Why Average American Teens are Exhausted and Burnt Out

You’re up at the crack of dawn, if not before. You spend a full day at work, and then some. You have late afternoon responsibilities, activities and tasks, then more tasks, then dinner, then more  “work” tasks. You answer calls and emails well after working hours, then work even more past a healthy bedtime. Then you do it all again the next day.

Teens are exhausted from their 18 hour days

If you think I’m talking about your average full-time working adult, you’re wrong.

I’m talking about your average American teenager.

6 a.m. to midnight. Those are the “working” hours a typical high schooler is keeping these days. With the majority of American high schools still adhering to early start times in order to fit in afternoon athletics and extracurriculars, most teens are up at or before sunrise in order to catch buses or drive to school.

Then it’s a full day of academics until around 3, followed by afternoon hours filled with a large variety of activities. Whether they have daily sports practices, drama, band, or school club and interest group meetings, most teens are spending 2-4 hours after school gets out continuing to do school related things.  Performances, concerts, games, youth group ministries, and other competitions, meetings, and events can then go well into the evening.

Finally, it’s back home again, but the “work” doesn’t stop then they get there. Ironically, it’s probably just begun. Carrying any type of honors, AP, IB, or dual enrollment college class schedule means hours of homework late into the night.  Also, somewhere in those late hours teens are managing to squeeze in some snippet of an actual social life – chatting and texting with peers into the wee hours in the same way we did decades ago – just with a different mode of communication.

And then they do it all over again about six hours later.

No, this is not some alternative schedule of an overachieving student headed to the Ivy Leagues. Nor is it the daily calendar of the valedictorian, football team captain, and senior class president.  These are the days of regular, real high school students.  But is this level of oppressive achievement really even necessary? Well, not only does it seem to be absolutely necessary if that student plans to attend a four-year university and be eligible to receive even minimal state sponsored merit based financial aid assistance, it’s also a must if they’re applying for a specialty or highly competitive major such as pre-med or engineering.

As an example, I will use an application my high school senior is currently filling out for a medical honors program at one of our state public universities.  (Pre-med is now limited and competitive, beginning as soon as your freshman year. ) The application includes three blank pages to be filled up with high school involvement, school sports, travel sports, school and local civic clubs, volunteerism/service hours, honor societies, AP classes, summer academic institutes and camps attended, mission trips, computer coding languages he is fluent in, and part-time jobs he has held. And then in what I consider to be the absolute height of irony (and practically laughable) is the last question on the last page. It simply reads, “Now describe what you do for fun.”

“So what should I put down?” my son asked. I told him to go ahead and put down playing video games because he enjoys that. “But won’t that look bad? Like, isn’t playing video games looked down upon?” Sadly, for a second I wanted to agree with him, and then help come up with some alternative from of fun –  fun which showed he’d be a great candidate for medical school. Maybe the  “fun” he is having is growing diseased tissue samples in his bedroom, but it’s not.

And that’s where we are at these days folks. We are right there in the middle of an obscene application that measures over achievement to the tenth degree, then asks if my kid can relax. Of course he can’t relax, do you see what he’s been doing the last four years? 18 hour days! That’s what he’s been doing!

And we wonder why our college’s mental health and counseling centers are seeing more students per month than they ever have. And we wonder why our young adults are currently being diagnosed with depression and anxiety at staggering and unheard of rates.

Our kids are exhausted and burnt out, and yet we just keep piling on the tasks and raising the admission requirements for their future.  We think, “They’re 16, 17, 18 years old! They can handle it, they’re young!” No, they can’t handle it, and they’re telling us in droves by way of breakdowns, therapy sessions, and mental health prescription treatments, all of which they’re way too young to be having to experience in the first place.

I’ve had two kids go through high school already, and as my third finishes his 8th grade year and I know what he is about to face, my only thought is, “I just don’t want to do this high school crap again.”  I don’t think I’m alone either. I see plenty of families pulling kids out of the high school rat race and instead they’re un-schooling, homeschooling, or doing a combination of high school and community college in an effort to reduce the pressure and avoid 18 hour days.

Until we see some changes in what we consider to be normal traditional high school, and remove some of these achievement hurdles and unattainable pressures we’re inundating our teenagers with, alternative schooling trends will continue to be on the rise.

Because 18 hour high school days? They’re for adults, not our kids.


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Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. She is on Facebook at 4BoysMother and on twitter at @melissarunsaway.

About Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. Find her on Facebook 
and on twitter at @melissarunsaway

Read more posts by Melissa

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