Last week, I had a meal at one of my favorite Italian restaurants. The food there is simplicity at its best; the chefs use straightforward, focused ingredients to create one delicious dish in which you can taste every hint of flavor. Everything on the plate has a purpose, and there are no frills- just good, tasty food. The ability to create a menu in which all elements harmonize together to accomplish a larger goal is the hallmark of any great chef.
On the other side of that table (no pun intended), we’ve all had meals during which we wish the chef did a little more editing. That grilled tuna steak with a side of rice pilaf and vegetables sounded great on the menu, but the wasabi-pea crust on the fish and the pickled beets threw off the balance of the meal as a whole. There was simply too much happening on the plate.
Overscheduled and Overwhelmed Students
Teens experience a similar need for editing when it comes to their schedules. In order to strike a healthy work-life balance, it is often the case that certain cuts must be made when there are too many items on a student's plate. Due to the fact that the parts of the brain responsible for Executive Functions like cognitive flexibility, time management, planning, and prioritization are not fully developed yet in teens, it can be much harder for them to make those edits comfortably. This is how we end up with the student who is constantly overscheduled to the point that finding time for homework seems nearly impossible, but who also is not willing to make any changes or drop anything from their calendar.
With all the pressure students often feel to fit in with their peers or stand out for college acceptance boards, it is understandable why and how families come into these situations. As an Executive Function coach, I have often encountered parents who want to see their child drop an activity, or a level in math, and it is the student who is saying “no way.” There simply isn’t one component on that plate they feel they could do without. So, the family is faced with two options. The first option is to keep on going with the current schedule, knowing that the late nights and lack of sleep will continue. The other is to somehow help the child see that removing one item from the daily or weekly agenda will be okay. As adults, we know that our well-being relies on a healthy balance of work, social, family, and general downtime. No parent enjoys seeing their child stressed out and exhausted. But how can we have that conversation with overwhelmed students without them tuning out?
Work-Life Balance: Agreeing on Priorities
It is important to begin by understanding that she’s not just saying “...but mom, they’re ALL important!” She really believes that to be true. To many students, all activities and commitments are equally important. In other cases there may be disagreements around what is essential or nonessential. From the parent’s perspective, the college-essay writing workshop may be slightly more important than the robotics club that is just for fun. Yet from a student’s perspective, the two activities are of completely equal importance. So how do you find common ground?
Initiating this conversation with your child in a way that will empower him or her to choose wisely is of the utmost importance. Since time can be such an impalpable concept, it may be helpful to start with some activities that make time more tangible or concrete. Some of these activities include:
- Counting or tallying up the hours of free time versus structured time in his/her schedule.
- Using highlighters or google calendar to color code a weekly schedule according to activities/commitments (don’t forget homework and part-time jobs/volunteer work).
- Using a 24 part wheel to represent the 24 hours in his or her day and discuss how each ‘slice’ is spent.
Any of the above activities should be followed up with questions meant to open up a discussion about the child’s priorities when it comes to how s/he spends time. These questions may include:
- Which is more important to you?
- Which is more likely to have an impact on your future?
- Which brings you more joy?
Making the decision to “cut” certain activities from a teen’s schedule is often a very difficult agreement to reach. It may be the case that you both have strong beliefs and simply aren’t yet able to come to an agreement on the topic. The best way to win that battle is with empirical data, as opposed to opinions.
So what do I do when we still disagree?
Want to find out the next step to helping your overwhelmed child select meaningful priorities? Download our Priorities Matrix step-by-step guide below. This activity is specifically designed to help guide teens (and adults) toward mindful decision making around how time is spent.
photo credit: IMG_1305 via photopin (license)