You know those kids in your class. The ones who take the hardest courses, do a million extracurriculars, always seem to be studying or working, usually aren’t free to hang out, and you once saw them tearing up over a B on their last assignment? I want to talk about them. To call myself one of these students may or may not be pushing it. In my opinion, I do a lot and I push myself pretty hard, however, I know plenty of other kids who do so much more and push themselves even harder. “Gifted kid burnout” was a phrase coined somewhere on social media that I noticed recently and wanted to explore.
For high school kids, this burnout is certainly real. And this can be for anyone, whether they’re taking APs and a million extracurriculars or regular classes with nothing after school. Being pushed to your limit is common in high school, especially with big tests like the SATs or things like college applications. But how do the “gifted” kids — or as I prefer to call them, “highly motivated” kids — do it? How can anyone do it? And how can one help a friend who may be pushing themselves too hard?
A couple of things I’ve noticed people tend to say to these incredibly involved teenagers are: “Why do you do it?” “Are your parents making you?” “You’re going to get burnt out and become depressed.” “You need to drop something.” “Why can’t you hang out, you’re so lame.” And although many of these statements are well-intentioned or said in a joking manner, few people actually understand the motivation behind these students. And there are all kinds of reasons. Many are goal-driven — wanting to pursue a specific college or career, others receive immense pressure from their family or the legacy before them, others just want to achieve their vision of success, and the list goes on. But explaining any of these to a peer who doesn’t feel the same way can be extremely difficult. I’ve observed it usually comes down to simply, “I’m motivated to do these certain things, and maybe you’re just not and that’s okay”, which is something perpetually no teenager is going to say to their friend.
The moral of the story here is this: if you’re worried about your friend’s well-being because of the amount they’re pushing themselves (or being pushed), ask them in a way without crossing boundaries or putting them in a difficult spot.
Examples of this are, “Hey, I’ve noticed you’ve been doing a lot/have been really busy lately, how have you been feeling?” or “I’ve been worried about your mental health recently because xyz” or “I know you’ve been doing xyz and I just want you to know I don’t want you to push yourself to the amount where it affects your mental health” or even just a simple “I’m here for you if you ever want to talk or feel overwhelmed”. Granted, most teenagers will answer this with a joke about how it 100% does affect their mental health, but I’ll let you take it from there.
So how do some students manage to just keep going, even while experiencing “burnout” phases? It’s easy to wonder how someone can push and push themselves and spread themselves so thin. In my opinion, it requires a lot of trust in oneself and their abilities. To be able to continuously push yourself or do many things, you have to believe it’s achievable and believe you have the skills and methods to balance everything. And balance is key. That being said, breakdowns happen. Sweat and tears and rants are sometimes inevitable, and every single “highly motivated individual” I’ve spoken to has experienced this. In fact, everyone has experienced this. Getting overwhelmed is bound to happen, whoever you are. But everyone’s breaking points are different, and therefore everyone’s motivation and the amount they can handle is different as well (and bound to change over time).
As an overwhelmed teenager myself, I can’t tell you how to handle your own mental health and how to not push yourself to the breaking point. I can’t tell you that burnout isn’t real and that every hard-working kid will achieve everything they want in life. But what I do know is that motivation and balance are key, and it’s different for everyone. For that “highly motivated” kid in your class, they just know some of the things they want right now and want to achieve, and are figuring out the balance just like everyone else. Don’t compare yourself to them or ask them why the hell they’re doing it and don’t immediately become scared of burnout if you push yourself a little harder. Instead, think about the things you want to accomplish and the things that motivate you, and work towards that and the kind of balance in your life that you want.