My teenaged son was hunched over at his desk in his bedroom and his hazel eyes looked at me in pain. He was an emotional mess because he felt like he couldn’t commit to everything going on in his life.
“I’m exhausted, Mom. I can’t do it all. And all I keep hearing from my teachers is that I’m not committed enough. If I could just work harder, I know I could commit more,” he cried.
After burning the candle at both ends during his sophomore year of high school, my son broke down and gave into the exhaustion that had been plaguing him for months.
I wish I could say that I was surprised that it all came to a head on that emotional night in his bedroom but, sadly, though I saw the warning signs early on, I tried to ignore them at first.
My usually amiable son was irritable when he’d arrive home from school. A simple “How was your day?” was met with a grump and a curt answer about having too much homework. He was juggling a long school day, several honors and AP classes and a part in his school play.
I started to notice that he was restless and he couldn’t seem to settle down during his downtime. Not that there was much downtime, though: his rehearsal schedule was demanding and his rigorous curriculum didn’t leave more than an hour at most for him to eat dinner, watch Netflix or goof off with his friends.
Then the late nights started, with him staying up well past 11p on school nights to try to catch up on homework or to cram for a test that he’d known about for weeks.
Friction rubbed between us as I grew frustrated by his seeming lack of organization. He was in constant motion, like a whirlwind of irritability and annoyance constantly running late and smelling of unwashed hoodies.
But he kept going, like an out of control freight train, because no one was there to put the brakes on for him.
The adults in his life had forced him to keep pushing towards an ideal that no one could attain.
The adults in his life were undermining his exhaustion by saying things like, “If you aren’t 110% committed, you shouldn’t be here.”
The adults in his life were chiding him about studying more, getting higher grades and achieving at any cost.
And one of those adults was me.
Though we’ve always chosen the activities our kids participate in carefully, my husband and I realized that night that we’d made a huge mistake: we trusted our son to know his limits. We trusted that he’d tell us he was struggling before life got to be too much.
We trusted that he’d know how to protect his mental health.
But he’s 16.
He hasn’t fully learned how to set limits. And, though he did finally break and ask us for help, when I looked at his tear-stained face, I realized we should have dealt with his stress and anxiety months ago.
Because, until now, we haven’t helped him learn how to set limits for his activities and to say no when his schedule has become overwhelming.
Rather, we’ve continued to perpetuate the notion that success in life means sticking with your obligations no matter what the price is to your mental health. We’ve inadvertently pushed him to stay in Honors or AP classes because it looks good to colleges, despite the fact that he was breaking under the workload.
We’ve pushed him to keep up with a life that wasn’t bringing him joy or relaxation.
We let the word “commitment” rule our lives and dominate our family.
But no more.
Since that day, I have advocated with my son’s school administrators to regulate the time our students spend in extracurricular activities. We’ve helped our son adjust his school schedule to allow for more elective classes and to free up some downtime in his day. We’ve helped him manage his time and go to bed earlier, sometimes even declaring “everyone stays home” nights so that we can regroup as a family.
And I have pushed back at the parents who have bristled at my insistence that our teens be absolved of the weight that the word “commitment” carries.
I’ve looked at parents in the eye and reminded them that when a kid is telling you he’s exhausted, saying, “Well, there are other kids who are more than willing to take your spot so maybe you should quit,” isn’t the least bit helpful.
I’ve argued with teachers and theater directors that saying, “If you just tried harder, your life will fall into place,” only sets kids up for failure. No one can do it all. I know I sure can’t.
Watching my son fall apart because he’s been led to believe that fully committing to an activity or sport means giving up your emotional well-being has been sobering.
We are redefining what “commitment” means in this house even if that means harsh criticism from parents when I advocate for my kids. Even if it means having to hear other parents call me weak.
But I, for one, and 110% committed to making sure my teens know their mental health and emotional well-being should always come first.