When Teens Resist Extracurriculars, What To Do

Last month, a dad brought his 16-year-old in for a physical exam at my medical clinic. When I called in his son, he came into the room with him. As always, I was thinking, is there something the dad is worried about? Is that why he wants to come into the room with us? His son was a thin boy with straight hair and a shy demeanor. 

I introduced myself first to the teen and then to his dad. I told the teen that it was great that he was there to take care of his health, and I asked if there was anything in particular that he wanted to talk about. After he spoke, I turned to the dad and asked if he had any topics he wanted to raise.

In a kind and soft voice, the dad mentioned that he was concerned that his son spent so much time on his computer and phone. 

I turned to the teen and said, “There are so many great things to do on our devices — it is no wonder you have lots you like to do. What are some things you like to do on your devices?”

Then I asked, “With the school year starting, what things will you be doing outside of class time?” He said he’d be doing cross country, and I told him how fantastic that was. He added that he’d have practices in the mornings. 

“So for your afternoons? And weekends? Anything you will be doing?” I asked. He replied, “No,” telling me that he’d come home after school and had nothing planned for the weekends.

My alarm bells started ringing. I thought he’d greatly benefit from having at least one other thing in his life to learn and grow from, as well as build a greater sense of connection and competency.

When I asked him if he had ideas for other activities, he said he did not have any. I threw out some ideas like a small job, volunteering, a club after school, or a musical instrument. 

I was not getting a yes to any of my suggestions. I was glad I had not yet had the dad leave the room (always part of the visit is with the parent out of the room), and now I could engage the dad. I let them know that extensive research has shown that having extracurricular experiences improves well-being and feelings of competence. In addition, it would naturally result in a little more balance with screen time.

I suggested that the teen devote a couple of weeks to try and find something he was interested in, but I also specified that the dad should help him commit to something after those few weeks. 

(Of course, I also reiterated how wonderful it was that he was a runner and on a team.) The son and dad were both smiling at the end of our discussion.

I firmly believe that kids should all have at least two activities that they are doing outside of school time. There can be obstacles to this, one of which is if a young person is not motivated to find or create something to do. 

So what to do when our middle and high schoolers aren’t doing much outside of school and are resistant to finding something to get involved in?

Below, I share some great advice from Laura Kastner, Ph.D., an adolescent clinical psychologist and the author of several books. She is also featured in both of our Screenagers Movies

Dr. Kastner recently wrote an article, in ParentMap, on this topic, and she is happy for me to share part of it today. 

Laura writes that it is essential that we let our kids know that participating in activities is a “basic” requirement, just like we do other basics — eating food, getting good sleep, and studying. 

She writes, “Making organized activities a ‘basic’ requirement may take a lot of energy on the parent’s part, but it can yield a huge return on the investment — peer acceptance, new personal interests, and social and emotional skills. Negotiation is a must.“ I couldn’t agree more.

In her article, Kastner describes a typical conversation she has with a parent of a reluctant teen. (I have shortened the dialogue, but you can read the full article.)

“Parent: Well, we insist on the basics. But I thought parents were supposed to give teenagers more independence and choices.

Kastner: You are absolutely right! Often, the hardest part of parenting is picking your battles. Given the advantages associated with extracurricular activities, you might want to consider extracurricular activity as a “basic” and give your teens the choice of which activity they choose, not whether they choose one.

Parent: Last year, I caved when my ninth-grade son refused to play basketball like he did in sixth grade before the pandemic, but he convinced me that he’d just get exercise by working out on his own. It didn’t happen. I was really upset, because I knew he felt lonely and alienated starting in a new high school. I think he’s even less likely to sign up for anything next fall, so how do I motivate him?

Kastner: Motivating reluctant kids comes down to the carrot or the stick — and I favor the carrot. While some parents withhold cell phones or social freedoms — the stick — a better approach is to add a goody — that is, a carrot — such as more screen time, a later curfew or access to something they crave and that you approve of.

Parent: I dread the showdown we’ll have about this. I realize I might be avoiding this confrontation as much as they are avoiding their fears about joining up. They say extracurricular stuff is boring or stupid, but I know it’s more about social awkwardness and feelings of inadequacy. Doing new things is hard. You might be clumsy initially and fear judgment.

Kastner: You are right. Making this agenda a priority requires your courage to deal with your teen’s emotional flooding …It’s best for parents to model confidence, conviction and optimism about committing to this vital agenda, even though the journey might have some bumps…But gaining new friends and competencies is a big payoff!

Parent: So, the bottom line is that those benefits should motivate me to tolerate what might be a tsunami of protest. Yikes! No wonder I’ve avoided it. But I get it — organized activities get them off the couch, away from the cell phones and involved with good influences.”

Questions to get the conversation started:

  1. How are you feeling about the number of activities you have going on in your life apart from school?
  2. Is there a new activity you’re interested in trying out? 
  3. Do you have any friends who do not do anything outside of school that you might want to see if they will try out something you are doing?