The girl was good at everything, problematic because time for her many passions overlapped. She'd scramble to fit it all in, leaving church choir practice early to get to diving, where the coach was mad because she was three minutes late. Finally, she had to decide what activities to embrace and what to let go.
As Ann Neary tells the story of one daughter's crazy extracurricular schedule, the Riverside, Connecticut, mom and high school teacher said their lives got hectic. It helped that the kids were spread out agewise. The youngest — twins who just graduated from high school — are now 18, the oldest 32.
No two kids — or their schedules — were alike. One daughter was quiet and not a joiner by nature, but discovered she loved rock climbing, which became an activity mother and daughter enjoyed together. Some kids were more athletic than others. For a family that valued down time and dinner together every night, it was a juggling act, Neary said.
Outside activities that enrich and nourish children, introduce them to new skills and people and open doors to future success are a valuable part of growing up. But many families struggle to find the sweet spot between adequate engagement and simply drowning in extracurricular obligations. Experts say balance is both possible and important.
There's a serious downside to consistent over-scheduling, they add.
At its worst, "it sets the tone for perfectionism, anxiety and other disorders, including eating and sometimes drugs, particularly stimulants, negative self-talk and feeling as though one can't be good if they can't participate in all the over-booking," said Lisa Bahar, marriage and family therapist in Dana Point, California.
Parents need to be aware of how much they're allowing children to commit to and the burden they may be placing on kids, she said.
Pressured, with high hopes
Parents joke that children who want to attend prestigious schools must have near-perfect grades and have started a nonprofit foundation by the time they are 12. It's jest founded in the pressure that both children and their parents feel to perform well in relationship to their peers.
"I see a lot of people over-scheduled and what that stems from is fear kids are going to be left behind other kids," said Ann DeWitt, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified parent advocate in Lake Oswego, Oregon. She described a "pipeline effect" where kids and parents fear they'll be shut out of playing high school soccer unless they start in grade school.
It's done with good intentions, she noted. "The idea is you want your kids to have lots of options and not close down any avenues they might be interested in later. But committing to all those activities, you feel kind of crazy running from one thing to another and one thing lost is resilience — cushioning your schedule so something running over won't knock down a house of cards."
Over-scheduling can even weaken family bonds. When kids are not connected to their families because of so many distractions, their orientation turns toward their peers, she warned.
Kids may overestimate what they can do, but when parents help over-schedule kids, it often reflects their own anxiety, said Don MacMannis, psychologist and clinical director of the Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara, California, who co-wrote "How's Your Family Really Doing?" "Stress levels parents experience translate into expectations of their kids."
It's hard to quantify how much over-scheduling burdens kids. Child development experts say kids need extracurricular, enriching activities. But the American Psychological Association said there's no question kids are under pressure. Its 2013 Stress in America poll found teens have stress levels and symptoms comparable to that of adults. Many report feeling fatigued, anxious, irritable or emotional. And more than a third expect stress to grow.
DeWitt said kids can shut down if they're overbooked. Some become anxious. And fear-based decision-making isn't good. Everyone needs balance.
With too much going on, "kids will become agitated, short-tempered — more than typical teenage behavior — and most likely slipping in one or more subjects," said Bahar. "Sometimes it comes out in lack of eating, lack of sleep, difficulty concentrating and anxiety symptoms of perfectionist language," such as self-deprecating statements like "I'm not good enough."
It's sometimes hard to recognize overload because it shares symptoms with other things that should also be considered, MacMannis said. Physical symptoms of overload may include headaches or stomach aches or new sleep problems, for example. At the emotional end, anxiety, depression and difficulty concentrating may be signs of too much stress. Irritability is a social/interpersonal red flag. A child who suddenly has problems with peers, siblings or parents may need to rein in some of the extracurriculars.
He counsels moderation. A balanced life includes the activities a child most enjoys and what might be most beneficial to him. MacMannis also warns that parents are prone to over-schedule kids who are introverted and don't necessarily thrive being with other children constantly. Such a child likely needs extra down time.
While some kids thrive with all the extra activities, some don't. If a child can't wait to play football, that's one thing. If he doesn't want to go, listen, said Dee Ray, distinguished teaching professor in the counseling program and director of the Child and Family Resource Clinic at the University of North Texas in Denton.
DeWitt said one of the biggest signs things are badly out of balance is being unable to find time to sit down and discuss it. That an activity was good last year does not mean it must be on the schedule this year. Families need to weigh positives, negatives, what children gained from an activity and what it cost, including time.
As MacMannis said, "To find balance, you talk it out and talk it out and talk it out. It's not an easy thing, but a matter of negotiation and trial and error."
Sometimes kids who are overbooked don't want to let anything go, just as kids who are under-booked may not want to step it up. MacMannis suggests "limited choice," choosing between what's acceptable. Parents who fear a child is too sedentary, for instance, offer a choice of sports, without the choice to just sit around.
"One of the biggest things is not making decisions out of fear — fear down the line of the future. There has to be joy in the doing, out of love and not out of fear," said DeWitt.
Ages and stages
Parents who want to help their children succeed sometimes can't figure out when it's just too much, said Ray, who describes neighborhoods where kids who aren't in peewee sports or gymnastics seem to lag. "They're doing it from a really good place," she said of parental nudges.
"It's such a conundrum to try to figure out," said Ann Neary. "When my kids were small, they were allowed one after-school activity. They almost always took a sport, though sometimes one chose an art."
As much as possible, she let the children drive their own activity choices, she said. She's "a big believer in imagination," so her children were not allowed television during the week. Instead, they had creative time.
Ray said organized activities are more helpful for older children; youngsters who are 4-6 need free-play time, because that's where they learn skills and behaviors. Children in free play discover what they like and want to pursue. At that stage, one activity — or no activity at all — is probably best, she said.
At 10 or 11, kids start to know what they really like. Having a couple of activities in addition to school is just fine, Ray said. It's important to prioritize and that's fodder for family discussion.
"Let's keep activities that make us happiest and nurture us," she said, "and put the others on the back burner. But I do think kids need to be in activities. On the other side, with no scheduled activities, they're just playing video games and that's not good."
Older kids, who can handle more activities and structure, still need downtime, she said. Without free time and with too much pressure, they "start looking like little stressed adults."
Children typically start driving the schedule around middle school, expressing interest — or not — in activities. At that age, kids are usually hard to push if they don't want an activity, but parents must be aware of burnout.
Activities also must balance with school requirements. A tough school schedule means less time for other things, Ray warned. Even older kids need social time and rest, as well as breaks from electronic gadgets.
Parents should be available. "Allow the child to be there with you without anything else going on. In the car running from thing to thing, making a quick meal, no devices in interactions, just available," she said.
At 16 or 17, she added, "they really start the process of sorting out what is working for them. You can be a consultant on 'Is this too much? Is this really the college you want to get into?'"
It sometimes seems colleges want kids in 20 activities and already changing the world, she said. Families must weigh what's worth it. Some children want to do that, some don't. Both will become successful adults.
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