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Burnout in kids & teens? It’s not just for adults.

Burnout happens when you are fatigued and overwhelmed, increasing your negative mood and emotions. After two years of facing significant increases in our stress levels due to the pandemic, and the near constant need to navigate change in our lives – masks on/off, quarantine breaks, work from home/hybrid, etc. Our brains are over it! Add to that the combination of a reduction in our physical activity, more time at home, and less time out doing things we love with friends and family and the result is widespread burnout.

In this article, we interview Dr. Rebecca Jackson, vice president of programs and outcomes at Brain Balance. Dr. Jackson has published research on the topics of anxiety and emotional well-being as well as cognition and is a frequent media contributor and guest speaker appearing on shows such as ABC’s The Doctors Show, NBC’s Nightly News and more.

Burnout is typically a term associated with adults, but did you know that our children can experience it as well?

We are definitely noticing increased rates of burnout - in all ages, including our teens and tweens. It's easy for adults to think that burnout only applies to them, given all that we manage and juggle on a daily basis, but that simply isn't true.

Even though our kids don't always have the ability to understand or communicate what they are feeling and why, burnout can impact their lives as well.

Middle school and high school students face social, school and family pressures in addition to often juggling schedules that are non-stop. The pressures and stress can build, resulting in an array of symptoms. Knowing what to watch for, and strategies to impact burnout can help you support your teen through this time.

What are signs of burnout?

Signs of burnout include feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and out of control with areas of life. You can also experience increases in irritability and distractibility, which go hand in hand with an increase in negative moods and emotions. Combined together, they create a downward spiral.

Feeling burned out can make it harder to focus to start or finish tasks, which can result in feeling unprepared and falling behind, increasing stress levels even higher. A stressed or burned out brain will have a greater tendency to focus on the negatives and to worry, which will amplify the bad feelings.

Pinpointing burnout can be hard, as we have all experienced each of those symptoms from time to time. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms in any of your family members (or yourself) you can start with these burnout strategies. If the signs and symptoms aren't going away, then it is time to seek additional help and support.

7 tips for parents to help their tweens and teens address burnout:

1. Acknowledge their feelings

Acknowledge how your child may be feeling, and let them know that not only do you understand, but you're there to help. Share with them about a time when you were feeling the same way (even if it is now) and how it has impacted your ability to focus, feel motivated, or accomplish your daily tasks. Beginning a conversation with a common ground of understanding, and letting them know they aren't alone never hurts. Even if they roll their eyes.

2. You are in it together

Next, let your child know that no matter how overwhelming, or bad things feel now, you will work together to ensure this feeling doesn't continue. You will work together to find some simple strategies to help. Nothing will be a magic fix, but steps in a better direction.

3. Make a to-do list together

Sometimes the simple act of writing everything down can start to provide a better sense of control.

When it comes to the to-do list, write everything down that needs to be accomplished. Then go back and code that list by priority. What needs to be done now, and what can wait? Assign due dates and an order the list will be tackled in to use as a guide.

4. Make a list of helpful tips and techniques to keep the brain and body feel well and focused. Brainstorm together for a strategy list.

The strategies will include everything you can think of that can impact mood, focus and energy in a positive way. Let your child select the items they think would help or be manageable.

It isn't realistic to do everything on the list, but choosing a few items to focus on at a time can also contribute to a feeling of control and having a plan of attack.

It's important to let your child select which items they want to do - let them take some control here, otherwise it can become one more thing on their to-do list and more overwhelming nagging from you.

Items to consider on the tips and techniques list could include:

  • Sleep - are they getting enough? A tired brain has a harder time focusing and staying positive.
  • Fuel - not all food is created equal. Are they consuming consistent protein and healthy fats to help their energy and focus, or are they eating more processed food and sugars that will spike and crash mood and energy?
  • Physical activity - Are they carving out time for exercise, fun and relaxation? All three are strategies that can help engage positive emotions and can help energize the brain.

5. Take a break

The next two strategies involve setting aside the work for a bit. Taking a quick break mid-task, and a breather to relax daily can also influence mood and energy. While taking a break mid-task may sound counter-intuitive, stepping away from the work and returning when you are more fresh and focused can be more productive than toiling away for hours on end.

Set a timer hourly to get up and move! A few minutes to hydrate, eat and fire up your muscles through simple exercise or stretches can help to prepare your brain for another chunk of productive time.

6. Relaxation activities

When it comes to relaxation, a few minutes can go a long way. A hot bath, a long walk, or using a meditation app can be a great way to clear your mind and help your body relax. Creating even just 10 minutes of relaxation time a day, away from the tv, computer or phone can provide a calming breather.

7. Carve out time for fun

Finally, find time for FUN! Remember that teenagers by nature are social beings. Create opportunities for your teen to have a change of scene or environment (get them out of their room and out of the house). Better yet, adding a friend to the experience so they can share a laugh or two can help elevate their mood as well. Going for a hike, checking out the local roller rink, trampoline park, or skate park are all ways to experience both entertainment and exercise at the same time. You're never too old to be silly and have fun. Encourage activities that engage the muscles and elevate the heart rate for added benefits.

How can parents proactively prevent tween and teen burnout?

Parents can help to avoid or minimize burnout by helping to create and monitor healthy habits that support our brain and influence how we feel. Remember, that even as our kids are seeming older and more mature (mostly) by the day, you're still the parent and helping to guide them to balance is still needed at this age. Good sleep routines of 8+ hours of sleep per night, consistent healthy foods and exercise are simple strategies that have a huge impact in improving the brain's resilience to tolerate the stresses and challenges of life!

For more information about navigating burnout in kids, teens and adults, complete the form on this page.

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