3 reasons why your teen needs more free time

3 reasons why your teen needs more free time

Free time for kids and teenagers is decreasing, while organized activity and school related time is being prioritized more and more.

What else is increasing? Anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts among teenagers. As a therapist who predominantly works with teens and their parents, I am often at the intersection of that relationship - hearing teenagers tell me that they are feeling the stress and pressure of their organized life, and hearing parents worry that their kids are acting irritable, isolating, or apathetic.

Over-scheduling and focus on school can lead to higher anxiety

Irritability, isolation and apathy are three qualities that are often seen in folks who are feeling anxiety. Why do we need free time? Why do your teenagers need free time? Think about the average school day for your average teen. They are being asked to wake up early, get ready and eat breakfast, and be at school by 8am - at the latest. Many teens have a zero period class or an extra curricular that requires even earlier attendance! They then have 6-8 hour long periods of their life where they are told exactly where to go, what to do, where to sit, when to talk, even when to use the restroom.

In between all of the school-provided content, there is a swirling and intense subtext of social dynamics, substance use, pressure and worry. School’s done, and then there is homework on homework on homework, along with other lessons or sports, eating dinner, somehow spending some time with the family, and then it’s basically time for bed to do it all again!

As an adult, if someone else were to manage my life that way - I would revolt!

And that’s exactly what teenagers do - they revolt, in their own way. Some teens revolt in out loud obvious ways - defiance, risky behavior, “attitude.” Others revolt quietly - they lose interest in things they used to love, they stop participating, they only show apathy. Some might turn the revolt inward and internalize the pressure, feeling like they aren’t good enough if they can’t manage it all.

All three of these commonplace rebellions are woven with anxiety, fear, and stress.

Your teenager needs more free time.

Let me tell you why.

  1. Free time is necessary for growth and creativity.

  2. Free time is necessary for replenishment.

  3. It might not be as “free” as you think it is.

Free time is necessary for growth and creativity.

Ideas are like seeds. They need soil, nutrients, sun, and water – and TIME. You can’t force creativity, you have to create an atmosphere conducive to it. Pressure and stress are the exact opposite of a healthy, creative atmosphere for growth. We need time for daydreaming, brainstorming, problem solving, and for our minds to wander. That’s where connections are made! Have you ever crammed for a test? You might have been able to memorize everything you needed for the next morning - but a year later, did you really learn that information? No. We need lots of open time for learning and integration!

Free time is necessary for replenishment

Humans need play, recreation, and leisure as a form of catharsis and relaxation. We need to be able to have time free from obligations to rest. It’s important to our physical health and our mental health. We can’t be “on” 100% of the time. It isn’t healthy. Teenagers especially need a lot of time to pay attention to the things that are important to them - their friends, their creative outlets, their emotions, their music, their self-expression, and more.

Free time might not be as “free” as you think it is

I want to caution every parent of teenagers to also remember that just because it looks like downtime from the outside - it doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of really critically important things happening!

The psycho-social task of teenagers is to figure out their identity and their belonging. They are, at that age, tasked with making meaning of the world separate from their family of origin. This is exhausting, complicated, and scary work!

Watching the same Vlogger repeatedly on YouTube might actually be a sort of research - understanding how other people live, testing out other values or ideas. Time on TikTok is like finding a sense of belonging and others who understand you, or learning about music or other creative outlets. Video games are a way to test yourself and your abilities in a safe and rewarding place. These are all important jobs of teenage-hood.

How much free time should teenagers have per day?

The short answer is: more. Your teenagers should have much, much more free time.

If your school schedule prohibits that - well. I give you professional permission to do your best to buck the system.

  • But at the very least - take advantage of breaks and let them really be breaks!

  • Let your kids have “mental health days” where they stay home from school once in a while!

  • Don’t take away their recreation time as punishment - trust me, it’s some of the most valuable time they spend!

If you’d like more information on how to manage screen time and summer vacation - check out this 30 minute parenting webinar. It is practical and solution-focused, with techniques and ideas you can put into place immediately.

You might also want to look at this post about the top 3 mistakes parents make on summer vacation!


Roya Dedeaux is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with several decades of working with teens and their families. She especially loves to work with homeschoolers and folks who feel like they don’t quite “fit the mold.” She is also the author of Connect with Courage: how to release fear and find joy in the places your kids take you. Check out her work, webinars, games, and other projects at www.royadedeaux.com

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