Why Average American Teens are Exhausted and Burnt Out

You’re up at the crack of dawn, if not before. You spend an entire 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.

groups of teens
Teens are exhausted from their 18-hour days. (TBKilman)


You’re mistaken if you think I’m talking about your average full-time working adult.

I’m talking about your average American teenager.

Teens are exhausted from too-busy schedules

6 a.m. to midnight. Those are the “working” hours a typical high schooler keeps these days. With the majority of American high schools still adhering to early start times to fit in afternoon athletics and extracurriculars, most teens are up at or before sunrise 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 spend 2-4 hours after school doing school-related things. Performances, concerts, games, youth group ministries, and other competitions, conferences, and events can go well into the evening.

Finally, it’s back home again, but the “work” doesn’t stop then. Ironically, it’s probably just begun. Carrying any 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, actual high school students.

But is this level of oppressive achievement even necessary? It seems to be 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.

Pressure around applying for college drives some of this intensity

For 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, 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 fun alternative, 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. In the middle of an obscene application that measures over achievement to the tenth degree, we are right there, then asks if my kid can relax. Of course, he can’t relax. Do you see what he’s been doing for 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, yet we 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 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 many families pulling kids out of the high school rat race. Instead, they’re un-schooling, homeschooling, or doing a combination of high school and community college to reduce the pressure and avoid 18-hour days.

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

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

You Might Also Want to Read: 

The Most Important Thing to Remember When Your 17-Year Old Drives You Nuts

In the Push for Perfection, are We Wounding our Kids?




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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