Burnout is an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion caused by long-term stress. Although we usually think of burnout affecting adults, we now know teens get burned out, too. In fact, a recent study revealed that while the average American adult rates their stress level at 3.8 on a 10-point scale, the average stress score for teens is 5.8. But, while burnout is increasingly common among teens, it’s not inevitable. Here, we explain how to recognize the symptoms of burnout and prevent it from happening to your teen.
Burnout affects teens physically, mentally, and emotionally and causes changes in behavior. Physical symptoms include fatigue, lowered immunity, more frequent illness, changes in appetite and sleep, and chronic headaches or upset stomachs. Stressed teens may struggle with focus and concentration, engage in risky behavior, or act irritable, moody, or cynical.
They describe feelings of anxiety, dread, self-doubt, and hopelessness. They often withdraw from friends, family, and activities they once enjoyed. And while any teen is susceptible to burnout, high-achieving and perfectionistic teens experience it at higher rates. If the causes of a teen’s stress don’t change, burnout’s symptoms can go into a downward spiral, worsening over time.
It’s a scary scenario for parents, but researchers remind us that burnout always has an identifiable cause, and therefore can be resolved. “Oftentimes, burnout and depression can mirror each other,” says psychologist Adam Borland. “However, depression is a diagnosable mental health condition, whereas burnout is not.” Depression is generalized and often has no specific cause, but burnout happens in response to one or multiple stressors.
This means that parents and teens can work together to identify the sources of stress and alleviate it. Better yet, parents can use these six strategies to help their teens manage stress and avoid burnout altogether:
Set a positive example.
Burnout is contagious. If you’re working 12-hour days, feeling overwhelmed all the time, and experiencing the ill effects of chronic stress, your teen is likely feeling it, too. Parents who don’t address their own burnout teach teens that unhealthy stress levels are normal or even a badge of honor. To help your teen, help yourself first. Make sure your teen sees you prioritizing your own well-being and making time for rest, relaxation, exercise, and fun.
Integrate stress management into family time.
Managing stress often comes down to maintaining healthy habits, and teens learn those habits at home. Routines are stabilizing, so encourage your teen to wake up, go to bed, and eat meals around the same time each day. Other stress-busting habits include regular exercise, boundaries on screen time, and in person social connections with friends and family. Try cooking dinner together one night a week, planning a regular hike or bike ride, or scheduling shared downtime one weekend a month.
Talk about feelings.
Burnout’s most harmful consequences show up when teens feel unsupported and alone. Keeping the lines of communication open with your teen helps them process stress and talk through problems before they become critical. Let your teen know their feelings matter and help them develop a robust vocabulary for talking about emotions and stress. Remind them that their well-being is more important to you than their achievements. Above all, be willing to listen, empathize, and ask how you can help.
Be ready to offer support strategies.
Burned-out teens often say they feel like life is out of control and there’s no way to stop the stress. Teens are learning how to manage new levels of responsibility and independence, and some of their overwhelm is due to the unfamiliarity of juggling it all. Parents can help by providing support strategies like time management tools and mindfulness and meditation apps, or practices like journaling, yoga, or affirmations. What helps you manage your stress? The same techniques may be useful to your teen.
Teach them how to say “no”.
To avoid burnout, teens must learn how to make choices about their time and energy, and that means saying “no” sometimes. But, just like adults, teens worry that saying “no” will cost them friendships and opportunities, and they may feel guilty for prioritizing themselves. Help your teen practice evaluating requests before they respond and saying “no” in a way that feels authentic and honest. Make sure they’re well-equipped to set boundaries on their time and energy, so they can prioritize what matters most.
Help them learn to take breaks.
It sounds simple, but today’s teens rarely get a real break. Digital devices and social media make it so that what passes for downtime often actually raises teens’ stress levels. You can remind them to recharge their batteries with rest and self-care whenever they start to feel drained. For ideas, see our posts on how to help your teen unplug and our favorite mini-meditations. These techniques help your teen manage day-to-day stresses, stay centered, and keep burnout at bay.