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How to spot and mitigate burnout in your teen

Updated: May 26, 2023

When teenagers are getting ready for exams or feeling pressure from their school responsibilities, it's completely common for them to experience stress. But if this stress keeps building up or if they start feeling overwhelmed for extended periods, it can lead to something called burnout.

According to a survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation, 60% of young individuals between the ages of 18 and 24 have experienced such intense stress from the pressure to succeed that they felt overwhelmed and unable to cope. The good news is that having the support of their parents or guardians can make a significant difference.

In this article, we'll discuss how you can identify the signs of burnout in teenagers and how you can provide them with the support they need.

Originally posted here.

a young girl in a purple shirt with curly hair uses a wooden pencil to complete paper school work on the wooden table in front of her. There is a grey laptop out of focus in the foreground, and a grey couch in the background. There is also a small house plant in the background.
Reducing Stress for Your Teen

What exactly is burnout?

Burnout occurs when teenagers feel physically and emotionally drained due to prolonged stress. It can manifest when they face enduring stress or overwhelming feelings, which may stem from schoolwork or the desire to achieve exceptional outcomes and succeed. Burnout is not a fleeting condition that naturally resolves itself; instead, it has the potential to escalate if the root causes are left unaddressed.

What's the difference between anxiety and burnout?

Anxiety is a common mental health concern characterized by feelings of worry, nervousness, and fear. It can be overwhelming and have a significant impact on a teenager's daily life. Anxiety is usually triggered by various factors such as stress, traumatic experiences, or potential underlying medical conditions.

On the other hand, burnout is distinct. It is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. It can lead to decreased motivation, increased irritability, and diminished interest in activities. Burnout is typically a result of prolonged exposure to stressors like long study hours or the pressure associated with exams and peer expectations.

5 signs of burnout in teenagers to watch out for:

It's important to keep in mind that every teenager has their own unique experience of stress and burnout, so it's crucial to be familiar with what's normal for your own child. However, if you observe significant changes in your teenager's physical or mental well-being, it's advisable to seek support from a general practitioner (GP).

Here are some key indicators of burnout in teenagers to be aware of:

  1. Disrupted sleep patterns and changes in appetite The stress of exams can impact both the mental and physical health of teenagers. If your teenager appears exhausted, falls asleep during the day, or exhibits heightened irritability, it could be a sign that they are not getting sufficient sleep. Their appetite may also be affected, resulting in skipped meals, leaving food uneaten, or increased consumption of unhealthy snacks. While it's important not to judge or shame their relationship with food, these changes may indicate unhappiness and overwhelm.

  2. Increased irritability and frustration If your teenager is frequently lashing out or experiencing frequent emotional breakdowns, it might be a result of the mounting pressure. The teenage years can already be challenging, as their developing brains undergo significant changes. However, if you notice a substantial difference in their mood specifically during exam season, it could be an indication of burnout. They may feel frustrated due to gaps in their understanding or because they are striving to meet high expectations, and this stress might inadvertently affect their behavior towards those closest to them.

  3. The desire for solitude and withdrawal from social activities When teenagers start isolating themselves, distancing from friends, or spending excessive time alone, it may indicate they are having a difficult time coping. Look out for behaviors such as extended periods spent lying in bed and aimlessly staring at the ceiling or excessive screen time. In such instances, it is advisable to check in with them and initiate a conversation to understand their well-being.

  4. Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities Hobbies and interests play a vital role in maintaining a teenager's overall well-being and balance. However, if you notice that your teenager is distancing themselves from activities they once enjoyed, such as sports practice or even watching their favorite shows, it could be a sign that they are overwhelmed by their workload.

  5. Frequent headaches or weakened immune system If your teenager frequently complains of headaches or experiences more frequent colds and flu, it could also be an indication of burnout. The heightened stress levels can suppress the immune system, resulting in physical symptoms like headaches and digestive issues such as bloating, feeling sick, and experiencing diarrhea or constipation.

How can you help prevent burnout in teenagers (and support them through it)?

It's entirely normal for parents to worry when their teenager is going through a stressful time. However, there are several ways you can support them. Exam season is akin to a marathon, requiring consistent self-care to reach the finish line.

  1. Maintain regular communication to check in. Spending quality time with your teenager makes it easier for them to open up. Dr. Louise Egan, a child psychologist, emphasizes the importance of understanding why your teenager is pushing themselves so hard. "Do they feel inadequate? Are they concerned about your opinion?" By regularly engaging with your teenager, you gain a better understanding of their anxieties. While there's no quick fix, empowering your teenager by asking them, "What can I do to help?" may lead to surprising revelations. With frequent conversations and encouragement, you can help them establish a more balanced approach to their schoolwork and revision.

  2. Encourage them to incorporate downtime into their schedules. Creating a revision timetable can assist your teenager in staying organized and on top of their tasks. It also allows them to relax, knowing that they have designated study time. To create a more balanced daily routine, encourage them to include enjoyable activities, such as outings to the cinema or spending time with friends.

If they still feel anxious about taking breaks from studying, remind them that downtime is beneficial for their brain. It allows for rejuvenation and enhances their learning capabilities.

3. Provide guidance on managing screen time. Screen time can be both helpful and detrimental to their well-being. While there are valuable learning resources available online, excessive exposure to screens can disrupt their sleep patterns, as well as negatively impact their mental health. Encourage them to disable notifications during study sessions and to have a break from screens for 1-2 hours before bedtime. For further tips and advice on balancing screen time, you can refer to our comprehensive guide.

4. Seek support when needed. Sometimes, teenagers require assistance from professionals. Whether it's through tutoring services (to address any learning gaps causing anxiety) or engaging with healthcare professionals, there are dedicated individuals and organizations available to help teenagers.

The NHS recommends resources such as

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), Kooth (which offers psychological support for teenagers),

and mental health apps like Catch It, Blueice, and Chill Panda.

While expert advice is invaluable, you, as a parent, possess unique insight into your child's struggles. By employing some of these strategies, you can identify signs of burnout in your teenager and increase their chances of navigating exams with a sense of calm and confidence.

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