It’s back-to-school season, and with the new school year kids will have the chance to get involved in a wide variety of extra-curricular activities. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to get kids to try (and commit to) new activities…but many teens have an over-abundance of enthusiasm for diving into a full schedule of teams, clubs, lessons, and other opportunities.
I recently heard from a woman whose 8th grade son was getting involved in extra-curricular activities for the first time, finding out what he likes and making friends in a way he hadn’t before. Which was all great, but every new dodgeball clinic, basketball team, and robotics program he signed up for was one more place his mom had to drive him! His dad is away on business a lot, and they don’t live near others who could carpool, so she’s the only chauffeur available. After trying it for one semester, she told him that they needed some sanity and to pick just two activities to do the next semester—and he flipped. She explained that not only is it hard on her, but being up late every night, doing homework in the car, and eating only fast food isn’t healthy for him. But he’s unusually upset. According to his mom, you’d think she was restricting him to solitary confinement. She’s wondering what to do.
As the parent of two active kids myself, I feel her pain! And if you find yourself caught up in an unmanageable schedule of extra-curricular activities for your kids, I feel yours too! Before you decide to “accidentally” lose your car keys or lock your teenager in their room before you lose your mind, let’s talk about what’s happening inside theirs. You know that at this age, your teen is embarking on an exciting new life season—but what you may not know is how scared they are of losing it. In my research, I was struck by how much teens and pre-teens are exhilarated and enlivened by this profound new feeling of freedom that they’re experiencing: it rapidly becomes one of the most important and most motivating things in their life.
Extra-curricular activities give teens the opportunity to try—and succeed at—new things.
For the first time, your teen is learning what they’re interested in and good at without the ever-present hand and guidance of good ol’ mom and dad. They’re connecting with people and making new friendships of their choosing—maybe kids you’ve hardly even met. Maybe they’re being offered the chance to try new things that they’ve never done before. And finding out that they’re good at them! In many ways, your teen is probably feeling like a real person instead of just a child who doesn’t really know who they are. Now put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine how scary it would be to feel as if you were going to lose a lot of that.
Teens don’t want to lose the good feelings they get from succeeding at new things.
If you try to limit commitments by having your teen choose several (out of their many) activities, they’re not hearing a statement of sanity for the family, of compromise for you, or of setting good boundaries so their grades don’t suffer. They’re hearing things like: “You’re going to lose this amazing feeling of fitting in and people admiring you.” “You’re going to lose the feeling that you’ve finally gotten, of being good at something.” “You’re going to lose the intoxicating sensation that you can make your own choices and be your own person.”
You can see how upsetting that would be, right? Now, don’t get me wrong: it is very reasonable to have your teen limit their activities. You’re doing your job as a parent to notice that the current situation might not be working and taking steps to address that. But the key is to understand what is underneath your teen’s reaction—because to them, their worry is reasonable, too.
Find ways to help your teen experience success within a reasonable schedule.
So as you consider making some changes, try to learn specifically what your teen’s worries are and do whatever you feasibly can to address them. Ask questions about what they like most about each activity, and pull out the feelings behind the fears. Let them know that you totally understand and want to prioritize the things that are most important to them.
For example: “I saw you grin when you made that great basket and everyone cheered. That’s a great feeling, isn’t it? If that is really important to you, let’s make sure one of your two activities is a team sport like that.” Or, “Are you really enjoying hanging out with Nate and Brad? Maybe if we cut dodgeball, you can invite them over after school some days.”
Even though you might feel that there’s no way around having to cut back on some things, show your teen that you “get” why they could be upset, and that you want to value what matters to them. Then you’ll not only have a better schedule, but a better understanding of the person your teen is becoming.
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Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her latest book, Find Rest: A Women’s Devotional for Lasting Peace in Busy Life, focuses on a journey to rest even with life’s constant demands.
Visit www.shaunti.com for more.