Professor Tanya Byron gives work-life balance advice

ncs 10/08/2016
Tanya Byron

Let’s face it – modern life isn’t always sunshine and lollipops. So we asked psychologist and writer Professor Tanya Byron for her thoughts on how your parent/guardians can help you find a balance between work, studies and socialising. So go on – share this insightful article with them!

How can I support my teen to strike a healthy balance between work and out-of-school activities?

Just as we aim to ensure our teens have a balanced nutritional diet, we need to ensure the same applies in terms of their work-life balance. Research shows that time away from books and learning is vital to give the brain an opportunity to process and embed knowledge acquired. Sleep is vital not just for health and wellbeing but also to allow memories to be laid down.

Teens need between at least 8 to 9 hours sleep per night without the distraction of screens to disrupt and interrupt the sleep cycle. Exercise enhances both body and mind, while socialising gives the brain downtime as well as stimulating feel-good neurochemicals that boost memory and function. Parents can support their teens to understand this by exploring and discussing the science of body and mind, reducing pressure and enabling their teens to create schedules for both learning and living.

Practical advice/tips if my teen is anxious (e.g. timetabling, doing homework as soon as it’s set):

Anxiety affects the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for problem solving and decision-making. As teens become overwhelmed by the work they have ahead they may struggle to organise themselves, have broken or reduced sleep and begin to self-doubt.

Our teens need non-judgmental and pragmatic support with setting timetables to keep on top of their work as it comes in, understanding different working styles including note taking, audio visual aids and discussion groups, scheduling in downtime and opportunities for relaxation and fun. By creating a calm and collaborative relationship we should also encourage our teens to ask for our help when they feel overwhelmed.

What to do if my teen is all focused on work, work, work!

Help your teen understand burnout: an overworked and underslept body and mind will underperform. Explain the science behind memory which will enable them to understand that 45 minutes work/revision slots are the most effective in terms of knowledge retention, with breaks scheduled in between to allow memories to be embedded. Encourage them against overworking by arranging activities including exercise.

If necessary, set clear limits about screens in bedrooms so that sleep time is uninterrupted and not disrupted by the effect of blue light (from screens) which keeps the brain active and disrupts the release of melatonin, thereby leading to sleep deprivation and exhaustion which in turn leads to reduced focus and concentration. For teens that struggle to switch off their brain and fall asleep, encourage them to listen to mindfulness and relaxation audio such as

What should I do if my teen is not interested in work and instead, spends too much time on social media and going out with friends?

Firstly find out if there is a problem that may underpin work avoidance. Are there specific learning difficulties that need to be assessed and understood or is there a lack of confidence that has led to negative self-belief in terms of academic ability? Talk to the school and find a way for your teen, the school and yourselves as parents to work together.

Find ways to encourage your teen to set schedules, and incentivise work with encouragement and rewards. Ban all screens during work time until you trust that your teen can self-regulate. To begin with, setting clear boundaries may cause conflict and this needs to be managed calmly and assertively, with your teen understanding that they have social and screen freedom once they have done the work that has been set. This may involve removing devices and grounding your teen until they demonstrate that they can take responsibility for their academic studies. When they gain your trust, independence is reintroduced.

Is social media too much of a distraction or unnecessary pressure?

Social media has opened up an exciting global community for young people and offers many opportunities for fun, friendship, learning, collaboration and exploration. However, it also poses a challenge due to its ability to distract and pull teens away from other family and work priorities.

Some teens use social media as a way to validate themselves within their peer group and most feel uneasy with leaving their devices unattended for fear of missing out (FOMO). Social media can also lead to risk-taking behaviours (e.g. gambling, pornography) and other undesirable behaviour including bullying. For some vulnerable teens, social media can pull them into places where unhealthy or self-destructive behaviours are encouraged (e.g. some eating disorder and self-harm sites).

In order to help our teens navigate their digital world we need to enable them to learn to be responsible and measured digital citizens, understanding the importance of privacy, developing critical awareness in terms of questioning the reliability of the content source they are consuming and also to show care and discernment in terms of what they share and post. See:

Where should I go for help if I feel my teen is not coping?

If your teen is struggling academically, talk to the school. If your teen is showing signs of stress then look at their work-life balance and encourage them to schedule their time so they balance work, sleep, socialising and exercise. If your teen is showing signs of anxiety and depression that lead to out of character changes in personality and behaviour (e.g. social withdrawal, aggression, lack of sleep, tearfulness, changes in appetite, self-harm) then speak to your GP and look at for support, advice and links to other mental health organisations.

What are the best ways to reward/encourage my teen through this period?

As in adult life, reward comes from hard work, perseverance, dedication and focus. If your teen receives an allowance, link the rewards to a demonstration of qualities such as self-discipline with their studies and teamwork within the family (e.g. doing chores, taking responsibility for their own living space).

Acknowledge periods of hard work with trips and treats to boost their achievement. Encourage your teen to compare themselves against themselves only, and not judge themselves against others – we all have different skills and talents.

Also, and most crucially, be there for them when it all gets too much, remind them that the road to success can be tough to navigate at times, and help them feel your unswerving belief in who they are and what they can and will achieve, even when they wobble and struggle.

NCS is a great way to build some of the skills Dr. Tanya Byron talks about. Whether it’s team working, gaining a better work-life balance, or simply enjoying a reward for all that hard work, NCS is an opportunity every young person should have the chance to do. More than 275,000 young people have already taken part in this life-changing experience. Sign up today!