By Rebecca Baum, MD, FAAP & Jeffrey Shahidullah, PhD
Time. All of us wish we had more of it. This goes double for busy parents helping their tweens and teens learn everyday tasks that support good health and self-sufficiency.
In a busy world, making good use of time can reduce stress and foster self-confidence. This makes time management one of many tools that can support good mental health and wellness in children and teens. If your teen is already coping with anxiety, depression, ADHD or any other mental health condition, you may feel an urgent need to help them use time wisely so that there is plenty of room for relaxation and self-care. Here are some suggestions that can help.
But first: a little perspective on your child's growing brain
If it seems like your adolescent lives in a different headspace than yours, rest assured that your observations are spot-on. Good news: this is also perfectly normal. The human brain continues to develop until at least age 25, with the frontal lobes—which govern abilities such as planning, working memory and impulse control—taking the longest to mature. In fact, research
confirms that this area of the brain may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life.
Knowing this may explain why your child's sense of time and priorities is so different from yours. They are literally growing toward an awareness of how to manage themselves and deal with daily tasks—all while experiencing hormonal challenges, sleep loss and the social turbulence that all young people face, fueled by
social media and countless other factors.
The pressures teens face—and how time management builds resilience
You've likely heard a lot about the ongoing
crisis in youth mental health. Nearly 20% of children and teens aged 3-17 in the U.S. are living with mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorders, according to research published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At least a third of all high schoolers say they feel sad or hopeless at least part of the time—and these feelings are even more prevalent among kids of Hispanic descent and those who identify as female or
How does our awareness of challenges like these fit in with our desire to help kids learn adaptive skills like time management? First, it helps us realize that each child's inner landscape is different. Many feel overwhelming pressure to earn good grades, fit in socially or reach a particular standard of excellence in competitive activities like sports, while others suffer from low motivation that may point to
depression. Many live with the erosive effects of
racism, discrimination or
bullying. Kids with
behavioral disorders or
chronic health conditions often feel out of step with their peers, which can harm their self-esteem in many ways.
Keeping your child's unique challenges in mind is important, because you don't want to introduce time management as one more mountain you expect them to climb. Instead, you can describe it as a skill they will find empowering in managing the pressures they face every day.
Using time wisely also makes space for the
self-care that helps your teen maintain a healthy balance.
10 suggestions for helping kids build healthy time habits
Here are a few ways to encourage your tween or teen to take control of their own time. These suggestions can help you tap your child's goals and inner motivations. Do they want fewer homework hassles and more free time? Less fear when they stand up to speak in class or apply for their first
job? Helping them use time wisely can deliver the confidence and stress relief they're seeking.
1. Help them view time as an essential resource.
By now, your child has learned something about saving and spending. If they want that new skateboard or prom outfit, they'll need to say "no" to other expenditures. Tap into this knowledge base by explaining that time management works the same way. They need to prioritize the tasks that lead directly to the outcomes they want.
2. Focus on systems, not reminders.
Your goal is to help your child manage time on their own, rather than playing timekeeper for them. Constant reminders that time's running out will not help them think and plan ahead. Instead, challenge your child to devise creative ways of reminding themselves of specific tasks and timelines. It can be hard to bite your tongue when they miss the bus (again!), but modest failures will strengthen their awareness of time and determination to follow through.
3. Let them choose the tools.
Instead of requiring your child to use a specific planning or time tracking system, ask which tools they've heard about or would like to try. There are many excellent programs, workbooks and apps out there. Giving your child the chance to choose one they prefer will build buy-in for actually using the system they select.
Parents: Here's a video you can share with your teen about trying different time management tools:
4. Use time-sensitive chores as teaching experiences.
Reinforce the habits that lead to good time management by assigning time-driven tasks at home. For example, you might put your teen in charge of getting the recycling bins to the curb every Tuesday by 8 a.m. Ask them:
"What's your strategy for remembering this chore every week?" Let them know you're trusting them to follow through and show your appreciation when they hit the mark.
5. Help them break big goals into manageable parts.
Many kids (and adults!) feel overwhelmed when facing major objectives, especially when the stakes are high. (Think college application deadlines or big tests that determine a whole semester's grade.) Rather than letting looming deadlines stress you both out, help your teen
map smaller steps and set a flexible schedule to comple them. Ask about any sticking points this particular goal holds for them and listen with an open mind. Showing compassion for their concerns doesn't mean you'll do the work for them; it confirms that big tasks can be a struggle for anyone, and you're there to support them along the way.
6. Offer meaningful praise.
Describe what you see when your teen manages time effectively. "I noticed this week that you got your homework done early enough to relax a little before bed, and you seem less stressed. Nice work!" Ask how they feel when tasks are done in a timely way. Helping them witness the difference between struggle and success will strengthen healthy habits.
7. Hold space for setbacks.
When your teen procrastinates, wastes time or gets so absorbed in one task that nothing else gets done, invite them to learn from the experience. Guilt and shame are less effective than reminding them that tomorrow is a new day (and a fresh chance to try again).
8. Help them limit online time.
Your teen may waste hours on social media or video games unless you introduce healthy media habits. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a
family media plan that helps you set standards for everyone in the household. This reinforces the idea that both adults and kids need to manage their digital media use.
9. Share your own experiences.
Modeling wise time management gives your child the chance to see firsthand how these habits
ease stress and promote emotional balance. Start with simple examples:
"If I want to make that early flight tomorrow, I'd better pack right after dinner." You can also describe times you didn't think ahead and how much harder it was when you felt rushed and anxious. Don't hesitate to laugh at your own missteps. You're helping your child discover the value of good planning and the importance of self-forgiveness. In a hectic world, that's a healthy perspective we can all embrace.
Don't forget you can ask other adults for support, too. Find out if your child's teachers and coaches use a particular method for organizing schoolwork, sports practices and other activities. These might serve as models your child can tap into. Words of encouragement from mentors, family members and other trusted adults will go a long way in helping your child feel pride in the progress they're making.
Build in a couple of planning times with your kids each week.
Use this time to go over schedules, assignments and due dates. Having these regularly built into the schedule can help teens avoid feeling that parents are hovering, pressuring or micromanaging them. Keep the family meetings short and sweet. The goal is a balance between giving teens space and autonomy while still having some regular touchpoints with you for oversight.
Rebecca A. Baum, MD, FAAP is a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Executive Committee, Council on Healthy, Mental and Emotional Development. Dr. Baum is a co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics book,
Mental Health Strategies for Pediatric Care.
Jeffrey D. Shahidullah, PhD, is a pediatric psychologist at UT Health Austin and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences within Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. He is a co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics book,
Mental Health Strategies for Pediatric Care.