A Parent’s Guide
Episode 8: Side 4B Burn Out & Keeping Confidences
Thirteen Reasons Why, a video series based on a best-selling teen novel, is the story of a 17 year old girl, Hannah, who commits suicide and leaves 13 tapes for each of the people who contributed to her decision to commit suicide. This is the ninth in a series of blogs that identify issues raised in each episode with some ideas about how parents can address them with their teenager.
Hannah is worrying about whether she has the grades or money to get into a good college. A friend who encourages her to write an extremely personal essay then publishes it in his alternative school publication without her permission. Hannah feels further violated and, once again, like no one can be trusted. Clay is increasingly frustrated and disappointed that people do nothing to help each other.
Two prominent themes in this episode are kids getting burned out and keeping information to yourself that is shared in confidence.
Ambitious teens can become chronically exhausted, focused only on performance and losing any intrinsic pleasure in education and achievement. Their focus is succeeding on the next assignment (but have no clear sense of what is personally interesting). They know what careers will make money (but not which careers might bring them satisfaction). And if a desired career won’t make them money, they feel compelled to toss it to the curb. To make it in this world, they believe you must take the hardest courses, participate in as many extra-curricular activities as possible and constantly keep one eye over your shoulder (or catch up to the people in front of you).
This kind of driven, over-achievement has been called Type A personality, has been talked about in the recent discussion of so-called “tiger moms” and their kids and is exaggerated by the relentless, excessive social comparison phenomena of the “selfie” culture that pressures kids to put their life on display (and up for evaluation) 24/7. Ambitious kids are increasingly becoming exhausted, cynical and demoralized. In a word, burned out.
Burn out is a form of stress that occurs when you finally run out of steam after having busted your butt to accomplish something(s). It is marked by exhaustion, difficulty completing tasks (even though they are well within one’s ability) and a feeling of “what’s the point?” Kids who are on the road to burn out have trouble taking a break, resist reassessing their priorities and don’t make much space in their lives for fun. They have become too serious about being serious.
So what does burn out look like?
Should and ought. Burned out kids think they should consider the task important (even if they don’t) and they ought to be committed to working hard at it (even if they aren’t). They often become preoccupied and distressed about their performance despite their lack of personal interest and declining effort.
Lack of motivation. Burn out is a special kind of motivation problem. Kids who are burned out “can’t make” themselves do what is needed to succeed even though they consider it important for their future. (This is different from a lack of motivation that originates from not valuing the task or feeling incompetent to succeed.) Kids who are burning out start falling asleep while studying, consistently run out of time, have everything ready to work on the task and then don’t do it. They can’t make themselves do it and it freaks them out. They are dissatisfied with the tasks and don’t enjoy them. This is a 180-degree turn around from how they previously approached these tasks.
Cynical, pessimistic attitude. “I’ll never be able to pull this off.” “Why am I even doing this?” “This doesn’t really matter anyway.”
As the work overload increases and their lives become increasingly filled with things they have to do, burned out kids become cynical about whether their efforts are even worth it and pessimistic about the value of these efforts for the future. Success is no longer its own reward. And, success becomes more and more elusive.
Exhaustion. Burned out kids are worn out. They are tired all the time. They can’t seem to recharge. They are likely to turn to coping strategies that focus on distraction and avoidance: alcohol and other drugs, sleep, video gaming, staying “on the go.” These short-term strategies give them a brief respite but do not require them to seriously evaluate their priorities nor do they provide any real relief.
Decreasing performance and productivity. And at the core of burn out is decreasing performance and struggles to keep up with the demands of the task. Kids experiencing burn out have difficulty concentrating and have trouble fulfilling the basics of assignments or tasks. Their efforts lack creativity and inspiration. They don’t keep up with assignments and tasks they used to complete with one hand behind their back.
What’s A Parent To Do?
Burn out vs emotional struggles. Before you conclude that your kid is burned out, make sure the problem is not a more serious issue. Check to see if your kid is depressed (see the intro column in this series). Burn out is specific to a situation or task. Depression is a pervasive emotional problem that not only includes exhaustion, negativity and poor performance but is also marked by low self-esteem, helplessness and suicidal thinking. When you change the situation burnout disappears, depression does not.
You could have an anxious kid. While burn out is an anxiety related phenomena, anxiety, like depression, occurs regardless of the situation. Your kid could be a naturally (i.e., present from a very young age) perfectionistic, anxious to please, ambitious or competitive kid who is driven (and over-commits) regardless of what you do. Being a worrier is different from burn out.
Finally, burn out could be the result of medical problems like chronic fatigue syndrome, anemia or a systemic infection like strep. It is important to rule all these out before moving ahead to address your kid’s burn out.
Here’s what burned out kids need
Rest. Burned out kids need rest. And, they have trouble allowing themselves to actually get the rest they need. The problem is they may actually fight you if you try to get them to take a break. It will be important that they actually get some relief from the stress through rest and relaxation.
Play. Burned out kids need to have some fun. Unfortunately, they might not even know how to have real fun anymore. Take some time to help your kid learn how to have fun, to play. Playful activities don’t have a purpose, there aren’t any rules and there are many forms. Help your kid do something that brings them joy, pleasure, satisfaction, fascination, happiness, interest, curiosity or relaxation. (You can find some suggestions in the play chapter of my book Raising Teens in the 21 st Century.)
Reassess timelines. Burned out kids have often lost perspective about how success unfolds across time. They feel chronically behind. They “can’t afford” to take time for other activities or priorities because others (i.e., their competition, their perfect sibling) will get further ahead. It will be important for you to
help your kid develop a more reasonable timeline about success. There are a number of books about failure and how long it takes for many people to succeed that you can use as examples of people taking more time on the road to success (and, consequently, having more time for a life along the way).
Reassess priorities. And finally, it will be worthwhile for you and your kid to review their priorities. How meaningful are their priorities to them? Are they fulfilling and satisfying? Do they really want to have that career? Does it really matter to them if they have 3 AP classes? This may be the time to reorder the primary focus of their activities and time. Your kid may have begun to develop other priorities but can’t bring themselves to admit it (even to themselves).
Helping kids recover from burn out can be difficult because, often, they won’t make it easy for you to encourage them to chill out and step back for a bit. When kids participate in activities that are personally fulfilling, they are more engaged, derive benefits beyond those gained from participation itself and are more resilient in the face of frustration and difficulties. The less teens are personally invested in activities, the more the activities and tasks drain rather than invigorate and gratify them. If your teenager has begun to slide after a period of high achievement, it is a good bet there is some burnout occurring. They will need your help to recharge, step back and reassess their priorities, and to have a more balance life where having fun is as much a priority as high achievement in some field of endeavor.
Resources: Here is a burnout self test your kid can take. Here is something on burnout from the U.S. National Library of Science. Here are some websites with information about anxiety in general. And here are some books on famous, successful people who failed first.
Having a close, trusting relationship requires many things. Love, support, encouragement, loyalty, protectiveness, having their back. But, at the core of any relationship is trust. One aspect of trust that can be more difficult for teens than the others is keeping confidences. This is different from gossiping which is sharing rumors and suspicions about other people for entertainment, malicious pleasure or being in the “know.” (See column on Episode 1.) Teens must learn how to keep confidences as one of the fundamental qualities of establishing and maintaining a committed, emotionally intimate and LASTING relationship. The broken confidence portrayed in this episode is a good example of the effect
of deciding it is OK to share something personal about someone because YOU decided it is not inherently “bad” and “shouldn’t be a big deal.”
When someone shares personal information with another person, it is a gesture of trust. It is a risk taken. It says the one who shares considers someone to be safe enough to let their guard down. They have entrusted their friend with something raw and deeply meaningful, something deeply vulnerable.
Because of this, privately shared information brings with it a responsibility to keep that information private. It should be protected and considered highly confidential.
There are a number of reasons teens can end up violating confidences. Some teens are naive and lack appreciation for the impact of sharing information that “doesn’t seem like a big deal.” When the information is upsetting, teens (like adults) can feel the need to unburden themselves to someone else (who turns out to not be trustworthy). They can also still be immature enough to succumb to the
temptation of gaining social capital by having juicy information about a person, even when that person is their friend or dating partner.
What’s a parent to do?
Talk about trust. Trust is the foundation of all human relationships. It requires character. It requires self-control. It requires putting others first. Your kid needs to understand the importance of building and maintaining trust. Talk about why trust is important and what makes it difficult. Help your kid understand that being trustworthy is not a do-unto- others-as- they-HAVE- done-unto- you (e.g., if someone breaks their trust it is only fair to violate their trust back). Being trustworthy is a do-unto-others-as- you-WOULD- HAVE-THEM- do-unto- you. This is a take-the- higher-ground situation. (There will be situations around the house with siblings and extended family confidences that will give you plenty of
opportunities to begin this discussion way before they run into it in the real world.)
Integrity over personal need. Keeping a confidence will require your kid to put someone else’s needs or preferences first. Being a person of integrity means that you keep your commitments and follow your own moral code regardless of how others behave (or deserve). This doesn’t mean they have to become a self-sacrificing saint. It means they don’t get to decide for someone else whether or not they should reveal something personal.
Help them anticipate difficulties in keeping confidences. The best time to have a conversation about the challenges of keeping confidences is before your kid is confronted with the temptations. Talk through all the temptations and ways they may not appreciate why sharing something someone told you in confidence is a violation of trust and, therefore, very hurtful. Talk about what it feels like to have
someone break a confidence. Find out how they would feel if it was done to them.
What if they’ve screwed up? So what if your kid has stepped across the line and broken someone’s trust by sharing something private? They need to fix it. And you can help. They will need to start with an apology. And part of an apology is understanding what led to them breaking trust. (This makes for an excellent teaching moment in self-awareness and introspection about what drives behavior that ends up hurting ourselves and others.) Then your kid needs to do what they can to make it right. This may mean talking to the person they shared the information with to ask them to keep it private. It may require a more elaborate defending, or running interference for, their friend as people react to the private
information. Your kid will also need to appreciate that some relationships don’t recover from this kind of wound (also something to talk with your kid about for future relationships).
Resources: You can find information on apologies in my book Raising Teens in the 21 st Century. It may also be worth reviewing the importance of character in relationships and living our everyday life. You can find websites and books for parents and for teens here. There is also my booklet on Raising A Character.
Note to reader: The teenagers represented in this series are upper middle and higher income, suburban teenagers. The ideas and strategies discussed in this blog are intended for kids in these social networks. They will not necessarily be effective or even appropriate for teenagers experiencing these issues in other socio-economic and cultural communities.