How to Support Your Burned-out Teen

I am seeing more and more tired, stressed, and even burned-out teens in my office lately. It could be due to the time of year (Spring Break feels so far away still), societal expectations, or maybe it’s just life. Whatever the reason, burn-out is real for teens. And there are ways to help.

How do you know if your teen is experiencing burn-out?

What’s the difference between typical, understandable stress and burn-out?

Stressed teens are often driven by a desire to push themselves to get that next A in an honor’s class or to be the best at what they do. This drive can lead to burn-out if prolonged. But in of itself, a little stress is not harmful and can even be motivating.

Burned-out teens experience low motivation, physical exhaustion, irritability, depression, and difficulty focusing. These symptoms don’t just last for a few days or a week, they are prolonged and can impact many areas of a young person’s life.

Here’s some of what you might see:

  •  Your teen is so overwhelmed that they can’t get started on their long list of assignments.
  • They procrastinate, feel guilty for procrastinating, fall apart emotionally, and then can’t sleep, or eat, or think.
  • They are paralyzed by the list of ‘first steps’ before they start their work: ‘first I need to clean my room so that I have a clear space’’ or ‘first I need to sort all the papers in my backpack and then I can get started.’
  • They spend hours on their phone, agree to stay up late or get up early (or both) and then are sleep deprived, left feeling like none of it is manageable.
  • They may start missing school and experience physical symptoms like stomach aches, fatigue, or headaches.
  • They have an increased desire to be alone and don’t want to do things that used to give them pleasure.

Why Are Teens Particularly Vulnerable to Burn-out?

As adults, burn-out is something we learn over time to recognize and avoid. We learn to practice self care, set boundaries, keep perspective, and maintain a work-life balance.

Teens often lack the experience necessary to do these things.

They may not feel comfortable advocating for themselves with authority figures (teachers) or keep details of how far behind they are or how low their grades have fallen hidden to avoid consequences. And so, they become easily isolated. And then fall further behind.

Most teens aren’t just managing academic demands; they participate in extracurricular activities that get them home at 7pm (if they’re lucky) before starting 3-4 hours of homework. Lack of sleep feeds the sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

This combination of overwhelm, exhaustion, and low motivation can take quite a toll on our teens; you might see them bursting into tears without apparent cause or a teacher might let you know that they spent most of math class crying in the bathroom.

I bet each of us remembers a similar time when our world came crashing down and things felt pretty hopeless.

What Can Parents of Burned-Out Teens Do To
Help?

The good part about your teen experiencing burn-out in high school is that you can still be there (physically) to support them–you aren’t trying to help when they are miles away from home attending college.

Here are some ways to help:

Acknowledge How They Are Feeling

Help your teen name their experience–it can feel scary to be physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted for a prolonged amount of time and so, having a name for what’s happening can reassure your teen that they are not alone. Without making their story become yours, you might share an example of when you were burned-out and what helped.

Look at An Online Scale Together

You can also use online self rating tools to put words to what your teen is experiencing. Here are a few that I’ve found helpful when working with young people: Perceived Stress Scale; Assess Your Burn-out Level (change ‘work’ to ‘school’); and Perceived Social Support Scale.

Take Something Off Their Plate

If your teen can’t ‘push through,’ ‘tough it out,’”deal,” or ‘pull it all off’ (or whatever language they use for getting through a stressful time), then it’s time to take something off their plate. Look at everything on their list including activities, assignments, honors courses, college applications, sports, etc. and prioritize what has to get done and what can be eliminated, at least for now.

Teens who identify as ‘high achievers’ often need permission to quit something. This is one of those opportunities for a life-long lesson in quitting–it’s okay to stop something if it is negatively impacting your mental health.

Embrace A Good Enough Mindset: “It’s okay to get a B!”

Many teens who come to my office for help are perfectionists. The search for perfection is part of what leads to depression, anxiety, and burn-out.

Where is this perfectionism tendency coming from?

One source might be this: teens see influencers on social media who pose as ‘just a normal teen like you.’

But these influencers are not real; their job is to have perfect make-up, say the funniest or most clever thing, or have a perfect look. Watching them on youtube or tiktok can lead teens to unconsciously believe that this is how they should be…perfect.

Help your teen embrace a ‘good enough’ mindset and remember that they don’t need to do it all perfectly in order to be truly good enough. You might need to prescribe a ‘B’ for your straight A student.

Help Them Get Back to Basic Self Care

When we are burned-out, we often revert to coping strategies that make us feel better in the moment but over time, make things much, much worse. For example, our sleep hygiene often goes down the toilet (e.g. we stay up too late, try getting up early, or look at screens late into the night because sleep evades us), we stop eating regular meals, and we stop physical activity.

Notice that I used the term ‘physical activity’ not exercise here; our teen has enough to do without adding a trip to the gym to the list. Instead, what they need is to remember that moving their body is a way to get back in balance mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Keep it simple:

  • Help them close the laptop and go for a 10 minute walk.
  • Or maybe they shut their bedroom door, crank their favorite music and dance for a song or two.
  • Make them a nurturing meal and have them sit down to eat, even if they haven’t started their homework.
  • Help them put away phones and other screens, especially at bedtime.

And finally, remind them that if they must choose between staying up late to cram for a test or get a full night’s sleep, the sleep will help more on the test than the late night cramming (there is a direct link between memory and eight or more hours of sleep).

For more on basic coping and self care strategies for teens, check out my article Building Positive Mental Health With Your Tween or Teen.

Seek Outside Support

Get your teen connected to anyone who can help: a school counselor, a trusted teacher, a tutor, a friend of the family who can help with a specific course. And if burn-out moves into the realm of clinical depression and anxiety, remember that mental health treatment can really help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is among the evidenced based treatments that can provide relief quickly for burned-out teens.

Get Started

I would be honored to help your teen feel like life is manageable again.

Follow these steps to get started:

  1. Get to know more about me here.
  2. Use the convenient online scheduler to set up a free 15-minute phone consultation.
  3. Schedule your first appointment and begin watching your tween or teen bounce back from burn-out.