Today’s teenagers seek a sense of balance
By Meghan Rowley Little ’92

School. Student Government. Student newspaper. Athletics. Youth group. Part-time job. Family dinner. Homework. It’s a day in the life of the average American teenager. But is it too much? With so many commitments and responsibilities on their plates, do today’s teens have balance in their lives?

That is the topic of much debate among medical professionals, educators, coaches, and parents – and one that does not have a clear consensus. On one hand, some psychologists say that participating in organized activities can improve a child’s grades, self esteem, and even protect them from drug and alcohol abuse. Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends allowing kids to slow down and have fun. Their experts believe children and teens are overscheduled, overstressed, and overstimulated.

Reality Check
While both sides of the debate have their merits, it is hard to discount the feelings of teenagers themselves. According to an Associated Press/MTV poll, young people are experiencing stress at a high rate. Eighty-five percent of the respondents said that they feel stress at least sometimes. What’s more, 45 percent of girls and young women reported feeling stress frequently, whereas only 32 percent of boys and young men made the same claim.

This finding is not surprising to Notre Dame Academy’s Director of Guidance and Academic Programming Joan Perrault, who notes that the overstressed student seems to be a phenomenon among girls. “When speaking with guidance counselors across the country, we notice that this sense of always needing to do more is acute at girls’ schools,” she says. “Girls tend to compare themselves to each other, but they need to know how impressive they are by just being themselves.”

That is not to say that all teenage boys have balance in their lives, while all of their female counterparts do not. Balance is unique to every individual, regardless of gender. Perhaps the lack of a one-size-fits-all formula for determining how much is too much for our teens is part of the problem.

Dr. Barbara Green, medical director of South Shore Hospital’s Youth Health Connection, has been counseling teenagers in her Hingham practice for 25 years. She says that achieving balance for children and teens is a key concern for many of the families with whom she works. “Parents of freshmen discuss the four-year spectrum: honors and advanced placement courses; SATs; and college applications,” she says. “They are trying to keep a grounded, balanced child, but if these pressures start freshman year, where are they come senior year?”

That is why it is important for the parents and the school to know the teen when choosing courses and activities. “Some kids thrive with a wired sense of life and activity, and others’ knees buckle and cannot sustain such a level of demand,” Green explains. “It’s a very individual determination.”

Great Expectations
Most adults agree that teenagers put a lot more on their plates than even a generation before. Many teens pile it on because they think they must in order to be noticed by colleges. Perrault says the perception by young people and parents of what colleges look for is not the reality. She says, “Colleges expect a young student to chip away at discovering who she is as a person and identifying what is important to her.” Through the application process, the schools want the student to show them who she is.

Of course colleges anticipate students will take the most challenging courses they are capable of – capability being the key. Enrolling in courses that are not appropriate can only add to the weight a diligent student already feels. According to a summer 2008 State of the Nation Youth Report, 79 percent of teens cited pressure for good grades as a problem, up from 62 percent in 2001. Even more startling is the 24 percent increase in teens who said pressure in general is a major problem.

Perrault and the faculty at NDA are concerned about students who think they are not doing enough. They encourage parents to allow their daughters to be who they are, both academically and socially. “The best thing parents can do for their children is to help them understand what makes them unique,” Perrault says. “And the only things teens should add to their plates are the things that truly interest them.”

Parents do need to have expectations for their children, just as teenagers need to learn and perform. However, adults can optimize teens’ growth. “If the adult is never satisfied, the child is set up to fail,” Green says. It does not take long for a teenager to believe that even when she does well, it’s not good enough. Green calls it the closed cycle of failure. Though she doesn’t discount the importance of academics, she does stress to parents that it is just one facet of life. “Success is not scores on tests, but whether you know others and yourself, have self discipline and can pursue critical thinking,” she says.

Charting the Course
Academics come first. It’s a sentiment that rings true for all segments of the NDA community: students, parents, educators, and coaches. But with 100 percent of the student body involved in some co-curricular activity, balance must come into play. Principal Kathleen Rowley Colin ’89 says, “We constantly remind students that they need to assess what they are taking on, to be certain that they can completely fulfill their commitments and grow from the experience.”

This reminder is often echoed at home. Ginny Sullivan P’10 ’12, tells her daughters that their studies are the priority, and everything else will fall into place. Both girls play two sports and between them are involved in five school organizations. Add a parish youth group and part-time jobs to the mix, and it can get tricky.

“We like to expose them to as much as they want so that they can discover themselves,” Sullivan says. When the girls do get overwhelmed, the Sullivans, advocates of moderation, point out how things will get better if they take a break from something — though they rarely make the decision for them. “They are 15 and 17 years old,” Sullivan says. “This is their journey. We guide them as best we can, but ultimately it’s up to them.”

Teenagers are enthusiastic about pursuing opportunities outside the classroom, and consequently they experience the tension and stress of trying to do too much. Carol Troy P’91 94, a librarian and the student council advisor at NDA, has noticed a pattern. She says, “By the time our students reach the 11th and 12th grades, they generally know what they enjoy and that they should concentrate on these activities. But the myth of the inflated resume is hard to dispel.”

While students continue to put academics first, they find it hard to give sufficient attention to all their special interests, especially when, as upperclassmen, they are taking on leadership roles. Troy says, “We can encourage them to look for balance in their lives, and we can ask them to slow down and enjoy these years, but we cannot make them.”

In an effort to address the growing concern surrounding the lack of free time among students, the school implemented an eight period day, which provides at least one study period. Students are encouraged to use this time to work on homework, getting ahead on long-term projects, or meeting with teachers. “It is our hope that having this time during the school day will alleviate some pressure in the afternoon, when the vast majority of our students are committed to athletic teams or co-curricular activities, or both,” says Colin.

Play Time
Learning does not end when a student leaves the classroom. According to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, athletics and other co-curricular activities provide life lessons for all involved. NDA’s Director of Athletics Donna Brickley agrees that athletics is an integral part of the educational environment. “Student athletes learn discipline through sport, and a byproduct of this is their ability and willingness to pursue time management and make time for the things that motivate them,” she says.

Brickley has directed the athletic department since 1985 and has witnessed amazing growth in student participation – 47 percent in the 1985-86 academic year to 72 percent in 2007-08 – as the school’s offerings increased to 18 sports and 37 teams. Yet the number of athletes able to commit to playing three sports a year for all four years has fallen to just five to eight over the past six years. “Sport specialization remains a huge temptation for many athletes, yet all the qualified authorities weighing in on this question advocate multiple sports for the diversity of experience physically and mentally,” Brickley says.

Mike Bevilacqua P’08 is a big proponent of trying a number of things. Father of a college freshman and a high school sophomore, he stresses academics, yet also encourages co-curricular involvement. Whether it’s playing sports, volunteering, or competing on an academic team, Bevilacqua believes busy kids stay out of trouble.

Clearly he is not alone. When he started a CYO boys basketball team at St. Helen’s Parish in Norwell, nearly every boy from his son’s high school junior varsity team signed on with their parents’ approval. Today he has 40 kids ready to play.

As children grow up in a world of organized activities, however, experts are finding that adolescents lack the ability to create fun, if they even have time for it. Based on average teenage bedtimes between 11 p.m. and midnight due to obligations and homework, Green is concerned that teenagers don’t have enough time to rest their minds or their bodies. She says, “The science is there. We cannot ask a body or mind to function at full throttle 18 hours a day. It will wear out.”

The Bevilacquas and the Sullivans recognize the importance of fun in their teens’ lives. Family time is precious, and trips are scheduled around their kids’ commitments. Most important, these teens are encouraged to enjoy time with their friends. Sullivan, who often hosts gaggles of girls at her home for pizza and movie nights, says, “This should be a great time in their lives.”

Balancing Act
High school is a critical time for young people to shape lifelong habits. They need to know how to cope with stress and find balance before they move on to college. Setting a good example is a key part of that.

Green says, “Parents can’t be naïve about how they handle stress and balance in their own lives.” Whether adults cope by having a cocktail after a hard day or burn off bad energy through exercise, the teens in their lives are watching — and following their lead.

It is important for teenagers to see positive modeling that includes humor and taking time out for fun. “Parents must keep an open dialog with their kids,” Green says, “and understand that we are trying to teach our kids healthy, life-long adult habits.”

No pressure.

Lessons at Work
Elizabeth Bevilacqua ’08, a freshman studying chemistry in the honors program at Boston College, learned a lesson her junior year at NDA, when her focus on schoolwork overshadowed all that she did. “My mom explained to me that I had to enjoy the time that I was not working,” she says. “I actually had the perfect example in my dad who works very hard when he is at work, but he enjoys his time with the family when he is at home.”

Bevilacqua is taking six classes, yet she says she is able to maintain balance through effective time management, and the support from home. “Many of my peers do not have balance in their lives,” she says. While they are holed up in the library on a daily basis, Bevilacqua enjoys attending sporting events and dinner with friends. She says, “Teenagers need to find balance to ensure that they are happy … without balance it is difficult to enjoy every facet of life.”