In the 1980s, researchers Jerry Edelwich and Archie Brodsky identified four stages of burnout as they relate to nursing and other helping professions: enthusiasm, stagnation, frustration and finally, apathy. Sound familiar? Once applicable chiefly to the professional world, we now recognize this cycle in other areas of life, such as parenting, relationships ... and yes, even school.
From bright-eyed and bushy-tailed kindergarteners who suddenly balk at getting on the school bus to star-student seniors who now hit the snooze button well into first period, no child is immune to burnout. Here are some tips to help you squash that burnout and help motivate your child:
It’s a proven fact that kids who are involved in outside activities tend to perform better academically. Certainly, activities are great, but when they start piling up, kids can lose more than just sleep. Children suffering burnout due to overscheduling tend to be less focused and more irritable. If “downtime” is in the car somewhere between soccer practice and cello lessons, you may want to consider whether or not it’s time to scale back your child’s agenda. Sit down with your kid and examine his or her commitments—does everything serve enough of a purpose that it warrants giving up free time? It may also be time to reevaluate your own expectations and how your child perceives them. Many parents are surprised to find that their children are participating in activities only because they feel such involvement is expected of them. Chances are, some activities can fall by the wayside without too much grief for both of you.
Burnout or Boredom?
Perhaps overscheduling isn’t the problem. Does your usually attentive student seem resentful of or resigned to his schoolwork? Is your “How was school today?” greeted with shrugs and monosyllabic grunts? The issue here might not be stimulation overload, but its opposite. If an adolescent is not feeling challenged in school, he or she can experience some of the same symptoms as burnout. Especially if your child has an undemanding schedule to begin with, consider discussing the possibility of gifted, advanced placement or elective classes. On the other hand, your son or daughter may be eager to establish an identity beyond just academics after the first hundred days. Now might also be a good time to take on some extracurricular activities like sports, scouting or fine arts. Getting involved with on-campus programs helps kids feel as though they have a personal investment in the school—and this can be rejuvenating both in and out of the classroom. Keep those lines of communication open to ensure that your child’s new academic and/or extracurricular life doesn’t shift the balance from boredom into actual burnout.
Stop, Drop and Roll
Some kids’ activity and anxiety levels make them especially prone to exhaustion. For high-stress, high-energy kids, work on daily coping strategies for burnout. When your son or daughter starts to feel overwhelmed, negative or apathetic, encourage him or her to stop, drop and roll. The same strategy that worked for fire safety can also work to help kids squelch stress. Stopping involves stepping back. Help your child take a personal inventory. Ask, “Where are you now, and what do you want to accomplish today?” “Drop” means just that—what can your son or daughter let go of? Children often struggle with prioritizing, and when all daily activities seem equally imperative to a child, this can trigger burnout. Help them to see that not everything needs to be accomplished in a day. Finally, rolling means changing direction. This can be anything from varying a daily routine to delegating a responsibility—the most important thing is that you help your kid brainstorm a new, reasonable approach to his or her aims. This type of short-term goal setting engenders long-term feelings of accomplishment and self-worth, both of which are key to avoiding burnout.
When to Get Help
Some parents are apt to see it as laziness, and older kids’ teachers may shrug it off as run-of-the-mill teen angst or “senioritis,” but if your child’s indifference is a continuing occurrence it may be just one symptom of a larger problem. A recent study in Finland found that nearly 1 in 5 girls in the upper grades suffers from burnout so serious that it can lead either to depression or delayed studies—and that’s for the so-called “success-oriented” females. Severe burnout can have physical, emotional and academic consequences, making it hard to distinguish from more serious issues like depression or even chronic fatigue syndrome. If you suspect something more than mid-year ennui, contact a health care professional.
Slow Down Together
Studies also show that burned out parents are more likely to have burned out kids. If your idea of breakfast is a lukewarm coffee while shuttling kids to school and you’ve been working during dinner for months, your stress might be carrying over into your child’s life. Most experts agree that families should aim for at least a few meals together a week; in fact, just talking and laughing together can go a long way towards personal renewal. Finding the perfect ratio of work to play may not come overnight, but a little flexibility and good communication can help your whole family avoid burnout.