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Discipline and Guidance: Early to Middle Adolescence: Time Management and Family Commitments

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Time management is a complex skill. Today's youth have many more demands on their time than their parents did when they were teens themselves. Competition in school and sports has increased. New communication technologies provide a vast array of ways to socialize. The Internet provides an infinite supply of information and unlimited choices. Inexpensive entertainment is readily available with just a click of a button. Therefore, youth must learn to budget and to manage their time in a way that allows them to balance competing needs and priorities: work (e.g., schoolwork, employment, chores), recreation (entertainment and fun), relaxation (sleep, rest), relationships (family and friends), and self-care (exercise, diet, hygiene, grooming). Clearly, youths' ability to effectively manage their time is an essential skill they will need throughout their lives.

Parents can begin to help adolescents develop this skill by having high (but attainable) expectations for school achievement, household chores, and other important activities. Furthermore, parents should clearly communicate these expectations, and regularly reinforce them. For example, parents should make it clear that they expect their teens to attend school every day, complete homework on time, perform regular weekly chores, and participate in at least one extracurricular activity or part-time job in order to continue to receive privileges such as television and gaming time, going out with friends, having cell phone minutes, etc. These expectations teach youth to responsibly prioritize their time and create structured activities that challenge their physical, mental, social, and emotional growth. Youth should not be permitted to have an abundance of unstructured, free-time as they often become bored when they are idle, and can too quickly find negative activities to fill their time.

Meanwhile, activities which do little to promote physical, mental, social, or emotional growth need to be limited. Parents will need to establish time limits for purely recreational activities and specify the conditions that must be met in order to engage in these activities. For instance, parents may decide that one hour of television or video games are permitted each day, but homework must be completed first; or, texting and chatting is permitted before 10pm but only if grades remain above a C. Furthermore, parents may wish to consider if there are any prohibited types of games, television shows, movies, Internet sites etc. If so, parents should establish clear rules about these limitations. There is quite a lot of media targeting teen audiences that depicts graphic violence and sexual imagery, or may contain other negative, offensive, or distasteful content. More information about how parents can monitor media and make informed decisions about their teens' media consumption can be found in the Middle Childhood article on Media Issues.

Although parents should limit unstructured idle time, it remains important for youth to have some relaxation and "down" time; the key is moderation, as is the type and quality of relaxation activities. Sedentary, passive activities can steal away time from other more healthy and enriching activities such as physical activities, face-to-face socialization, and family time. Youth should be encouraged to find pleasure and enjoyment in activities that enrich their lives; e.g., reading, crafting, athletics, cooking, photography, woodworking, etc. Developing an interest in these activities at an early age may lead to a lifetime of satisfaction and enjoyment.

Decisions about how youth spend their time should include input from both teens and their parents. In order to establish realistic and reasonable limits on passive recreation, families with teens should sit down together and discuss the various time commitments and existing family schedules (school, work, chores, sports, clubs, and time for relationships with family and friends). This approach helps youth to establish priorities for their time and to make wise choices about they wish to spend their "free" time.

Family Commitments

Family rules should also establish clear expectations about the responsibilities of family members toward each other. Families will want to decide how much time is spent together in both planned and unplanned activities. For example, the Stephens family may require that family members share 5 meals together every week, designate one night per week as family activity night (movie night, game night, etc), and one "evening in" when everyone is at home, even if everyone is doing their own activities. For some families, work and school schedules vary week to week making this sort of planning difficult. However, even these families can designate one night per week when family members sit down together and review the upcoming week's schedule, and then decide upon which night will be family game night, which meals will be shared, and which evening everyone is expected to be "in."

Many youth will protest against these family rules. At this age, it may simply be more appealing to go out with friends every night; however, these rules are beneficial. First, these rules help teens to establish a lifetime pattern of maintaining a strong commitment and allegiance to their families. Second, family members need to spend time together if they wish to have a relationship with each other. Strong relationships between children and their parents, and between siblings, are built by spending time together. These multiple relationships within families help to strengthen youths' resilience, because it means there is more than one person to turn to when they are upset, lonely, or need guidance. Third, when parents make it a priority to spend time with their children, these actions communicate to their children that they are loved and valued. Finally, spending time together as a family improves the communication skills of family members as they learn to respectfully resolve disputes and disagreements while valuing and appreciating each person's worth. These communication skills will become important interpersonal skills, and serve to reduce problems such as disrespectful language and oppositional behaviors.

While it is important to establish rules about spending time together, it is also important to establish family rules about time spent apart. These rules ensure everyone's safety. It is reasonable for parents to insist they be kept informed about the physical location of their teens, which friends and/or adults are at that location, and what activity their teens are doing at that location. Not only do parents need to know how to find their children in event of an emergency, but when teens are expected to regularly communicate about what they are doing, with whom, and where, it reduces the likelihood of them engaging in activities that are dangerous or will otherwise get them into trouble. Many youth will be opposed to constantly checking in with their parents. However, this opposition can be lessened if parents reciprocate the courtesy. For instance, if mom is going to be late getting home from work, she can call the kids and let them know she's going to be late and why. Or, if dad was running errands but then decided to stop by a friend's home to watch some football, he can call the family and inform them of this change of plans. Thus, the rule about keeping family members informed about each other's whereabouts applies to everyone equally.

It's also appropriate for youth to have curfews on both school nights and weekends. At the very least, family curfews should coincide with the local laws regarding teen curfews, but these family rules should also consider what time frames will enable youth to balance for their social needs with their obligations to academics, athletics, work, family, and their own health requirements for sufficient rest and exercise.

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