In the last few decades, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of activities available for children in the US. While many adults can fondly remember participating in Girl or Boy Scouts, and perhaps playing a musical instrument, many children today participate in both educational and fun activities in much greater amounts. This can lead to seriously overscheduled children, who no longer benefit from the activities in which they participate and may exhibit real signs of stress.
Healthy balance is the key to avoiding the overscheduled children syndrome. Parents should ask themselves questions about how participation in several activities affects the child. Each child will respond to a scheduled life differently. Some children are not overscheduled children, even if they participate in school and a couple sports teams or classes weekly. Other children quickly become overscheduled children by participating in more than one weekly extracurricular activity in addition to school.
Outside activities do have extraordinary benefits for children, giving them a way to explore their interests. Especially since many public schools now have cut funds to art, music, and sports programs, one may have to look for activities beyond school to help children have a fully fleshed out education. However, some schools are also placing higher academic demands on children. In some schools, homework is mandatory in Kindergarten. Thus children may have less free time available once homework is complete.
Most child development experts agree that having non-scheduled time is vital to children. Opportunities to be with family, think, draw, or even watch a little television allows a child to pursue development of his or herself as an individual. Overscheduled children tend to have the least amount of unstructured time.
Overscheduled children may also miss out on quality family time. If a family never gets to spend time together, then the children in the house are likely overscheduled children. Especially with both parents working in many households, time spent together as a family has already been curtailed. Adding on additional activities, unless they can be done as a family, take more time away from family quality time.
One can usually tell if one has overscheduled children by observing one’s children and considering one’s family dynamics. The first question to ask is whether the family does have daily time together. If not, this should be addressed. The time does not need to be scheduled into activities, and can be quite simply used. Some nights, the family might do the dishes together, or read a book aloud. Though children benefit from quality time, there is also benefit derived from quantity time spent with children. It reiterates the child’s belonging to a family, and family members’ sense of connection to each other.
Overscheduled children may also exhibit signs of stress. This can be shown in small ways. Overscheduled children might, for example, show a drop in overall grades or exhibit poor behavior at school. Overscheduled children may also show stress in more serious ways.
Children with too many activities may start to show high anxiety regarding school performance or performance in activities. They may also withdraw from family, express disinterest in school, or seem depressed and untalkative. Overscheduled children may suffer from loss of appetite, sleep problems, and may have “phantom” illnesses like stomachaches and headaches.
When children are clearly exhibiting signs of stress, it may be best to regroup, rethink activities and help the child have more family and unstructured time. Let overscheduled children be aware that their participation in optional activities is optional. If an activity is no longer enjoyed, it is perhaps time not to pursue it. If unpacking a child’s schedule does not appear to help with anxiety or depression, one must consider other causes of these conditions. A good family or child therapist may help one root out the nature of the child’s problems and have valuable suggestions for helping the child to become less stressed.