Why Teens Need a Break This Summer

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As with any summer, there will be some non-negotiables when it comes to how young people spend their days. Teenagers may need to get jobs, take over chores or brush up academically. Required activities can certainly be part of a recovery-focused summer, but when possible, let teens have some say in the details.

Ava Vestergaard, a 17-year-old senior at Sunset High School in Portland, Ore., needs to earn money for college, but she’s really hoping for the kind of job that will help her fill her emotional tank after a draining academic year. “When there’s a job I like, I enjoy the work and getting to know my co-workers.” For her, a job that’s gratifying might be worth much more in the long run than one that pays a few dollars per hour more but offers little of what she finds restoring.

And, of course, ambitious, self-improving pursuits can also fit the bill, so long as they’re more wanted than mandated. Ezekiel Salama, 17, of Shelbyville, Ky., can’t wait to attend the Governor’s School for Entrepreneurs, a selective summer program for teenagers in Kentucky. He’s expecting his constructive summer plans to leave him fresher than ever for the coming school year.

That said, everyone has different emotional settings. What energizes one person might leave another spent. Should an adolescent be fortunate enough to have some choices about how she spends her summer, adults may be able to help by tuning in to how much, and what, she wants to do. If you can tell that your teenager is genuinely eager to learn a new language, start a business or write a novel, stay out of her way. But if you get the sense that she’s crafting a punishing improvement regimen in an anxious attempt to compensate for a stripped-down school year, you might invite her to reconsider this approach so as not to risk returning to school feeling more depleted than she left it.

In a similar vein, parents may have their own concerns that their teenager has fallen behind academically this year. But if the school hasn’t called for an intervention, it may be best to let it go.

Given how much the pandemic upended expectations for what adolescents were supposed to be achieving, teenagers themselves might feel uneasy about the idea of making recovery a priority this summer. “Covid was a lot of doing nothing,” said Kari Robinson, age 14, of Evanston, Ill. “I think I might feel a little guilty if I use my summer freedom to relax.” Help your young people see past this way of thinking. The point of recovery is not to relax, but to grow. And if downtime is soaked in guilt, that growth is going to suffer.

Don’t underestimate the value of whatever they turn to — even if it’s “just hanging out” — as they go through the quiet work of rebuilding themselves.