4 Major Signs Of High School Burnout + What To Do About It

mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor
Alexandra Engler is the Beauty and Lifestyle Senior Editor. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department.

Image by ALTO IMAGES / Stocksy

Burnout is turning into an epidemic. According to a Gallup poll, 23% of employees reported they were very often or always having feelings of burnout; an additional 44% reported it happened sometimes.  

It's also increasingly affecting a very vulnerable group: teens. "I see more and more teens coming in feeling stressed with clear signs of burnout. It is so much more prevalent nowadays," says Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS, a clinical psychologist. "It's a huge concern because if you enter college totally depleted, what do you do from there?" she adds.

What's causing high school burnout?

There might be a few factors contributing to this, but the big one that Alyson Cohen, a New York City–based psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker who works with teens and young adults, sees come up a lot is how competitive high school and college admissions is. "Now that college has basically become the standard, admission is becoming so much more competitive," she says. And this, she says, is causing kids to overextend themselves.

Another aspect is social media, Cohen and Beurkens note. It's a constant stream of comparisons, an endless highlight reel. Seeing others constantly "at their best" makes any of us feel like we should always be doing better or something more. 

And finally, it might be modeled after the parents' behavior. If adults are increasingly anxiety-ridden and stressed from work, kids can pick up on that and perhaps even internalize it.

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What should you look for? 

It's not as if this age group is, um, the most open about their experiences. But there are a few key markers and buzzwords to look out for: 

  1. If there are tears during homework, that's a sign that stress has gotten out of hand. It's normal to be somewhat stressed about a big project or paper, but when it moves your kid to emotional duress, you need to address the issue. "I have kids come in just in tears and paralyzed to start any work," says Cohen. "But they couldn't figure out why it was happening." 
  2. In that same vein, listen for buzzwords and phrases like "overwhelmed" or "I just don't know where to start." These can be indicators that they have too much going on, says Beurkens. 
  3. Hyper-perfectionism can be both a cause and a symptom of burnout. “They want to be high-achieving, but they so often don't realize that it's a self-perpetuating problem," says Cohen. "They load up their schedule and put so much pressure on themselves to get it done—and then when they can't because of burnout, it starts to spiral." 
  4. They're going through a pivotal year—namely, junior year. "You tend to see it happen for kids whenever difficulty levels start to ramp up," says Cohen. So, for example, junior year tends to have more pressure because of college applications. 

What can you do?

First, understand the pressure your kid might be under. "You might hear kids say things like 'You don't understand; it wasn't like this when you were a kid,' and honestly, it's true—there are a lot more kids have to deal with now," says Beurkens. So enlist professional help from someone who understands the complexities of high school today. This can, but doesn't have to be, a therapist. You can also find college admissions counselors who are better equipped to handle the realities of college today. Or, if it is a therapist, it doesn't need to be a continual thing: maybe just a few sessions to give them tools for stress management

And as for what you can do yourself, carve out face time with your kid, no phones and for at least an hour a week, says Cohen. "Try something special—like a breakfast or dinner of their choice—that you are fully there for. Seriously, make eye contact," she says. Because even if they are slow to open up, they'll usually get there eventually. 

And, finally, prioritize downtime as a family, Cohen and Beurkens note. If they see it as valuable and time well spent, they'll be more inclined to give themselves a break and step back when they are feeling stressed. But they need to see that you value it too. 

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