A few years ago, I was interviewing a Student Affairs officer at a highly selective East Coast school, and she expressed her grave concern about the number of stressed out girls on campus. “More and more girls arrive at our doorstep freshman year completely burnt out,” she explained, going on to say that some are forced to take time off because they aren’t able to cope with the intense and often self-inflicted pressure.
I was reminded of our conversation as I began to see more and more high school girls overwhelmed and seemingly on the verge of a breakdown. In addition to helping with organizational and time-management strategies, I was spending a good deal of time helping these girls brainstorm how to relax and use their newfound extra time to have fun. Research shows that teen girls have nearly double the rates of depression and anxiety as their male counterparts, and many struggle in silence as they often hide what is really bothering them. Girls often try so hard to maintain control over ever facet of their academic and extracurricular lives, and don’t always have the personal prioritization skills to know how to spend their ever so limited time.
Some teen girls who are constantly online and available to every technological beep, blurp, and tweet don’t understand the importance of giving themselves time to rest or creating authentic downtime. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study on children and media use revealed that children spend nearly seven and half hours per day using some form of media. That number is bound to increase as schools turn to one-to-one laptop or tablet systems to enhance learning opportunities. With so many technological innovations and distractions, girls can have difficulty figuring out how to be decisive in the midst of so many academic and personal expectations.
Helping teen girls improve their time-management skills and reduce stress is important in promoting their overall mental and emotional health. Below are some strategies on how to collaborate with teen girls and promote wellness:
1. Figure out where the time is going. Spend three days “accounting” for time. This exercise can easily be made into a game that everyone in the family can participate in - after all, we could all use a few extra minutes or hours of free time, right? Use a time management sheet that lists all the hours of the day to track what is happening hour by hour – including sleeping, eating, homework (with or without checking Facebook) and commuting. Make sure to list any distractions that sidetrack efforts. Then, have everyone figure out where some wasted minutes went – thirty minutes surfing mindlessly online, for instance, and what they would want to replace that time with (see Game of Threes, below, for ideas).
2. Incorporate technology compartmentalization. Many times, students will come into my office saying that they are spending intense hours on homework, when in reality their homework efforts are getting sidetracked with social technology. In many cases, it can be tough because computers and tablets are needed for completing schoolwork, but can also provide the biggest distractions. Collaborate to come up with ways to compartmentalize technology. For example, some students put the phone on silent in the other room when doing homework, and others have a homework time screen on their computer that does not have social networking sites open. Once they are able to compartmentalize their technological distractions, girls get their homework done more efficiently - leaving more time for fun and rest.
3. Help her develop healthy coping strategies. Have girls think about what are the different things they can do to positively deal with a bad day or a stressful situation. I developed the Game of Threes as a way for girls to brainstorm and think about what they enjoy doing. Often taking a walk outside, playing with the dog, taking a bath, baking, cooking, painting and other hands-on activities have a meditative soothing quality that get mistakenly overlooked as unimportant because there is no grade or score attached to them. In reality, these can be some of the most helpful ways to promoting overall wellness.
4. Encourage writing as a release. Journaling has been found to be an effective way for many to transfer thoughts, ideas and stressors from mind to paper. For many girls, it can be a great way to reflect and release. Finding a regular time each day to journal, even for five to fifteen minutes, can make a significant difference. A special journal and a comfortable writing pen can encourage a fresh beginning, and girls can feel inclined to continue once they see the benefits over the course of a week or a month. Make it a game!
5. Reinvent Sleep Routines. When children are younger, they have regular sleep routines that often include a bath, brushing their teeth, putting on their pjs, reading a story, etc. As children get older, those sleep routines can fall by the wayside, and each night and subsequent morning can end up being a scramble. Collaborate and create a solid sleep routine. Being screen-free for at least thirty minutes before bed can be essential to help teens get to sleep easily, and having backpacks set for the next day can make the morning a little less stressful. In addition, routines that create opportunities to wind down can allow them to potentially have more restful sleep. Tip: Keep the phone out of the bedroom. It can be too tempting for teens to awake and answer a text in the middle of the night, so have a rule: After a certain hour, phones get locked and charged until morning.