How do I help busy and stressed teenagers and young adults? Two new rules of thumb

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Feb 14, 2019

Photo by Tamarcus Brown

In both formal and informal discussions with leaders and parents, I love asking them to name the biggest struggle of young people.

Their top response? Busyness.

By far.

Extensive research confirms what leaders and parents are seeing with their own eyes. In one study, 13- to 17-year-olds were more likely to report feeling “extreme stress” than adults.[1]

Even more appalling is the gap between teenagers’ anxiety and parents’ recognition of their kids’ stress. Approximately 20 percent of teenagers confess that they worry “a great deal” about current and future life events. But only 8 percent of the parents of these same teenagers are aware that their child is experiencing such stress.[2]

Tweet: Approximately 20% of teenagers confess that they worry a great deal about current and future life events. But only 8% of the parents of these same teenagers are aware that their child is experiencing such stress.

The roller coaster ride of stress doesn’t end at high school graduation. Chief among young adults’ stressors are those related to “daily life management,” most notably new pressures related to time and money that accompany post-high-school freedom and responsibilities.[3]

By middle school, the common rule of thumb in elementary school that a child commits to “one extracurricular activity at a time” feels outdated and too small. So we need different principles that work for teenagers and young adults.

Allow me to suggest two new ones for young people (that can also help those of us who are post-30).

First: Add one, drop one

As your young person matures, it’s time for them to recognize (and abide by) this helpful rule: if they add something new, they probably have to drop something old. It’s developmentally appropriate for young people to begin to bump up against their limitations. They can’t do everything. They can’t be everything. They can’t go everywhere.

At first, this seems like a life-limiting reality, but I try to reframe those “no’s” through dialog with our kids about life-giving questions.

“If you say ‘yes’ to this and ‘no’ to that, what new opportunities might come your way? What opportunities might you miss out on?”

“What do you sense God is calling you to work on? What’s most important to you, and how can your schedule reflect those priorities?”

“How are you feeling about your balance between work and play?”

“Where do you feel the most stressed and why do you think that is?”

The questions you ask, and even how you talk about this first rule of thumb, need to shift as your child ages. The type of schedule direction we give to 16-year-olds is inappropriate, if not insulting, to 26-year-olds. Being sensitive to maturing kids’ schedules often means offering fewer suggestions and more questions.

Second: If it’s not a definite “yes,” it’s a “no”

If I could change one aspect about my life, I would replace 10-15 percent of my calendar commitments with relaxed downtime with my family. I’m guessing as a parent or leader, you might feel the same.

While I struggle to find the skill and self-discipline to make that goal a consistent reality, my calendar has become more manageable thanks to this simple principle I adapted from Essentialism by Greg McKeown: “If it’s not a definite ‘yes,’ it’s a ‘no.’”[4]

In both my family, as well as with our team at the Fuller Youth Institute, I conducted a six-month experiment of using “definite yes” as a litmus test for whether to pursue a certain activity. Using that criteria was a game changer for my family’s schedule (as well as our team’s focus).

Should Dave and I accept an invitation from our son’s school to coordinate his grade’s camping trip? We already lead an annual camping trip with a bunch of families at our church (my husband is an Eagle Scout so when we got married; he introduced me to backpacking and I introduced him to a good hotel concierge). That makes hosting the school trip a maybe at best. So we said, “No.”

Serving on a local nonprofit board we care about but that would involve monthly meetings at night? That’s more than a maybe but still not a definite yes, so I said, “No.”

Driving my high school son to a weeklong summer school intensive, giving us five hours in the car together? Heavens yes. Definitely yes. Can’t-wait-to-go-yes.

You and I, and the young people we know, often live with commitments beyond our control that temper our ability to choose “yes” or “no” for ourselves. An inflexible work schedule, a chronically-ill family member, or extended family obligations can put members of all generations in places where saying “no” feels like an incredible privilege. But many of us do have more choice than we act on.

So the next time you’re talking with a busy and stressed teenager or young adult, suggest that they do the same experiment. If six months is too long, maybe they could use this rule of thumb for six weeks. Or even six days. Urge them to try it out, and see what difference it makes.

Let’s act by saying “no” when we can. And let’s invite the teenagers and young adults we care about to do the same.

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[1] American Psychological Association, “American Psychological Association Survey Shows Teen Stress Rivals That of Adults,”

[2] American Psychological Association, “2010 Stress in America Report,”

[3] Sociologist Tim Clydesdale coined the term “daily life management” to describe the daily pressures faced by college students. Tim Clydesdale, The First Year Out (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 2.

[4] Greg McKeown, Essentialism (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 103.

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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