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Nurture Shock Part II: Modern Teens Are Bored, Anxious and Exhausted

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Last week, I explored the current trends in "overparenting" for younger children, and how many of the best intentions can backfire big time. A small wildfire of commentary followed! Thanks to everyone who shared a wide range of viewpoints. Certainly nothing can be closer to the heart than the fate of our offspring - besides our own report card as parents.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have been stirring this pot for quite some time with their consistent articles in Newsweek and their fantastic book NurtureShock- New Thinking About Children.

What struck me about the dialogue are the pervasive levels of fear. Many parents today are just plain scared. They are scared of sex offenders, pedophiles and kidnappings to such a degree it has become justified to monitor our children's every waking moment. Yet, the odds of being kidnapped and killed by a stranger are about 1 in 1.5 million, and 80% of kids who are molested are victims of friends or relatives. Experts agree that playing on the playground, at the park, or with the neighborhood kids would not have prevented such heinous acts.

Death by injury has dropped more than 50% since 1980, yet parents lobbied to take the jungle gyms out of playgrounds, and remove recess altogether for middle school and high school aged kids. What is this fear doing to our kids?

Being a teenager is filled with enough anxieties as it is. Having zits, hair in strange places, and feeling stirred by the passions of a first love have turned adolescent worlds upside down since time immemorial. However, teens today are facing issues like being unable to fill their free time, not being allowed to take risks, and being physically exhausted.

The words, "I'm bored" are about as common for teenagers as "I'm hungry." Remember those long summer vacations we used to fill by aimlessly wandering around, making up things to do? Forget it. Kids are often scheduled for a majority of their free time, from toddler-hood through graduation. Extra-curricular activities routinely run through dinner and into the evening on school nights, and it is not uncommon to have games or events on both Saturday and Sunday year round - including the summer.

Modern parents are often exasperated that the moment they return from some activity, the child or teen announces they are bored within ten minutes of being home. How can this be? According to Linda Caldwell, who researches Leisure Studies at Penn State, full fledged boredom sets in around 7th grade, and increases through high school.

Caldwell also found boredom and free time were not necessarily related. Lots of really busy kids were bored- either because they were signed up for a lot of activities they really didn't want to do, or they were so used to having all their time planned out; they had no idea how to fill it on their own.

"The more controlling the parent, the more likely the child is to experience boredom," said Caldwell.

Many successful organizations have instituted "Pareto's Principle" - which states that 80% of effects come from 20% of the cause. In plain English: unscheduled time to look out the window, dream and be bored can bring the greatest creative insights that end up driving the future. Google, Best Buy and other cutting edge organizations offer 20% time off to some of the management staff for hobbies- with unparalleled results in business innovations.

Clearly both adults and children can use Pareto's principle. If teens are not allowed 20% of their time to be less structured, they are robbed of the opportunity to sink into the deeper recesses of their minds to "make something up" or explore their inner selves via making a go-kart, a craft, writing in a diary or even walking around the neighborhood talking to the clouds.

Not having "time off", coupled with our post-9/11, Bush-era regime of fear, has contorted itself into modern "hovering" or "helicopter parents" who cannot let their kids alone, and they are growing up anxious, afraid of their own shadow, and unable to take any risks we would have done in a heartbeat growing up.

According to Time Magazine's article "The Backlash Against Overparenting" Lenore Skenazy, became known as America's Worst Mom," because she let her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone. A Yale educated Mom, she has stood her ground, and written a book called, Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.

Her argument has been corroborated elsewhere with studies that demonstrate teenagers in particular, need an element of risk in their lives. Dr. Adrianna Galvan at UCLA created ingenious research using fMRI scanners to reveal that teenagers require a greater degree of stimulation, or intense excitement, than adults or children. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex, which regulates risk and consequences, takes a simultaneous dip. Big surprise.

"All this fits the pattern we see, where adolescents seem sluggish in literature class, drink like a fish on Saturday nights, and don't seem to realize it's a bad idea to put five friends on a golf cart while driving it down a steep hill with a sharp turn at the bottom," said Bronson.

There is a good reason Arianna dedicated last month to the subject of sleep- as it is a huge issue with teens. The fact is, teens require 9.5 hours of sleep in order to function, regulate emotions and thrive. Most teens have a 7 a.m. bus, and get up around 6 a.m. That means they would have to be asleep at 9:30 p.m. Know ANY teenagers who go to bed at 9:30? Try 11 p.m. to midnight. 6.5 hours of sleep per night is causing rampant exhaustion in teens, increasing anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, ADHD, and obesity. Only 5% of high school kids are getting the adult recommendation of eight hours.

NurtureShock dedicated an entire chapter to the negative effects of sleep, and showed that even losing a single hour of sleep can cause a 6th grader to perform like a 4th grader, and anywhere from 20-33% of kids are falling asleep in class at least once a week. Alarmingly, the brain remains "under construction" until close to age 25, and during sleep time, the brain categorizes and processes what it learns during the day.

A few progressive communities, like Edina, Minnesota took the bull by the horns and pushed back the start times for high school students from 7:25-8:30am. Guess what? SAT scores went up 56 points for math and 156 points. In Lexington, KY, after delaying high school start time, teenage car accidents decreased 25%.

We have a lot to learn, that is for sure. Are your teens tired, anxious and bored? Let's continue our conversation as we look at our next generation of leaders, and how to best serve them.