If you’re a parent of school-age kids, you may have mixed feelings about this: August is around the corner. It’s almost time to start constructing our “before school starts” checklists. Have we registered them yet? Have we paid all the fees? “Do you still fit in that?” “What? I just bought that!”
We need clothes, school supplies, and backpacks. What about that newfangled calculator? For some this will come about easily and will be relatively stress-free. For others there will be scrambling and a certain degree of reckless abandon due to procrastination and wishful thinking.
Regardless of how you and your child enter the school year, all parents and students will feel a bit of excitement and a bit of anxiety as the year begins. But for some the pressure will be more problematic. As an adolescent mental strength coach, youth and family therapist, and middle school counselor, I know I will interact with students, parents, and colleagues who will confront mental health issues this year. Many of these students will need inpatient hospitalization, many will begin a talk-therapy counseling regimen, some may begin taking medication to deal with mental illness. In my experience, working with adolescents for more than two decades in the context of clinical counseling, most mental health interventions with young people are reactive in nature, trying to meet the psychological needs of students after it has been determined that they are not mentally healthy. This typically occurs after an acute episode of mental distress and anguish, most likely a form of clinical depression or anxiety. This is important work, but it’s not enough.
This is why I decided to start an adolescent coaching practice as a more proactive way to support students through the seemingly growing stress of being a student, athlete, friend, son/daughter, employee, etc., in a world that often communicates the message “your good should be better.” These days, teens hear they should work hard, sell themselves out, do this, do that, not say no to that, get in that club, get that job, and go to the best college to get the best job. Then they will be happy! I believe there’s a better way. And I believe many students (and parents) would benefit from thoughtful and strategic coping strategies when trying to balance life during this school year.
As we interact with school this year, it will be easy to get swept away by grades and extracurricular activities. It’s tempting for parents and students to believe grades are the be-all-and-end-all of the student’s post-high school prospects. I’d like to offer a long-view approach to school that will pay dividends now and later. I’d like you to consider walking forward this year in pursuit of a particular form of balance.
There are five domains that every person on this planet interacts with every minute of every day. These domains are not partial to age, gender, developmental stage in life, or ethnic background. They are 1) physical, 2) social, 3) emotional, 4) intellectual, and 5) spiritual.
Physically, we have to work with our bodies and choose every day how to use them and treat them.
Socially, we interact with individuals and social technology every day and in many different contexts.
Emotionally, we experience and feel this life and all it has to offer. What we feel matters and is always valid.
Intellectually, our brains are continuously stimulated, always processing, consistently recalling and articulating information (academically, personally/emotionally) every waking moment.
Spiritually, all of us (no matter what we believe) interact and move forward believing something, even if we can’t always put a handle on it.
The healthiest individuals (young and old) interact with these domains in balance. They feed these domains evenly throughout the week. Healthy individuals will purposefully take care of their bodies so they will perform well. They will put forth effort to interact with peers in healthy and engaging ways. These students learn to express their feelings and opinions in ways that others will hear and understand. They see the importance of learning and applying what they have learned to life. This balance may look different for different people. However, it is easy to see people who are not feeding these domains evenly.
For example, if a student is only driven to perform athletically, she may be feeding the vast majority of her time resources into the physical domain. Naturally, other domains will suffer. She may feel socially alienated, her grades may suffer, and she may begin to feel indifferent about things that have been of value to her in the past. She certainly isn’t growing into a well-rounded person, and that becomes problematic. Especially later in life, when her athletic career has come to a close and she is ill-equipped/delayed in the other domains of life.
Another example is a student who is skewed too heavily academically. As he is forming his identity through his academic accomplishments, other domains will naturally suffer. He may find it difficult when other peers catch up to him academically. He may miss out on important social successes and failures that would help him later in life. He may not value taking care of his body at all and may suffer physically later as well.
Examples of overindulgence in these domains are easy to think of. The trick is recognizing when students are in these unbalanced modes. It’s important for parents to recognize what they may be doing (intentionally or unintentionally) to foster imbalance. Do you live a balanced life? What are you modeling to your child? How are you taking care of yourself and pursuing balance? Do you advocate for balance with your child? These are important questions to consider as you may be entering a stressful school year while being bombarded with the message that what you are doing is not enough. Most of the time that just isn’t true.
Here are a few do’s and don’ts when promoting the important concept of balance to your child during this school year:
Do ask about the various domains regularly.
Don’t focus on primarily one domain all of the time during your Q&A time with your child. This is specifically a challenge when parents are stressed about grades and athletic performance.
Do provide opportunities for your child to participate in activities that scratch multiple domains.
Don’t feed unhealthy tech habits. If tech is controlling your child more than your child is controlling tech, there is a problem. Bad habits just don’t stop. Your child will need clarity, strength, and confident leadership in modeling appropriate tech habits.
Do keep a long view of your child’s development. How do you want them to be an adult? What they are manifesting now is likely to replicate itself in some form when they are older.
Be true to yourself and to your child by understanding that average is still okay. If we are honest, the vast majority of humans on earth fall within the average. Developing a child into a hardworking, respectful, responsible and resilient child is a worthy goal. Plus, students are more likely to be content if they have learned balance. Demanding total dominance in an unbalanced way and at the sacrifice of other domains is not worth it as it breeds dysfunction and despair.