How to help when your teen is overwhelmed by their studies

Is your child overwhelmed by their studies? Do they have a stack of homework to do, coursework tasks to complete and also feel like they should be revising? In year 13, on top of all that, students often also have their UCAS personal statement to write, and possibly university admissions tests and interviews as well.

It's a lot for anyone to cope with. Therefore, in this article I'm going to share my top advice on how to deal with overwhelm when studying.

How to help when your teen is overwhelmed by their studies

1. Get it out of their heads

One of the worst things about overwhelm is having your whole to-do list swirling round and round in your head. As you remember, over and over again, all the different tasks you've got to do it can feel like you're stuck in some kind of nightmare and every time you think about each of the tasks you progressively feel worse about what you need to get done.

The best way to remedy this is to get your child to take their to-do list out of their heads and onto a piece of paper. Just one piece of paper.

The power of this simple task is that you can see your to-do list for what it really is, stopping it taking on the mythical dimensions of a raging beast that our brains can trick us into seeing when we're overwhelmed.

2. Organise your list

Now your child can see everything that needs to be done, there are a few steps you can take to work out your plan of action:

  • Can they ditch any tasks? This means get rid of any of the tasks because they're unnecessary and it won't matter if they never get done. Cross these tasks off the list straight away.
  • Are there any quick tasks you can get closure on? With this step, you're looking for smaller tasks that will take an hour or less of focused work to get done, or big tasks e.g. a personal statement or finishing a piece of coursework, that could be finished with a weekend of focused attention.
  • Which tasks are most important? For example, coursework is more important than an ordinary piece of homework as it will contribute to your final grade.
  • Which tasks are most urgent? E.g. if your coursework is due in on Monday, you have mocks next week or your UCAS deadline is a week away.

3. Get it done

Once you've sorted your list and know which tasks are most urgent,  most important and easiest to get closure on you're ready to start working your way through that list.

Your child will find it easiest to get things done if they remove distractions and build in rewards and treats along the way.

Extra tips if your teen is overwhelmed by their studies

1. Make sure they're getting enough sleep

Lack of sleep stops people from being able to cope, makes them more susceptible to stress and less mentally resilient. So, one of your priorities when looking after a teenager who is overwhelmed by their studies is making sure they get enough sleep.

Maybe you need to send them to bed for an extra-long sleep before they start on their to-do list. Maybe, you need to start enforcing a healthy bedtime on a consistent basis so that they cope better overall.

This podcast interview gives great tips on how to help your teenager get a good night's sleep.

2. Believe in the power of closure

I mentioned above the need to identify tasks that can easily be finished and ticked off that overwhelming to-do list. This is because getting things ticked off the list gives a feeling of lightness and space that is often disproportionate to the size of the task.

I've heard financial experts recommending a similar approach to people who are trying to pay off debts. They advise you to pay your smallest debt off first, even if it doesn't have the highest interest rate, because it takes a weight off your shoulders to have a debt cleared, as well as a sense of achievement. They call it the snowball approach to clearing debt and I heard if from Pete Matthew who I interviewed for the podcast.

3. Help your child manage their tasks

In The Extraordinaries Club, I recently had a year 10 who had experienced some health difficulties and was very behind on schoolwork and homework. I talked him through the approach I've described above, but he still looked panic-stricken by what there was to do, like a rabbit in the headlights.

I, therefore, advised him to write all the tasks he needed to do on cards and give the cards to his mum, so he couldn't actually see the size of the list. I suggested that he get his mum to give him one card at a time, so that he could focus on one thing at a time, until the cards were all finished.

He looked so much happier about this approach.

4. Managing larger tasks

If your child has big, on-going tasks like working on coursework, these tasks need to be divided down into bite-sized chunks and planned out over time. Again, you can use the weekly routine approach and schedule the separate tasks that make up the whole piece of work over a series of weeks.

This approach means that you have to stick with the plan. It's often the people who don't stick with this plan who end up way-behind and very overwhelmed by what they need to achieve in a short space of time.

5. Make sure they've got the skills they need to cope

In my experience, many students know they should be doing certain study tasks, like revision, but they don't get started because they're too ashamed to admit that they don't know how to revise.

Some students just need to learn how to revise (I can help with that in The Extraordinaries Club, or through my book, The Ten Step Guide to Acing Every Exam You Ever Take). Others will just need someone to support them, or as teachers call it, scaffold them, through the process. This involves recognising where they're at in terms of what they feel comfortable doing for themselves, and where they need help to break down a task to make it manageable.

How to help when your teen is overwhelmed by their studies

I hope this article has helped you to see a way to help your teen if they're overwhelmed by their studies. In summary, these are your steps:

1. Get it out of their heads

2. Organise your list

3. Get it done

If your family needs more help or support with any of the things I've talked about today check out our 1:1 coaching packages and The Extraordinaries Club to see which is the right option for you.

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