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Extracurricular Activities for Teenagers

In this modern age of video games, cell phones and chat rooms, it's a wonder that teens leave the house at all. If your teen's idea of getting involved in sports is hooking up the video-game console to the television, it might be time to help broaden his horizons before he becomes a permanent fixture on the couch.

The teen years are all about "trying out and on different personas, interests, friends," says Joani Geltman, a social worker from Natick, Massachusetts. It is a period of self-discovery through which teenagers develop an understanding of responsibility, self-concept and self-esteem. Extracurricular activities can help teens discover the interests and passions that contribute to their concept of self.

Extracurricular Activity Options

If sports is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about extracurricular activities, that's a fairly common presumption. However, there's a plethora of activities out there for your teen to explore. Volunteer work helps your teen develop a sense of community awareness and builds self-esteem -- and it also looks great on his first job or college application. Find out if animal shelters, children's centers, senior's homes or shelters are looking for teen volunteers. If he'd rather get involved at school, get in touch with your teen's counselor to find out what extracurricular activities are available. From chess club and debate team to the theater group and swim team, there's bound to be something that will pique his interest.

While fitting in with his peers is becoming increasingly important, it's also essential for teens to “find something they enjoy -- not what everyone else is doing,” advises Angel Tucker, a Texas-based human-behavior consultant. Fitting in with the group is fine, but participating in an activity to go with the flow will not help teens explore their own interests, and it's less likely to bring about an inner confidence that will “carry over into other areas of their lives to include their ability to make good choices and be respectful of other’s [individual interests],” Tucker says.

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Play to Your Teen's Personality

When you're helping you teen consider her options, take a look at her personality. According to Tucker, "Some teens are naturally more apt to enjoy and stick with particular activities if they appeal to their personality." If your daughter struggles with social relationships at school, she may find it easier to make friends in an activity outside of the classroom where her peers share a common interest.

A young, talented pottery-maker may feel like a fish out of water in the general classroom, but she'll fit right in at the Tuesday evening pottery class for teens. Tucker explains that "a 'D' (dominant) or 'I' (inspiring) personality might enjoy some sort of competitive activity or something that is constantly changing." Sports can help teens learn to function under pressure and work together in team situations.

However, according to Tucker, "an 'S' (supportive) type might enjoy working at the local animal shelter or in a Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization." Your supportive kiddo is more likely to be the water guy than the quarterback on the football team. Tucker has also found that kids with “C” (cautious) personalities often find their most comfortable fit with activities that involve research or learning. Your cautious gal may feel more comfortable learning a new language than shooting hoops on the basketball team.

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Reasons to Get Involved

Extracurricular activities let teens explore their interests by trying out different roles. Tucker says, "No matter what the activity, it is more likely to build their self-esteem if it is an activity they enjoy and can stick with for the long haul." These activities can also help teens develop a sense of independent identity within the family unit. Geltman, who's also the author of the parenting book "I Get It: Three Magic Words for Parents of Teens," explains that parents generally take on the responsibility of arranging activities for their children up until the teen years.

For example, if you're an active family, you've probably encouraged her participation in family sports and other physical activities. Now she's developing her own interests, and maybe even putting up a bit of teenage resistance. If she's passionate about perfecting her soufflé this weekend, enroll her in a baking class and encourage her to pursue her passion. Geltman suggests making her the family baker and letting her feel important and respected in this new role she’s begun to explore. It will help her to build self-confidence and create a positive dynamic between parent and teen.

While helping your teen develop into a self-confident and responsible young adult may be at the top of your priority list, extracurricular activities help teens in other ways too. These after-school activities can help create a well-rounded college or job application, particularly when the activities are focused around a specific career goal. If your teen is interested in becoming a veterinarian, volunteer work at a vet clinic or animal shelter will demonstrate his depth of commitment to the admissions officer in college.

The Right Balance

Once she gets a taste of all the new opportunities to experience, it may be easy for your teen to get excited and become involved in one too many activities. When that happens, she can end up stressed out, trying to maintain a balance between school, friends and her new activities. She may want to play on the soccer team, volunteer at the library, sign up for the fundraising committee and give martial arts class a try too, but even the most organized teen is going to have a hard time keeping up her grades with that kind of after-school schedule.

If you find she's getting overwhelmed, sit down and work out a solution together. In some cases, it may mean reducing the number of hours she spends at a few of her activities, or an activity may have to be set aside entirely to consider again later. You'll likely want to make the extracurricular activities contingent on maintaining her grades in school. A college application full of extracurricular experiences is great, but it's not going to get her accepted if she becomes a D student in high school.

When approaching your teen about an overburdening schedule, empathy is key. Geltman explains that it's important to make your teen feel understood, not judged, by using an "I get it" mentality. Tell your teen you understand how important these activities are to her, and avoid criticizing her for biting off more than she can chew. Geltman says that "Now you can get down to problem-solving rather than wasting time arguing about what is important with your teen."

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