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Why Teens Benefit from Summer Downtime

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For most teens, the school year is very busy. Balancing school, homework, sports, extracurricular clubs, religious events, etc., can leave very little downtime. Summer seems like it would be a great opportunity for teens to slow down and relax.

But many teens (and their parents) feel pressured to make sure their summer is productive. They may worry that they will be in trouble come college application time if they do not participate in activities that are “resume worthy.” Robin Mamlet, co-author of the book, College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, says, “There is nothing wrong with downtime. After the rigor of the school year, kids are entitled to some time that is simply whiled away.”

With more than half the summer ahead of us, what is the best way for teens to re-charge before the next school year?

Decompressing is Good

Mamlet says, “Parents should not make their teen feel ‘less than’ for taking some downtime over the summer.” Doing nothing is actually good for teens – at least in small doses. After the stress of AP tests and finals, sitting around in their pajamas for a few days surging YouTube and watching Simpson reruns is perfectly fine. Nicole Wise, co-author of the book, Hyper-Parenting: Are You Hurting Your Child By Trying Too Hard, adds, “Downtime is for dreaming – What do you want to do with your life? How do you feel about issues and people and the behavior of friends? What can you learn from something you said or did yesterday that turned out badly? Teens need to take time to just think and reflect.”

Teens Need Sleep

Parents may nag their teens and ask, “Are you going to sleep the whole day away?” But deep down, what adult doesn’t wish they could still sleep until noon like their teen self? Denise Clark Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, says, “Middle and high schoolers are in their ‘growing’ period. During the school year, they are forced to stay up late to study and wake up early. The summer is a chance to sleep late and follow their natural sleep rhythm.” Wise adds, “Sleep and rest and relaxation are important for replenishing energy, physically and mentally.”

Family Time is Important

For many parents, summer can be a quieter time at work. Whether it is a big family trip, a “staycation”, or just coming home early for dinner together, use summer downtime to reconnect as a family. Wise comments, “When parents and kids spend unstructured time together, wonderful things happen – including but not limited to important conversations. Watching sitcoms together, walking the dog, listening to music or just chatting about the weather reinforces your relationship and your kids’ sense that you like them, in addition to loving them.”

Balance is Good

While some teens might be unable to embrace downtime, others may balk about having any responsibilities in the summer, arguing that they need a complete break. The key is to find a healthy balance. Wise continues, “Parental involvement is important here – even if you teen doesn’t want to volunteer or get a job or babysit or whatever, it’s good to encourage doing so. These experiences build character as well as credentials.”

But do give teens some freedom to choose. Too much of the school year is structured by adults, and teens need to learn the life skill of organizing their own schedule. A summer that includes working for pay or volunteering, training for a sport, getting assigned summer work done, etc., in conjunction with some truly ‘free’ time is ideal.

Teens living at home for the summer should be expected to pitch in around the house – driving younger siblings, doing laundry, straighten up after dinner, etc. Pope adds, “Some parents may feel their teen is too busy during the school year to complete chores but there are no excuses during the summer. It is good for the psyche and strengthens a family when everyone helps out.”

Many teens have interests that they have little time to pursue during the school year. From reading novels to making a music video to writing a screenplay – encourage teens to be creative during the summer. Wise remarks, “Unscheduled time is when you play and try new things. A teen might pick up a book or magazine and read something intriguing or provocative.”

But What Will Colleges Think?

From service trips to summer education programs, teens (and parents) may feel compelled to do something impressive or just apprehensive about taking the summer “off.” These kinds of programs can be life enhancing but only if they are truly something a teen is interested in.

Wise says, “There’s so much emphasis on resume-building and it’s not all bad. It becomes a problem when activities – like community work or sports – are done only for the wrong reasons. A kid who volunteers at an animal shelter because she likes dogs and needs to build up her resume is being proactive; a kid who signs up for clubs and doesn’t attend meetings or passes out cupcakes at a senior center and then makes fun of the old people but puffs up the experience on his resume is doing it for the ‘wrong’ reasons.”

The challenge is for teens to find meaning in whatever they do. Pope explains, “There is not one specific thing that colleges are looking for in applicants. A public service trip to Africa is great, but it is no greater than helping an elderly neighbor with chores or babysitting for a local family that cannot afford a sitter. It is about being authentic.” Mamlet adds, “Colleges aren't looking for the ‘busiest’ students - they're looking for passion and commitment to a larger world. That can come in lots of forms and is not demonstrated, necessarily, by having a plan for every week of the summer.”

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Written by Randi Mazzella

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Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer and mother of three from New Jersey. She is a Contributing Editor for Raising Teens Magazine and writes monthly for the blog Barista Kids.

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