The transition between summer and the new school year can be overwhelming for many teenagers, myself included. Free time and moments for relaxation are quickly taken over by a seven-to-eight hour school day, homework, extracurricular activities, friends and family, and—if we’re lucky—a little time for ourselves. But with more demands on our lives than ever before, it’s important to find a way to balance everything—both for right now and our futures. Here are some tips for teens and pointers for parents about how to find balance this school year.
Tips for Teens
1. Prioritize what matters to you most.
I get the impression that a lot of teenagers feel the need to get involved in lots of different activities and jam pack their schedules. I also hear stories of teens that do things solely for the purpose of “impressing colleges.” My advice is to choose a few activities you truly enjoy and are passionate about. Dive deeply into those activities and stay committed. Many colleges are more impressed by this approach than by a little bit of everything.
2. Challenge yourself in school, but not excessively.
Taking rigorous classes has many benefits. However, plan your schedule carefully and avoid overloading yourself. Talk to students who have taken a particular class in the past and ask them how much outside work it required. Figure out how much time you will have, and choose classes accordingly. Your interest in a particular subject should also play a role! For example, if you dislike history, taking AP US History may not be the best bet. Opt for taking the highest level of a course in subjects you like best!
3. Organize your tasks.
I recommend keeping a prioritized to-do list. I like to separate my to-do lists into three categories: today, short term, and long term. The tasks in “today” are what I do first, followed by the “short-term” tasks, and then the “long-term” tasks. I don't neglect the "long-term" tasks but rather try to move pieces of them to my "today" list on a regular basis. Spreading out tasks such as studying is also a good idea so that you give your brain the best chance of success.
4. Leave enough time to take care of yourself.
Both your physical and mental health are very important, and there are certain things you need to function at your best. You already know what these are, but too often, they get pushed aside when we get too busy. Be sure to leave enough time to:
- Spend time with friends and family
Building and maintaining strong relationships with friends and family is very important.
Exercise has been shown to have dozens of benefits on your body, from improved memory to increasing your energy levels to better sleep. Find a type of exercise you truly enjoy and try to make it a part of your routine.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet
Eating healthy will fuel your body with the nutrients it needs to run optimally. It can also be a fun study break to make a healthy snack!
Find what helps you decompress and relax. I like to take long walks and listen to music. You can also try yoga, reading, or writing.
- Get adequate sleep
Address the most neglected physical need for many teens: sleep. Teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep per night. Inadequate sleep puts you at an increased risk for impaired attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. In addition, inadequate sleep can make it harder for the brain to adapt to input, making memorizing all of that biology vocabulary that much more difficult! For more information regarding the importance of sleep and tips for improving your sleep habits, check out Teens Need Sleep, an organization I founded in an effort to address the sleep deprivation epidemic among teenagers.
Devoting time to taking care of yourself may seem like it’s taking away from productivity, but it likely will actually make you more productive by increasing your efficiency, memory, and focus. This brings me into my next tip for maintaining balance this school year.
5. Increase your productivity.
In addition to taking care of yourself, there are other ways to increase your productivity. Limit distractions during time when you need to be focused, such as when you are doing homework. Put your phone away and turn off all notifications on your phone or computer. If you need to use your computer for homework, avoid straying from the websites you are using for the task at hand. I realize that this takes quite a bit of self-control, but luckily, there are applications that can block certain websites for a period of time. Take frequent breaks as well. You can use the time to eat a healthy snack, stand up and walk around, or go outside. Studies have shown that short breaks can actually increase productivity. Being productive can free up more time in the day!
6. Have fun!
High school only happens once, so make an effort to live every day to the fullest and take time to do things you love. This circles back to my earlier point about choosing extracurriculars you are passionate about and taking rigorous classes in subjects you enjoy most. It also extends to being with friends. Friendships formed in high school can last a lifetime.
Pointers for Parents
1. Set reasonable expectations.
Teenagers are already under a lot of societal pressure and have a lot on their plate. Setting goals and expectations for your teen—or better, with your teen—can be beneficial, but make sure they are achievable. For example, if your teen is struggling in a particular subject, expecting that they get an A on every assignment in that class may be a stretch. Making home a comforting, supportive environment rather than a strict, stressful one can go a long in way in keeping your teen healthy, both physically and mentally.
2. If you are noticing that your teen is overwhelmed with their current coursework and extracurriculars, advise them to choose some things they could let go.
Explain to them that they can always pick an activity back up later if they find more time. I remember during the spring of my junior year, when I was feeling very overwhelmed by school and extracurriculars, my mom encouraged me to give up piano for a couple of months until tennis season was over. This one change ended up being a big relief and I had renewed interest and focus when I returned to piano a couple months later.
3. Make an effort to support your teen with the resources he/she needs.
It can be hard for teens to ask for help, even if it is what they need most. Mental health issues are on the rise, and it may be hard for your teen to be open about challenges they’re facing. Check in with your teen regularly and see how they are doing. Make clear that it is good to ask for help.
4. Encourage your teens to incorporate self-care into their routines and build healthy habits.
- Make family time fun!
With all the pressure your teen is under, it is important that family time not add to it. Consider activities likely to make your teen laugh, such as a game of Heads Up or a comedy movie, or activities that help provide some escape, such as a ropes course or fantasy film.
- Support your teen in getting enough exercise.
You can incorporate exercise into family time! Try going for a family bike ride, swimming together, or even just taking a walk around the neighborhood.
- Have healthy food options available at your home.
Hungry teens will often grab the first thing in front of them to eat. Try swapping chips and cookies for nuts and dried fruit!
- Remind teens to get adequate sleep!
Sleep deprivation is a chronic epidemic among all age groups, but it especially affects teenagers. If you are noticing that your teen is not getting adequate sleep (8-10 hours per night), talk to them about improving their sleep habits. Teenagers don’t always like to listen to their parents, so instead of lecturing them and implementing strict rules, try providing them information from outside sources. Teens Need Sleep is a great place to start. In addition to educating your teen, try to strategize with them about ways they can make sleep more of a priority in their lives, whether that be dropping an extracurricular or staying away from technology around bedtime.
I hope these tips can help both parents and teens find balance this school year. Here’s to a new school year!