Your Kids Can Suffer Burnout Too—Here's How to Help Them

If your child constantly strives for perfection, they'll likely face burnout just like you do. Help them develop healthy, balanced habits so your child can thrive in their environment.

An image of a tired girl doing her homework.
Photo: Getty Images.

Anxiously, I looked for my name on the seating chart along with the other hopeful fifth graders. It was my first day in Cincinnati Junior Strings, the moment that would decide my fate as a concert violinist, and there it was in black and white for all to see: Emma Sutton, last chair. My heart sank. Barely accepted into the organization, I took my seat as a nobody. At that moment, I grew acutely aware that my seat somehow determined my social standing amongst the other kids. Their mothers emphasized a hierarchy based on the talent in the room, which determined your self-worth in their group. Motivated to earn my seat at the top after a mountain of tears and a bowl of ice cream, I devised my newest superpower: work ethic. I wasn't the most naturally gifted child in the room, but I was fixated on outworking them. My unbalanced obsession for perfection was brought on by my yearning to fit into society's definition of success.

Like many kids at this tender age, I was impressionable and eager to please. My unhealthy obsession with pleasing others pushed me to compulsively work long hours, leading to panic attacks and anxiety—all in the name of perfection. Pediatric psychologist Francyne Zeltser, Psy.D., said that I was displaying a very typical reaction to burnout—"irritability, anxiety, self-doubt, or resistance when asked to do an activity that had previously been enjoyable."

Children are especially struggling with burnout after in-home learning environments and mounting expectations. "Children have had fewer opportunities to find balance this past year," says Dr. Zeltser. They strive to please their parents, peers, and, most importantly, themselves. We need to balance these expectations and help children have the right mindset for life and their goals. Experts share how to do just that.

Have Open Communication

Anxiety to succeed can be paralyzing to children, causing them to withdraw from life. Dr. Zeltser cautioned when kids feel pushed toward an activity or feel ill-equipped to participate, it "will have more negative outcomes than positive." She explained that childrentend to not articulate their needs, which is why encouraging them to discuss why they don't want to do something can help them process their thoughts and understand what's pulling them away from a specific activity. Keeping this open line of communication will help them express their feelings moving forward.

Schedule Time to Rest

When we're young, we feel pressed for time so much that we try to absorb it all at once. A straightforward step to recuperating from information overload can be as simple as enforcing breaks. "Our brains are like sponges," psychologist Scott Bea, Psy.D. from the Cleveland Clinic, said on their Health Essentials blog. "They can only soak up so much information before they're saturated and then they have to dry out a bit."

Dr. Zeltser also suggests keeping a flexible routine, so your child feels comfortable asking for breaks when they cannot press on. This elasticity will help keep your communication line open and enable your child to keep their inner spark of joy aflame, motivating them to pursue their dreams. As I grew older, my father gave me a day planner to teach me self-discipline and structure. It became freeing when I learned to plan in downtime between my studies. Penciling rest into my routine allowed me to remain guilt-free when enjoying rest or playing with friends because I accomplished my goals one step at a time.

Shut Down Their Inner Critic

After hours of study, sometimes your child feels like nothing they do is ever good enough. This process can begin to create self-doubt and alienate them from doing well. I reached out to performance psychologist Noa Kageyama on faculty at The Juilliard School as to why this might happen, where he explained the process for a young musician. "When it's time to perform, they have to turn off the self-monitoring, evaluating, problem-solving, and just play," he explained, "focusing more on what they want." Like anything, this requires practice. He felt Sister Corita Kent, an artist, educator, and advocate for social justice, described it best by saying, "don't try to create and analyze at the same time." By dividing study time between self-evaluation and trying new ideas without passing judgment, it'll allow them a chance to turn off their inner critic, boost confidence, and let creativity flourish.

Support Their Creativity

In an interview with CEO Magazine, Brené Brown, Ph.D., wisely stated, "there is no innovation and creativity without failure." When we nurture an experimental environment open to vulnerability instead of defining something as correct versus incorrect, it changes our child's perception of failure. Teaching children that failure is an opportunity to learn will form how they process life events and shift their perspective. Catherine Cho, my former violin teacher, works with exceptionally gifted children at Juilliard who experience extreme pressure to succeed. She teaches a growth mindset by saying, "failure is a word I do not use when teaching as it is the enemy of progress." They didn't fail; they merely found another way not to do it, replacing shame with a newfound accomplishment. She believes "vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity and innovation... Instilling a sense of holistic wellness is key to supporting true excellence."

That young violinist who thought her fate was determined by her ranking discovered every day was a new opportunity full of endless possibilities, and today your child can too.

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