Back to school! And activities. And homework. You may start seeing signs that your child is too busy. How do you know if you’ve passed the tipping point into over-scheduled? What can you do about it, if so?
Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap said “Parents feel remiss that they’re not being good parents if their kids aren’t in all kinds of activities. Children are under pressure to achieve, to be competitive. I know sixth-graders who are already working on their resumes so they’ll have an edge when they apply for college.”
With more standardized testing for kids even in elementary school, many kids already feel stress and pressure at a young age. As parents, we try to give our children the best opportunities to realize their potential, while keeping them safe and allowing them to do things that they enjoy. But there comes a point of diminishing returns, when too many activities and responsibilities weigh on our children, causing stress, pressure and anxiety. Even if each activity on its own seems worthwhile, here are some signs that your child is doing too much.
Issue One: Sleep Problems
Kids who are rushed from one activity to another without any downtime will often have trouble falling asleep at night because they can’t wind down. The adrenaline created by constantly being on the go makes it very hard to relax and fall asleep. Sometimes, children will wake up earlier than necessary, feeling that they have so much to do that they try to sleep less. Conversely, they may be so exhausted from their activities that they struggle to wake up in the morning. Nightmares, which may affect not only your child’s sleep but yours as well, may become more prevalent as a child’s brain works to process the chaos.
You may also see increased sleep issues during the holidays, when holiday parties and family celebrations are added to their already busy schedules, keeping them out later at night.
Issue Two: Emotional Outbursts, Frustration and Anxiety.
Kids who don’t have downtime don’t have time to process emotions. Whether consciously or not, we all use downtime to process our feelings about the day’s experiences. Hurrying from one activity to another without free time to process causes a build-up of emotional energy that needs an outlet. This would be similar to using a colander to strain the water from your pasta, and not cleaning it afterwards. After a few uses, the strainer will get clogged and won’t allow any more water to pass through. Our brains—and our kids’ brains—work in much the same way.
When kids don’t have time to process the events of their day, emotions become clogged and feelings build up. This may cause children to have emotional outbursts, throw tantrums, or shout angry retorts. Pent-up emotion may also cause kids to become frustrated when things don’t go smoothly, because they don’t have time to try again.
Finally, non-stop scheduling can present an overload of challenges or make children feel they have too much to handle, which can cause stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety can be displayed in different ways: if kids can’t express how they’re feeling verbally, you may see more worries about going to school, expressions of doubt related to their performance, or fear around trying to sleep. Stress and anxiety also can be manifested in headaches or stomachaches.
Issue Three: Declining School Performance.
In some cases, there just isn’t enough time to get homework finished between all of the activities. In addition, external activities can demand significant amounts of mental and physical energy, reducing the amount of energy and creativity that your child can apply to learning and completing school assignments. The decline might be dramatic or it might be gradual as the lack of time for homework, the lack of sleep and other issues come into play affecting their ability to do well at school.
Three Ways to Reverse the Pattern
- Prioritize activities. If you suspect your child is overbooked, talk with her to get a sense of how she is feeling. Ask if she likes her activities, one by one. Find out what she likes about each; ask also whether she misses anything from the time before she had each activity. The goal is to understand her experiences around each activity and where she is benefitting the most and the least—this will help you to prioritize what to keep and what to cancel, which is the next step.Next, make a priority list of her commitments, based on what’s most important to your family and what’s most important to her. The older the child, the more involved she can be in this process. For instance, a religious school activity might take priority over drama. Scouting may win out over lacrosse. To help her to feel more control over her schedule, as well as to understand the difficulty and rewards of decision-making, include her in the decision of which activity to drop. Again, the older she is, the more actively they can participate in these decisions.
- Discuss before joining. It’s much easier—and less stressful for everyone—if you can prevent over-scheduling in the first place. Parents and kids should have a discussion before joining any new activity to make sure it isn’t too much for your children or family.It’s important to remember that just because a child wants to do an activity isn’t reason enough to do it. Many parents are afraid to set limits when it comes to activities. You may find yourself thinking, “But he really wants to play baseball, even though he is already doing football, guitar and drama club which meets after school.” At some point, parents have to remember that we need to say “no” to our children. We need to make room for our kids to have unscheduled time—to play, to rest, to just be a kid.
- Plan ahead. During the school year, allowing kids to sign up for Scouts, soccer, swimming and a computer lab in a single season may be setting the stage for burnout. Consider all activities on her schedule before deciding to add something new; it might be best to postpone an activity for a season when there aren’t as many activities planned.
There are some basic things to consider when determining how much is too much. Having planned activities and no free time every day is too much for anyone. When your kids start having something every day of the week—or even most days—they are probably overbooked. One or two hours of activities a week for a toddler or preschooler is usually enough, while you may successfully add one or two more hours for kids in elementary school. Teens will be able to do a little more, but factor in more responsibility when it comes to school.
If you feel your child is overbooked, remember there are some activities that are easier to cancel than others. While we don’t want to teach our kids to bail on a commitment, we do want them to know if they have taken on too much, they can scale back their commitments to better accomplish the ones they already have and feel better in the process. This is a life lesson for all of us.
Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT is a syndicated columnist and therapist specializing in parenting and relationships, involved fatherhood, building strong modern families and overcoming depression. Find more at www.jgs.net.