I don’t think I can do it all—take the hard classes, get good grades,and excel in sports. Even finishing my homework, getting to bed on time, and keeping my room clean feels like too much. There is so much noise mom. My friends and social media and gossip. Please know that I really am doing my best, even though it might not look like it. I am trying to do it all, but some days I can’t.
Why did life have to become so demanding for our teenagers? When did expectations get so high for them? And, is this new structure propelling them into greater happiness and success? Or, is it creating a generation fraught with more anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation than we have ever seen before?
As a mom of two boys who just recently exited their teens, I am not just a witness to this debilitating phenomena, I was an unaware participant. And, if I could go back and do a few things over, I definitely would. It’s no real mystery how I found myself in this situation with my teens, but I didn’t see it until later on. It’s a slippery slope, really. My boys were naturally driven, competitive, and social. They loved sports, and the early years of school were very manageable for them. It all started out quite normal and simple—Mommy and Me gymnastics at age three, T-ball at five, then soccer, karate, and basketball just naturally followed. They wanted to do this, and they were having fun! We were becoming a busy family trying to keep up with life’s pace and enjoying the many opportunities that were offered us.
As the years marched on, school got a little more involved with several hours of homework assignments daily, as well as complex special projects to complete. Because they were doing well in school, honors classes were offered and expected. Recreational sports turned into higher level competitive leagues with year-long expectations for my boys, rather than just seasonal. We would now have to travel outside of our community for practices and games, spending hours in the car. Weekends became a blur of sports, and Sunday evenings were an exhausting endeavor of preparing for another busy week ahead.
And then there were the phones. Social media was just beginning to gain momentum when my boys were teenagers—for my older one it was Facebook, for my younger one it was Instagram. And, this entering of these devices and their seductive grip had no exit, just more enticing draws that pulled them in, pulled them away, captured, and drained them. So, now we have high level academics, competitive year-round sports, and social media and the internet, with its offering to my teens of unlimited, twenty-four seven access to people and information with endless possibilities.
While this all seemed like a lot, it also seemed so “normal.” We were all moving through this maze alongside other families doing the same thing. From the soccer field, to the basketball gym, and the baseball diamond—everyone seemed to be keeping with this tempo. But it also almost felt like we were all in some sort of competition—whose kid was the busiest and the best. When our kids were in middle school, parents would talk about their child being “scouted” by high school coaches. Somehow, at a really young age, a lot of these young athletes were looking for ways to get on the trajectory to play sports professionally, including one of my own. As soon as Advanced Placement courses were available in high school, it became almost subpar if your child was “only” taking college preparation courses. Some students took so many Advanced Placement courses in high school, that they actually completed two years of college before even graduating high school. Mine could not keep up with this pace.
These teens (including my own) were getting up at 7:00 a.m., spending seven hours in school, two hours at sports practices after school (sometimes five hours for away games), and then coming home to face hours of homework. If this doesn’t sound exhausting enough, factor in the social management of their lives! These are the years of incredible physical and emotional change.This is when they are trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in. There is gossip and bullying to contend with, and the exposure and introduction to drinking, drugs, dating, and sex. If we do the math here, our teens are looking at twelve hour days filled with expectations coming at them from countless directions. This would be near impossible for the most capable adult to handle.
So, how did we get here, and what do we do now? For me, it was awareness. At age fourteen, my son, from the backseat of the car as we were driving home from another sporting event said, “I feel like I'm losing myself.” The sport that he loved had somehow turned into a “job”. His identity was forming around this one aspect of his life. He was beginning to wonder who he was without it. It was like a wake-up call for his dad and I. What were we doing? How did we get here? While we thought we were merely supporting his successes in sports and in school, we were actually unknowingly inching up the bar so that it was becoming almost impossible for him to reach. What happened to fun? How does he not know how special he is just for being alive, and not for his achievements?
This day changed a lot for our family. Our son’s bravery to speak up at such a young age and say, “I just don’t think I can do it all”, was like a splash of cold water on our faces. It put things into perspective and brought to light how much our son and so many kids of this generation are expected to manage and excel at. We did not want our boy to lose himself, and we did not want to lose our boy. This awareness began to sink in deeper and deeper as the days went on. We were able to see through a new lens what was important; the health and happiness of our boys. We encouraged and allowed them to let go of what felt like too much. We saw how they were doing their best under circumstances that would have been too much for an adult. We freed our boys to relax more, play more, and to just be teens—something I wish we had done sooner.
I won't get the chance to do this time over with my boys, but my hope in sharing my story is that others might recognize sooner than I did how easy it is to allow our kids to slip into this arduous structure. And, by having this awareness, maybe their teens won’t have to come to the place where they feel like they can’t do it all.