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Teens: Balancing Summer Fun, Work, Interests, Family Time, Friends, and Getting Ready for College

by Marta Sánchez, Ph.D.

Summer vacation from school may present unique tensions for teens that younger children do not face. For one, teens are still bound to the family and to the family’s rules because of their underage status, yet may long for the greater freedoms young adults enjoy. Where the neighborhood playground or backyard continues to marvel younger children, teens will gravitate to different opportunities and spaces for recreation and socializing. At the same time, summer is the perfect time to reconnect with extended family and to get ready for college. And then, there’s pocket money that teens want. Over half of teens in a 2014 study by the Institute for Social Research reported using more than 41% of their earnings on personal needs. Black teens, however, were the highest contributors to the family household budget as compared to other ethnic groups, using 25% of their earnings to help out with family needs and saving about 19% for college.

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Institute for Social Research, 2014

How can parents help their teens balance summer schedules that include having fun, possibly working enough to save a little for college and have a little for spending, being together with the family, having a vibrant and healthy social life, developing a talent or interest, and engaging in activities that can help them get into college, like volunteering, engaging in civic activities, shadowing someone on the job to get a better sense of career possibilities, being a teenage entrepreneur, or taking college level classes at the community college?

Smiling young woman with clothes donation

  1. Unstructured Time.  Teens report that their stress levels are highest during the school year, higher even than what adults report. We know from studies done with younger children, that unstructured time is re-energizing and necessary for creative functioning. Teens also require down time.
  2. Physical Activity. One-third of all US teens have low levels of fitness with Black girls having lower fitness levels than Black boys, according to researchers at Northwestern University. Designate some of your family time as a time to walk and talk, play basketball in the driveway or neighborhood park, volleyball in the backyard, or ping-pong on the porch. If the weather or the space doesn’t allow for outdoor play, then select an exercise video on YouTube and exercise together. Encourage your teen to pursue individual fitness interests, like taking an exercise class at the local Y or biking.
  3. Work. Your teen may be working during the school year and plans to work in the summer as well. Having a job is a valuable experience for youth; optimal is working in a field of interest to your teen. If your teen is interested in what being a lawyer is like, then looking for a job in a law firm makes sense. If your child wants to be a teacher, seeking employment at a summer school program or camp would be beneficial. Summer is also great time to discuss and plan with your teen how she or he will manage her/his studies with work, friends, family and interests once school starts again.
  4. Interests.  Summer is a good time for teens to pursue or deepen their interests through a workshop, summer camp or working on a project at home. Developing interests rounds us out as individuals but also connects us to like-minded others. Becoming part of a positive, creative and productive community, whether it be chess players, movie buffs, cyclists, or techies, helps us develop knowledge and adds another dimension to our identities. Support your teen in connecting to peers through a positive and common interest. Keep a watchful eye, and don’t be afraid to say, “Tell me what you love about this interest of yours?”
  5. Family Time. A hallmark of the Black family is that gatherings tend to be multi-generational. Celebrations bring the entire family together, even as same-age children and teens cluster in the backyard or around the coffee table in the living room. This is a great way to be together as family when teens clamor for more autonomy–respect the spaces that teens create within family gatherings. These spaces allow your teen to interact with peers with some degree of independence without  being fully separate from the family event. The added benefit is that you get to meet his/her friends and they get to know your family.
  6. Friends. Friends represent many things for your teen. The circle of friends can be a place to try out different identities or claim the independence teens crave. Friends offer emotional support but can also be a distraction and even a risk because of their own reckless behavior. Teens, however, are unlikely to take parental advice easily, especially if it is laden with judgment about their friends. Of course, parents can’t hold completely back. After all, parents still have to parent! A great way to learn about your teen’s friends is to listen and try to suspend judgment on things that don’t matter so much, like a friend’s crazy haircut, odd clothing choices, or annoying gum-chewing habit. Researchers working together across three universities found that when mothers scolded their teens about their messy rooms, the part of the brain involved in negative emotions was triggered. There was less activity in the part of the brain that helps teens see the perspective of the parent. By the time your child is a teenager, ground rules about underage drinking, drugs, sex, balancing school life with hanging out with friends, and driving or riding with others should have been set. This is the time to to learn where your teen may still need support in living with these rules. More listening and less talking may help you help your teen.
  7. Getting Ready for College. Everything contributes to getting ready for college–life’s rich experiences are full of important lessons. But getting ready for college also includes attending a workshop to learn something new or improve on something you already know. It can mean taking a summer class at the community college, checking out colleges on the internet or visiting colleges in person, interviewing family, neighbors, health care providers, teachers and acquaintances, about their college experiences, or shadowing someone who’s in a profession your teen is interested in. Volunteering can also help your teen be college-ready, but your teen should volunteer because she/he has identified a worthy cause to devote time to and not just to benefit his/her college application. If your teen is a junior or senior, college applications might need to be filled out at sent in.

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