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Children are busier than they ever have been. From organized sports, to music lessons, to church activities, to scouts their schedules are jam-packed. In fact, kids are so busy it prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to issue recommendations to pediatricians to “prescribe” play for young children. Sounds crazy, but sometimes kids (or should we say parents) need to be reminded to simply play. And as parents, it’s our job to make sure they are getting that time to play in a safe and supportive environment that doesn’t always have an agenda.
For many parents of older children, the concern for over-scheduling may seem as a pendulum swing away from the push to get teens involved in structure to reduce risk-taking behaviors. Evidence still supports teen structure and engagement to promote emerging autonomy and healthy development. As we digest all this, it is important to remember the evidence and advice is different depending on the age of your child. Younger children benefit from play without an agenda while older children (e.g, teens) may thrive with routine activity outside the home. Keep in mind, the frequency and competitive intensity of activities along with academic expectations should be balanced.
So how busy is too busy?
The truth is that only you and your child will really know the answer to that. Each child is different and therefore their needs and stress levels will be different as well. Before you start to assess your family’s schedule, remember some stress is normal for children. However, the manner in how that stress is identified and managed is critical to a child’s healthy development.
For most families, the drive for activity (over-) involvement often spurs from the desire to promote healthy development in our kids. As we work towards that goal, let’s remember a couple of proven ways to promote healthy development:
Family meals together
Regular sleep habits with adequate, age appropriate amount of sleep (See recommendations by age here)
Positive peer influences (in older children/teens)
Feeling part of a community (school group, team, organization, church, etc.)
Keeping in mind these factors that are proven to promote healthy development, when assessing your family’s schedule think about how these items will be positively or negatively impacted by an activity. Ask each other the simple questions listed below and use your answers to help determine what, how much and how often each family member should be participating in an activity.
How will this activity impact our ability to spend time together as a family (such as mealtimes, family play time, etc.)?
How does the level of commitment and/or competition fit with our expectations or interest level?
How will we handle the situation if interest fades and my child wants to quit early or it’s not a good fit for us before the activity is over?
Additional factors to consider
As a child transitions into tween/teendom, the demands on their time can become even greater. Building connections with their peers becomes even more important and helps kids establish positive self-esteem. This can be done in a lot of ways based on your teen and their interests. School teams, organizations, church, volunteer opportunities, employment are just a few options. With all the options, this can lead some families to feel their children need to be involved in all of them. This simply isn’t feasible or necessary and may be potentially harmful.
Just as adults learn to set appropriate boundaries for themselves, we as parents have an obligation to model this for our children in our own lives and allow them to exercise their ability to set boundaries around their out of school time. Walking through the questions above with your child is a great way to model a healthy framework for decision making that keeps in mind your family values.
Over-scheduled and anxious?
Over-scheduling and over-involvement may lead to anxiety that can impact a child’s ability to function well. It’s normal to experience some anxiety as part of growing up so children can learn how to manage it in a healthy way. Let’s talk about how to recognize unhealthy anxiety. If you are noticing the following, it may be a sign your child needs an evaluation from a health care provider:
Recurring physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, vomiting, belly pain or fatigue that interfere with activities or school attendance
Slips in grades, attention or focus at school
Difficulty sleeping (falling asleep or staying asleep)
Frequent, interruptive worry of being a failure or letting down team/family
Impulsiveness or over-activity such as fidgetiness
It’s okay to be under-scheduled and unapologetic.
As the new school year begins, remember, your child does not need to be entertained or scheduled 100 percent of the time. In fact, doing so may rob them of opportunities to learn and grow in fundamental ways. Set aside some time to have family conversations before your kids get too far into their school year and obligations to set goals and talk through expectations. Most importantly, listen and watch. If you see or hear hints of anxiety that appear to be affecting their ability to function or cope, talk about it and seek help if needed.