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Overscheduled Teenagers

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Anisha Abraham
Chief of Adolescent Medicine at Georgetown University Hospital
Tuesday, July 15, 2008; 11:00 AM

Many of today's teens have a daily itinerary that starts at 6 a.m. and concludes at midnight. Between school, sports and other after school commitments, their packed schedules leave little room for relaxation and much opportunity to crack under pressure.

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Anisha Abraham, chief of adolescent medicine at Georgetown University Hospital and medical director of the Wellness Clinic at H.D. Woodson High School, will be online Tuesday, July 15, at 11:00 a.m. ET. She will answer questions about managing a busy schedule as a teen and the consequences of having too much to do.

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Dr. Anisha Abraham: Thanks for joining our discussion on "overscheduled and overstressed" teens this morning!

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Munich, Germany: In which ways would you recommend teens develop a healthy relationship to time? Crunching too many activities into one day is indicative to overestimating their own abilities. Thoughts? Thanks!

Dr. Anisha Abraham: Some activities may be very helpful for teens to develop a hobby or interest and to cultivate time management skills. However, every teen has a different threshold for balancing activities. I recommend periodically reevaluating as to whether the activity is enjoyable and of importance to the adolescent. The key is moderation and realistic expectations.

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California, Maryland: I caution parents who push their children far too hard in today's world. As a child that was pushed and where nothing seemed good enough for my parents I can only tell you that things get harder as you start to launch your college careers. As the articles I am reading say, I did the same things -- took advanced placement courses, joined and participated on varsity sports teams, joined extra clubs, and got the part-time job at night, on the weekends and during the summer. After high school, I rushed through my college experience working a full-time job while still managing school and graduating on time with my fellow students. I threw in extra courses and insisted on graduating with honors (an extra program not required). As well, I started my career early because I felt the ever increasing need to speed things up and as a result never really stopped to understand who I was and what I wanted instead of my parents. It was not until my college graduation that I realized I didn't want the life I had rushed to build to please my parents so much. After years of medical problems, exhaustion, and crazed frustration, I have slowed down and started to evaluate myself -- a very hard process for teens and anyone who has never really stopped long enough to ask the question, "why?" I write this to let teens know that going to Harvard doesn't guarantee your success and not going to Harvard doesn't mean that you aren't the best. Keep in mind that some of the most "successful" people, as our society terms them, are also some of our unhappiest. In the end, if you do not take the time to really ask what you want and who you are you will run through your life so fast that you'll wonder where you were even running to.

Dr. Anisha Abraham: Thanks for your comments! Success is not about getting into the most elite school or college but about becoming a balanced, resilient and happy individual. Creating undue expectations and overscheduling can lead to anxiety and stress related problems in both adolescence and adulthood.

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Cleveland, OH: Will the intense focus on academic achievement compromise these kids' abilities to react well to real setbacks later in life (troubled relationships, declining health, loss of loved ones, etc.)? It seems to me that perspective is utterly lacking in these students and their parents. The day will come when these young people will be measured by more than just grades and test scores.

Dr. Anisha Abraham: I agree that focusing on academic achievement alone will prevent children and teens from developing valuable life skills.

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Bethesda, Md.: How does the equation of two working parents who are trying to cram in full time jobs and parenting responsibilities into their lives and trying to spend enough time with their kids factor into the stressed kids? How do you think that compares to one working-parent families or one part-time working parent families? My kids are 6 and 4, and I don't want to start down that road. Thanks.

Dr. Anisha Abraham: Kids can be stressed regardless of whether they have a parent at home fulltime or two parents working. How do you avoid this? I recommend having regular family time. Studies have shown that when families spend more time together, such as during meals, that kids do better emotionally and academically. I also recommend providing "unstructured time" when kids are left to just play and use their imagination.

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Charles Town, W.Va.: My mantra when dealing with my children is to always help them to succeed, and refuse to help them fail. It is the toughest distinction. They should be expected to achieve, but failure is often the best teacher. Fortunately, our girls loved gymnastics, and we found a gym that expected them to compete to their abilities, but did not expect Olympians (hard lesson for parents). They learned to perform alone in front of a crowd, and gained confidence with their best efforts. They also learned not to expect fairness always, as judges are sometimes unfair. They learned to separate their goal of doing their best from the judgment of others. Great sport for life!

Dr. Anisha Abraham: As you point out, cultivating an interest in a sport can help young people to gain confidence and feel empowered. However, we should allow young people to experience BOTH success and failure during extracurricular activities. Too often, we try to protect kids from failure.

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Washington, DC: Hi Dr. Abraham -- I used to work with you at CNMC on the inpatient (MCU) floor as a social worker. I am now an adolescent psychotherapist serving Montgomery County. The teens I see that are struggling with the AP load, too busy of a schedule, etc. feel hopeless a lot of the time because of the culture of their school/community and feel like its(culture) too big of an issue to change and thus they manifest their stress in ways they can 'control', i.e. cutting, anxiety issues, etc. My question would be whether or not you believe that we can enlist schools, esp. big public schools to help more. Very few of my teens have relationships with their school counselors. I wish there was more psychological support in schools.

Dr. Anisha Abraham: Hi! I do believe that schools can play a role. I try to enlist school counselors to help teens juggle loads and manage stress effectively. However, not all schools have psychological services available because of lack of funding/resources. This is very unfortunate and should be remedied from a system level. Finally, as mentioned in the Post article, Stanford's School of Education is launching a nationwide program called Challenge Success which may help persuade schools to reduce teen overscheduling by limiting AP classes, enforcing lunchtime, etc.

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Washington, DC: This "over-programming" problem in adolescence also contributes to the problems employers see when these young people start to work. They expect to be engaged every minute of the day, because that's what they're used to. They want their supervisors to give them only interesting and exciting projects. If they don't like the work they're doing, they get bored and they quit.

Dr. Anisha Abraham: Good point! "Over-programming" may condition young people to feel they need need constant stimulation and excitement particularly in their work life.

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Arlington, Va.: Has there been an examination on where the origins of such overscheduling comes from? Which is to say, does it stem from the high expectations and competitiveness of the parents, or of the child him-/herself?

Dr. Anisha Abraham: Overscheduling can be multifactorial in origin. Parents may contribute by creating expectations. Children and teens may a have a inner drive to excel and face pressure from their peers, schools and communities.

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Western, N.Y.: What about teens who have too little to do? There is a demographic disparity: a wide swath of teens are just 'average' kids who get B-minuses, don't have scheduled activities, work the odd minimum wage job, no chores at home and basically just 'hang out' for the most part. Isn't the overscheduled phenomenon particular to high-achievers?

Dr. Anisha Abraham: The overscheduled teen phenomenon could occur in a variety of sociodemographic settings. I have had teens who come from less affluent circumstances who are expected to contribute to the household income and go straight from school to a job. However, studies have shown that kids from low-income families often need more enrichment in their lives.

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Burlington, Vt.: How do you explain to a teen who is having physical complaints related to stress that it has a psychological basis? In other words, they may need to give something up in their schedule to feel better physically. Thanks.

Dr. Anisha Abraham: I tell young people that the stress can manifest in a number of physical ways. For example they can have headaches, stomach aches or feel tired all the time. As a result, reducing stress may help them to be more productive, have more energy and feel better!

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Reston, Va.: There are many children in poverty who must work very hard if they are to get higher education scholarships and break their family's cycle of generational poverty. My granddaughter is such a person. Due to her parents' divorce, she finds herself with a single parent who is poor. My granddaughter is a straight-A student and has been accepted with full scholarship into a school for high school juniors and seniors that will give her 60 hours of college credit along with her high-school diploma (The Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky). She, on her own, has indicated that she wants to go to a quality college, mentioning Harvard Law, for instance, or perhaps the Naval Academy. She has always been busy -- it seems to be in her genes. She needs a scholarship for the rest of her college. Colleges do review extracurricular and super-curricular activities when evaluating potential scholarship students. She knows this. Should she self-balance? Should she discuss her goals with a school counselor?

Dr. Anisha Abraham: I suggest that she discuss her goals with a school counselor and mentors. Her goal is to choose activities that she enjoys and will not detract from her academics or contribute to her feeling anxious or stressed.

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NE, DC: Overscheduling origins? As old as time! Keeping up with the Joneses. They have their kid in Latin class or karate or soccer or gymnastics or some other activity that is supposed to make these kids better or give them an edge. At the end of the day, your kids are who they are and all the opportunities do is open some doors, but a resourceful, savvy, hardworking kid that only had summer jobs and went to public school, will be much better off than the overstimulated, coddled kid from down the street, in the long run.

Dr. Anisha Abraham: I agree that having balanced realistic expectactions is very important for developing resilient and resourceful teens.

Thanks for all your comments! We will have to end our online discussion. If you have any further questions, you are welcome to email me at axay@gunet.georgetown.edu.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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