Double Take: Overcommitted teens can't give their all

Ben: Remember your old coloring books? The ones you did at age 5, that look like a crayon box blew up on the paper? Back then, you didn’t care about color coordination or coloring within the lines; you just saw a blank page that needed filling.

That’s similar to what we often do with our time now. We don’t want to be bored or miss out, so we throw ourselves into all kinds of activities to fill our time. We rush from one thing to the next, taking on commitment after commitment until we sit back, look at the page we’ve colored and discover we’ve made a huge mess. We’ve gotten so busy trying to enjoy ourselves that we’ve forgotten to do so.

So let’s pause for a second and just do some coloring. Crayon users know that just because you have 12 different shades of red doesn’t mean you should use all of them on one page. Likewise, just because there are a lot of opportunities out there doesn’t mean you should pursue all of them right now. There are three good questions to ask when facing a new commitment: “Do I have to do this?” “Do I want to do this?” and, “Would this be good for me?” If you can’t answer “yes” to at least one, then it’s not worth it. Pick the shades that go best with the picture you’re trying to color, and forget the rest.

Whatever colors we choose, we have to stay within the lines. When we were little, this seems like a hindrance to us; we don’t realize that the lines are what actually give the color a purpose in the picture. Respect the lines, and the colors enhance it. Ignore them, and you’ve got a mess.

Similarly, we’ve got to respect our limits. If we take on everything thinking that we’re supermen and superwomen, then we’re asking for endless stress, while bringing only half of ourselves to whatever we’re doing. You can be in 10 different school clubs, for example, but that doesn’t mean much when you’re too tired to think straight. It’s not about how much color we can put on the page but how we use and blend them.

Look at the picture you’ve got going now. Have you just been filling space? If that’s the case, now would be the perfect time to start a new page.

Wes: Each year contestants submit their application to write the column, along with 10 topics. Overextending yourself was Ben’s first of the year. It fits perfectly right now as students in junior high, high school and college try to organize themselves into a manageable semester, with varying degrees of success.

Few words appear in this column as often as this one: balance. Since Ben set a metaphorical tone for this column, I’ll counter with the image of teenagers as tightrope walkers, pulled down so easily by the gravity of complex lives. Trying to keep moving, swaying this way and that. Since the ’60s teenagers have been increasingly seen this way, and in the last 15 years our perfect interconnectedness has only made things worse.

Facebook is following “World of Warcraft” into the realm of addiction, and without a wisp of consideration of the way posted content will follow kids around forever, like an ill-conceived tattoo. The text message turnaround time is about three minutes now, the interval in which one teen begins to panic when he or she has not heard from another.

Apart from excessive levels of online communication, that old teen saw about “having nothing to do” is implausible now, especially in our fair city. There’s more than enough to do, at least for those with means. So much that, just as Ben suggests, it’s easy to become overwhelmed.

And that brings us to the problem of anxiety, which is increasingly prevalent among teens, to which we are responding with a substantial uptick in medication. I’ve sung the praises of proper pharmacology here before, as well as offering my critique. At the top of my complaint list is the increasing need to deactivate teenager’s anxiety, not though lifestyle changes, which neither they nor many parents will tolerate, but with meds. We suggest to kids and families the balance of a more retiring life and are met with a frantic reminder that kids who relax won’t ace the ACT, can’t get into college, won’t pass advanced placement course and may end up friendless. No wonder kids are increasingly attracted to marijuana and alcohol as lifestyle choices. They seek an escape from their own anxious prisons without realizing they have the key.

Balance. Perhaps we can help teens find it by first finding it ourselves. That’s hard in these tough economic times, frenzied by our fears of unemployment and a down economy, and hot and unsettling political winds. But Stephen Covey was right. If we don’t take care of ourselves and keep our “saw sharp” we won’t be efficient and effective, and our teens won’t learn to cope any better than we have in our manic lives. And that lack of balance rarely ends up well on the teen tightrope.

— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Ben Markley is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to All correspondence is strictly confidential.


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