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"Down Time" for Parents and Adolescents

Taking a break can reduce stress for parents and adolescent

Worn down by the relentless demands of their respective job and school schedules, parent and adolescent are often on a collision course for irritation and conflict at the end of the weekday unless they can discover some way to remediate their accumulated stress. "Down time" is one way this relief is found.

What both need is to take some time out for themselves to do "nothing" which is really doing something that feels un-taxing and only takes as much effort as one wishes to make. The choice can be passive, like escaping into electronic entertainment, or active, like engaging in a comfortable interest. Either way, the point is to interrupt the flow of non-negotiable demands, to create a break for one self and use that momentary sense of freedom to relax and recover.

To understand the importance of "down time," it helps to understand the function of "up time." Up time is generally dedicated to meeting daily demands for keeping one's life going and getting obligatory things done. Up time is spent being up and running whether you feel like it or not. Up time is usually tiring because energy is spent on accomplishment of some kind, much of it committed to meeting the necessary needs of one's own and the fixed expectations of others.

For parents, a job is up time, but so is managing the family. For adolescents, school is up time, but so is helping around the home. Organized outside activities, even though they are elective, are mostly up time because once scheduled they become obligatory. As for homework, that particular up time activity is often resisted and resented by adolescents because it gets in the way of free time for down time they feel they have earned at home after putting in a long day of up time at school.

Up time is dictated by others; down time is governed by oneself.

Down time is time during which you can follow your own agenda and nobody else's. You are in charge of what you choose to do or choose not to do. In this sense, down time is independent time. Because most parents and adolescents have so much up time, true down time is highly prized. As most parents would say, there's not enough down time to be had most days, and most adolescents would agree.

Down time creates two kinds of end-of-the-day conflicts between parents and adolescent - differences over scheduling and differences over tolerances.

Scheduling conflicts occur when one of them is collapsing into down time and the other starts making some up time demand. "I need to a ride to the store to get my school supplies!" declares the urgent teenager who has waited until the last minute to begin a project. This is said to the parent who is lying down for a brief respite before getting supper started. Or to the teenager who is head-phoned into music to blare out the cares of the day, the parent announces, "it's time to get going on your chores, I mean right now!"

Tolerance conflicts occur because what seems like appropriate down time activity to one seems like a waste of time to the other. So the parent can be intolerant of the adolescent who wants to spend some down time escaping into playing what seems like a pointless and endless video game, while the adolescent can be intolerant of the adult who zones out watching the evening TV news, treating it like some kind of sacred ritual during which the adult must not be disturbed.

In each case, there is a double standard involved: 'you should respect my need for down time but I don't need to respect yours.' In reality, at the end of the day, everyone is tired. Everyone feels in bondage to being too busy. Everyone's energy is running low. Everyone wants some respite from external demands and to be left alone.

So the adolescent says, "When I come home after following orders all day, I just want some free time for nothing except what I want to do." Replies the parent, "I know exactly what you mean because I feel the same way. But we're not free. Some down time when we get home is the most we can expect to get. Then there will be more stuff to do." And that's the contract: some down time for each one needs to be respected, but must also be limited because the demands keep coming after one comes home.

Of course, substance-assisted down time - regularly resorting to caffeine, nicotine, marijuana, or alcohol, for example - is risky when it becomes the only way down time can be secured. Now a chemical dependency may have been established as freedom found for escape creates freedom lost to serving a compulsive need. Thus if having a couple evening drinks is the only way a parent can relax, that mom or dad might want to consider finding some other (non-chemical) ways.

What happens in families where there is no provision or permission for down time at the end of the day is that stress from unrelenting demands can jam the relationships between parents and teenager. Why is that?

The answer I see in counseling is because stress is not just something that occurs within people; it is also carried between people. It can be contagious, particularly so at the end of the day when no one has been given the down time they need. Now stress is easier to transmit and easier to catch.

Briefly, this is how the contagion of stress can work. (For more on stress see my 6/14/2009 blog.) Most commonly arising from protracted over demand, four levels of stress are typically passed one person to another through a variety of emotional means - through becoming critical, irritable, insensitive, and unavailable.

Consider how a stressed parent might convey stress to an adolescent.

The first level of stress is registered as FATIGUE and it breeds a negative outlook that can cause the person be more critical to be with. So when the stressed parent looks at the teenager's report card and ignores the A's and B's, only expressing dissatisfaction with the single C, the young person feels disapproved of. "No matter how well I do you're never satisfied!"

The second level of stress is registered as PAIN, of the nagging physical or emotional kind, that can cause the person to be irritable to be with. So when the stressed parent yells at the teenager to shut that "noise called music down," the young person feels attacked. "We'll I hate your barking at me!"

The third level of stress is registered as BURN OUT or loss of traditional caring and causes the person to be insensitive to be with. So when the stressed parent hasn't been listening to what the teenager has been confiding, the young person feels ignored. "You haven't heard a word I've said!"

The fourth level of stress is registered as BREAK DOWN or loss of normal functioning and can cause the person to feel unavailable to be with. So when the stressed parent comes home and goes straight to the TV, bypassing the teenager's greeting without a word, the young person feels dismissed. "You won't even take time to respond to me!"

Down time is not a magic cure, but it can help. The hope is that with some down time at the end of the day, parent and teenager can sufficiently restore themselves so that:

Instead of being critical with each other they can be accepting,

Instead of being irritable with each other they can be welcoming,

Instead of being insensitive with each other they can be responsive,

And instead of being unavailable to each other they can be more present.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: When parents disagree about their adolescent.

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