Help Your Teen Press the Pause Button this Summer

“When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings they start…You start to reflect, you start to rethink your assumptions, you start to reimagine what is possible and, most importantly, you start to reconnect with your most deeply held beliefs. But what matters most is what you do in the pause.”

Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN, which advises global business on ethics and leadership. From Thomas Friedman’s book: Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.

The need to pause and reflect

This quote was written for adults and I think most of us would benefit from heeding this advice more than we currently do. However when it comes to teenagers, I think this concept is more essential and important than ever.

The ability to pause and reflect is an essential precursor to imagination, creativity and growth. This is one reason why sleep is so important for all of us and even more important to the developing teen brain. Information and experiences offer little value if they’re not integrated and processed.

The two barriers to pausing and reflecting

Opportunity

During the school year, many teens don’t seem to have much of an opportunity to slow down and just be. Expectations shared among family, friends, academics and extracurriculars end up keeping kids spinning often without a clear sense of what they’re really doing or why.

In high school, many teens feel bored and disengaged as well as stressed, anxious and overwhelmed. Their lives are often over scheduled and controlled by the expectations laid out by the adults in their lives. They often experience their behavior as being managed, second guessed and constantly evaluated. Sometimes, they overcompensate by escaping into their devices and/or drugs and alcohol.

Ability

Many of the kids I see in my practice literally can’t just sit and be present at first. They’re extra fidgety and stiff. They need their phone in eyesight the way a toddler needs their parent on the first day of preschool. If I got up for 10 seconds to get a drink of water at my desk, they would check their phone to fill the void. Having said that, I also don’t believe in scapegoating phones and technology because when we do this, I think we miss the mark.

The root of the problem for most of these teens is their lagging strategies and skills for managing the stress and anxiety in their lives. Teens are more sensitive to the effects of stress in general. When excessive stress and/or anxiety are met without tools, the result is any combination of reactivity, chaotic states and/or rigid thinking as well as impaired learning and memory.

The “Golden” opportunity ahead

Summer is the best time to hit the reset button because most teens are much less stressed.

The absence of school related stress combined with more time outside in the sun may benefit their brain (and ours) more than any antidepressant could. For a lot of kiddos, this will mean less reactivity, more openness to learning and reflecting, more thoughtful conversations, better listening and remembering (I said more and better not necessarily good : ).

This temporary period of increased brain flexibility and receptivity is wasted if it’s not coupled with new positive experiences to mold that malleable brain, and that’s where you come in.

As parents, it’s important that we think about how we can curate the summer for our kids in a way that will provide experiences that support and improve the skills that they’re lacking. This will need to involve a balance of downtime (online and off) with new and engaging experiences involving others (online and off).

If you have a child that doesn’t want to do anything but stare at a screen and sleep (I wish I could do that more often), then expect to battle a very compelling and ingrained habit that will always seem more enjoyable than your boring idea. So it’ll be that much more important that you insist on a few things and help them get started.

Below are a few ideas to help get you thinking of your own.

  • Camps and outdoor experiences like Trackers or Outward Bound.

  • Spending extended time with other family members.

  • Volunteering on their own or together as a family.

  • Working in a traditional job or for you on projects around the house.

  • Creating positive family bonding experiences online and off like trips, camping, games, concerts, making videos, playing video games together etc.

With teenagers, it’s often best to avoid asking “do you want to go on a hike?” because best case scenario you get a polite, “no thank you”. Try instead saying ahead of time, “I’d really like to spend some time with you. I was thinking we’d go on a hike this weekend unless you have another idea for us to do together.”

I’ve seen so many kids build a ton of confidence and positive momentum going into fall as a result of the new activities and experiences they engaged in over the summer despite being reluctant at first.

What you will likely find is that your teen will initially agree especially if they know they don’t have a choice, but the real challenge will be about follow through. Assume that their procrastination and avoidance is related to their anxiety, fear and habit. It’ll be essential that you be patient, loving and firm about following through on this important expectation. Perhaps you’ll be able to strike a deal that addresses their wants and your concerns.

A summer that balances sleep, down time, positive relationships, creativity and new experiences both online and off will have a really good chance of setting your child up for a great start once fall comes around.

When in doubt, hang in there because you’re doing better than you think.