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A ‘Get Active’ Plan to Help Your Teen Feel More Optimistic About Life

A ‘recharge, reboot’ mental health solution for our teens

Published on: July 29, 2022

Teenagers sitting on a couch smiling

Pandemic burnout prevails. Excessive screen-use habits persist. Kids are suffering from slumping grades, social lags and emotional doldrums (and so are parents). Should you see a family therapist (good luck), hire a tutor (cha-ching, cha-ching!) or get a(nother) rescue puppy?

Everyone wants to be handed a DIY pandemic recovery plan. Contemplating fixes can feel overwhelming, whether your stress inventory relates to your family or the future of our nation. Surveys of parents and teens alike reveal ever-increasing levels of stress related to everything from family well-being to mass shootings, the economy, civil unrest, polarized politics and climate emergencies.

Adding to your worries is the flurry of reports on increased rates of depression, anxiety, self-harming and suicide among teens. Prolonged sheltering at home accentuated feelings of isolation, loss and despair. And the kicker: While teens needed online access to participate in school, constant screen use resulted in amplified concern about the negative impact of social media.

Although the return to school improved well-being for many teens, I hear a lot about pandemic “hangovers.” Typical teen moodiness and parent-child conflict over rules and expectations have been magnified by cabin fever, and grief about losing ground on developmental milestones haunts us.

There is no one-size-fits-all way to prevent mental health problems among teens. Of course, the most important thing parents can do is to maintain a supportive and loving relationship with their teens while practicing positive and effective parenting approaches. But beyond the home front, for adolescents to thrive psychologically requires that they feel a sense of belonging, peer acceptance and social competence.

The ‘get active’ agenda

I propose an agenda for all middle and high school students that is referred to as “positive youth engagement” in academic circles and “extracurricular activities” in the parenting world. Extensive research has proven the advantages of participating in sports, volunteering, focusing on artistic development, and joining other clubs for optimal well-being and healthy identity development. Youths who become involved in collaborative, structured activities exhibit lower levels of depression, anxiety and problematic risk-taking behavior. They also register higher levels of optimism and hopefulness.

Among the many families I talked with during the pandemic in consultations and via webinars, I perceived a distinct difference between families with inactive teens and those with teens who participated in some outside activities, continued sports involvement or “got active” through activism.

We know that exercise, exposure to nature and enjoying peers are all activities that promote good health, but feeling part of something important generates its own unique positive emotions and benefits. Whether it is volunteering at the food bank or participating in a political march or a religiously affiliated youth group, when the theme involves empathy and caring about others, the experience is good medicine.

Parents who both promoted the use of COVID-19 safety measures (e.g., masking, social distancing, ventilation) and tolerated some risk to allow their teen to participate in organized activities seemed to give their kids an edge in preserving mental health. Having experienced the harms of extreme isolation, many parents are rethinking their policy of zero tolerance for risk when it comes to making parenting decisions. Dips in mental health can be tangible — and sometimes terrible.

Teen mental health on a continuum

Flourishing teens who are at the thriving end of the mental health continuum are motivated to get involved with volunteering, clubs and talent development. A tiny minority might be stressed out by an overly packed schedule, but they are not suffering as much as the majority of American teens who do not participate in organized activities at all.

Troubled teens at the other end of the mental health continuum may experience mental illness, incarceration and/or a multitude of psychosocial problems. The Violence Project has documented that one of the top three predictors of mass shootings is isolation. Alienation and disconnection from people, institutions and positive influences are linked with depression and falling prey to extremist ideologies online.

Teens in the middle range of functioning, those who have the “blahs” and the “I duwannas,” might be getting by, but who among us is satisfied with our child’s rudderless floundering? A languishing teen’s apathy and disengagement place them at risk for a slide into depression.

You can skip dental cleaning for a while, but you usually pay for neglect down the line. I advise parents to prioritize this “get active” parenting plan as vigilantly as dental care, curfews and nightly sit-down family dinners (okay, okay — that last one is aspirational). I have shared my “I have a dream” speech for decades in academic conferences and parent lectures. All kids — not just the privileged ones — should have the opportunity to participate in after-school activities. The benefits are massive. Teen resistance to the plan can be gargantuan. But it’s worth the struggle.

Obstacles, teen resistance and problem-solving

As much as a clear case can be made for positive youth engagement, the obstacles to access can be enormous. Access requires that parents have enough resources to afford fees, arrange for transportation, and coordinate participation around work, school and family obligations. To state the obvious: Economic inequality makes life (and this agenda) much harder for those who have less.

Another obstacle is teen resistance. Parents of reluctant teens may experience fierce protest and blowback. They may want their teens to get involved with extracurricular activities, but they wonder whether it is worth the effort and obstacles.

My exchanges during consultations with parents of resistant teens tend to go something like this:

Me: Think of the benefits! Whether the activity is volleyball, robotics club or yearbook, your children will gain access to positive peers, structured and supervised activities, and adult mentors who promote the values of responsibility, engagement and empathy. Furthermore, if kids are busy with extracurricular activities, they aren’t home isolating and vegging out with gaming and social media.

Parent: Yeah. That sounds great, but my kids don’t want to do any of the activities I suggest. My daughter pitches a fit about needing downtime, but she wastes her time scrolling through social media crap that makes her hate her body and feel left out.

Me: Parents are in a terrible bind. Dealing with teen opposition can be dreadful, but if their avoidance is rewarded, they both miss out on opportunities to build competencies and tend to resist new endeavors even more over time. For reluctant teens, it’s a lot easier to avoid in-person conversation in their scrolling cave than deal with people directly and practice new skills.

Parent: She ends up in bed with her phone for hours. That phone is an addiction for her, and yet it often makes her miserable.

Me: Merging with media provides a near-constant and often powerful release of dopamine, the pleasure neurochemical in the brain. However, despite the huge attraction to social media — due to its entertainment value, intrigue and sensationalism — sometimes teens also suffer peer exclusion, social envy, body shame and plummeting self-esteem.

Parent: I know. It’s awful. We fight about screens all the time. My kids say they are going to do their homework, but they lie and violate our screen rules. We point out how bad screen addiction is and how we need more restrictions on it, but then then we end up in a screaming match.

Me: Internet access and social media have their upsides — learning, connecting with good friends and joining interest groups. But you are not alone in your despair about the downsides.

Parent: They seem like zombies with their eyeballs glued to the screen. I try to tell them how much it softens the mind to dumb-scroll through that crap.

Me: You might be right, but is it effective?

Parent: Never.

Me: Rarely are facts and reasoning enough to inspire habit change among children or adults! Let’s talk about your wins. How do you get your kids to go to school? Or wear nice clothes to Grandma’s birthday dinner? Or comply with other things they don’t want to do?

Parent: Well, we insist on the basics. But I thought parents were supposed to give teenagers more independence and choices.

Me: You are absolutely right! Often, the hardest part of parenting is picking your battles. Given the advantages associated with extracurricular activities, you might want to consider extracurricular activity as a “basic” and give your teens the choice of which activity, not whether they choose one.

Parent: Last year, I caved when my ninth-grade son refused to play basketball like he did in sixth grade before the pandemic, but he convinced me that he’d just get exercise by working out on his own. It didn’t happen. I was really upset, because I knew he felt lonely and alienated starting in a new high school. I think he’s even less likely to sign up for anything next fall, so how do I motivate him?

Me: Motivating reluctant kids comes down to the carrot or the stick — and I favor the carrot. While some parents withhold cell phones or social freedoms — the stick — a better approach is to add a goody — that is, a carrot — such as more screen time, a later curfew or access to something they crave and that you approve of.

Parent: I dread the showdown we’ll have about this. I realize I might be avoiding this confrontation as much as they are avoiding their fears about joining up. They say extracurricular stuff is boring or stupid, but I know it’s more about social awkwardness and feelings of inadequacy. Doing new things is hard. You might be clumsy initially and fear judgment.

Me: You are right. Making this agenda a priority requires your courage to deal with your teen’s emotional flooding in the same way that they have to cope with their own! When they show up for a new activity, it can produce a lot of anxiety. It’s best for parents to model confidence, conviction and optimism about committing to this vital agenda, even though the journey might have some bumps and swerves before kids find activities they really like. But gaining new friends and competencies is a big payoff!

Parent: So, the bottom line is that those benefits should motivate me to tolerate what might be a tsunami of protest. Yikes! No wonder I’ve avoided it. But I get it — organized activities get them off the couch, away from the cell phones and involved with good influences.

Making organized activities a “basic” requirement may take a lot of energy on the parent’s part, but it can yield a huge return on the investment — peer acceptance, new personal interests, and social and emotional skills. Negotiation is a must. But given the risks of mental health decline associated with isolation and inactivity, it’s worth the outlay of incentives and effort.

A public health mission

Gaining acceptance from peers and heeding the drive to belong, to be seen and to be important are developmentally critical tasks of adolescence. The pandemic exposed the mental health risks for teens who isolate, become inactive and ruminate on problems. Too many teens suffer from these problems — even without a pandemic.

Making organized activities available to all should be public health policy. Participating in such activities may enhance (and even dramatically transform) your own teen’s life or rescue another from doldrums or crisis, but what’s good for one is truly good for all.

Loneliness and a lack of sense of belonging can be such despairing conditions that youths will seek out whatever tribe will admit them. Whether the dangerous tribe is a gang, a group of drug users or a QAnon website, teens are vulnerable to worst-case scenarios in which they connect with others who feel similarly rejected, inadequate and miserable.

Given the developmental need for positive youth engagement among all teens, why not promote universal access to free after-school activities? It may be a “pie in the sky” mission, but with all of the hand-wringing in Congress about teen mental health, mass shootings and the dangers of excessive social media use, this is clearly one solution.

In the meantime, pick up a megaphone and spread the word so that engaging youths in activities outside the home can become the norm. Reluctant teens may benefit from this “everybody is doing it” nudge, especially if it comes from other adults and classmates, not just parents.

All children and teenagers possess strengths that they deserve to have developed, nurtured and cultivated. Organized activities provide these opportunities and build affirming connections with others. I bet you had your own experience with an organized activity during your youth, one that supported your positive trajectory in life. Let that memory inspire you to take action with your own kids and your community.

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