the two, though they did find that parents’ attitudes towards achievement, and the absence of after-school supervision, clearly led to these problematic behaviors.

So it doesn’t look like being too busy can actually lead to mental health disorders or substance abuse.

Too Busy = Too Stressed

However, it can definitely lead to stress, on an objective level. And there is a clear link between stress and mental health disorders. Too much pressure and stress can exacerbate preexisting mental health conditions, or cause new ones to develop.

Let’s take homework, for example. High school homework can take hours to complete every night. And it can get challenging for even the best of students. (Don’t remember? it’s probably for the better.)

Try to understand it from their point of view: You just spent the better part of the day at school, sitting in numerous classes and trying to keep up with all the notetaking. You barely ate at lunch because you were cramming for your science quiz. After school, you head straight to practice, or a club meeting. By the time you come home, it’s already dark. You grab a quick bite to eat, check all the texts and messages you missed, and start your homework. Remember that many courses give substantial amounts of take-home work. Every night. Which equals lots of hours necessary to complete it.

At a certain point at night, when you’re trying to figure out the answer to a difficult geometry problem while trying desperately to keep your eyes open so you can finish math and then finish your English essay, which is due tomorrow, you’re so overwhelmed that you just want to wake up when high school is over.

You can’t imagine doing this again tomorrow night.

And the next.

But you have to, because grades.

And college.

So it’s not surprising that teens are stressed.

The question is, what is there to do about it?

Emotion Regulation Skills

What’s the difference between stressed teens who develop mental health issues and stressed teens who don’t?

Emotion regulation skills, says Elise Guthmann, LMFT, Program Director at Evolve Ojai Residential Treatment Center.

Emotion regulation skills are also known as coping mechanisms. They can calm you down when you get upset, angry, frustrated, or generally stressed. When you have these tools in your arsenal, you know how to take a deep breath, ground yourself, and keep moving forward. When you don’t, you just explode. Or give in to drugs, alcohol, or other escape mechanisms.

Managing Your Emotions

Lack of emotion-regulation abilities is what causes many teens to self-harm, lash out at others, or otherwise act out in non-productive ways.

“Underlying many teen’s challenges with mental health issues is their lack of skill and ability to regulate their emotions,” says Guthmann. “This skill becomes more and more important especially as the pressures of life (e.g. home, school, extracurriculars, friends, and more) pile up.

“Being able to face challenges, even when things don’t go our way, is a fundamental skill needed for resiliency and success.”

When you have emotion-regulation skills, you are able to first calm yourself down from any intense emotions, and then use your “Wise Mind”—a concept in Dialectical Behavior Therapy— to think clearly about what the best thing would be to do.

So, to take the case of crammed teen schedules as an example, teens can then use their Wise Mind to logically prioritize commitments (which, yes, might mean cutting down on certain activities), learn how to manage their time appropriately, and resolve conflicts.

In Conclusion

To sum up, extracurriculars definitely have significant value for teens. But of course, too much of a good thing is never good.

If stress causes problems with your teen’s sleeping, eating, or basic hygiene—or you see other signs of problematic behavior relating to mental health issues or substance use—you need to get professional help.

Seek out a mental health professional who can assess your teen and guide you on the next steps. If an assessment indicates therapy, keep in mind Dialectical Behavior Therapy prioritizes teaching emotion-regulation skills. If your teen’s case is severe, full-time DBT residential treatment might be required. For teens who don’t need a residential program,  partial hospitalization or intensive outpatient program may be good alternative options.

The setting doesn’t matter as much as the need to get help as soon as you see the signs.