By Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW
It starts with the best of intentions. Your daughter expresses an interest in playing soccer, so you sign her up at 4 years old. You want to make sure she starts early, so she doesn’t get left behind. Pretty soon, you sign her up for Girl Scouts. It’s a wholesome activity that builds character, right? Next, you enroll her in piano lessons – you think that you should expose her to an instrument as you want to make sure that she’s well-rounded. As time goes by and her friends start different activities, you want to give her those same opportunities… so you let her join the softball team. Then she wants to try basketball, so you let her do that too. Before long, you realize that if she is going to have any chance of playing soccer long term, she had better get on a select club team to be challenged and get good coaching. You soon realize that a club team is a big commitment – it is year-round, they practice twice a week and have tournaments every weekend – but you feel it is worth it because you want her to be able to play in high school, at the very least. You don’t mind letting her do a few clubs after school also, because you want to keep her occupied after school (we all know what happens to kids with too much free time!), and besides, it will look good on a college application. One day you wake up and look at your calendar and feel paralyzed: she has basketball and drama club on Mondays, soccer practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays, piano and Girl Scouts on Wednesdays, yearbook club on Fridays, and tournaments every weekend, some out of town. This doesn’t even count homework or school projects. And, this is only one child……
Today’s youth are stressed as never before. Academically, our children have shorter summers, fewer free periods, tougher grading standards, and are taking more college-level classes in high school, etc. Athletically, kids are encouraged to be on competitive travel teams that run year round (vs. just seasonally), specialize at young ages, have games at 10 pm some nights, etc. Socially, there is pressure to be available at all times – the constant buzz of cell phones, interruptions from texts at all hours of the night, etc. sets up an expectation that our children should always be responding to texts and participating on social media. It is very easy for both kids, and parents to feel completely overwhelmed and out of balance.
We ask ourselves – how did we get here? There are a few societal reasons that have combined to create this insidious phenomenon. First of all, we have been inundated with the message that the world is a dangerous place for kids these days. This has inspired a knee-jerk reaction to make sure kids are involved in structured activities instead of just letting them have free play time after school. While these fears are well founded in some areas, this has extended into many areas where crime is rare or nonexistent. In addition, we have also learned to be fearful that our children will miss out or be left behind. This fuels, early, intense involvement in activities, as many parents fear that if they delay starting a sport or a musical instrument that their child may never be able to compete. On top of all of this, because we have heard the message that colleges are looking for “well-rounded” applicants, we can fall into the trap of thinking the busier our children are, the better job we are doing as parents. Overall, there is just a general increased pressure on our children to achieve – from knowing their alphabet and colors before school, to being expected to be on the select teams at a young age, to worrying about what colleges will accept them (far earlier than is necessary) – our youth are very driven by their achievements and resume of activities.
No doubt, most parents usually just want what seems best for their kids. Even when intentions are good, though, kids can easily become overscheduled. The pressure to participate in a handful of activities all the time and to “keep up” can be physically and emotionally exhausting for parents and kids alike, and can leave us all feeling disconnected.
Sooner or later, kids who are too busy will begin to show signs. Every child is different, but overscheduled kids may exhibit these red flags:
  • feel tired, anxious, or depressed
  • complain of headaches and stomachaches, which may be due to stress, missed meals, or lack of sleep
  • fall behind on their schoolwork, causing their grades to drop
  • want to drop out of previously enjoyed activities
  • difficulty making, keeping or enjoying the company of their friends
  • a reluctance or refusal to go to school or get out of bed
  • self-harming behaviors or thoughts of suicide
It is important to pay attention, as the effects of being out of balance can be far-reaching and impact all of us. Individually, we are more prone to both mental and physical illness when we are stressed and overwhelmed. Our cortisol levels increase – which physically shrinks the hippocampus, one of the memory centers of the brain. Cortisol affects our white blood cell functioning, and we end up sicker more often. Elevated cortisol also negatively impacts serotonin (a brain chemical key to depression and anxiety). We end up with tired, irritable kids who aren’t learning as easily and who are more and more dependent upon us because they are not able to successfully manage their own lives independently.
Family life also can suffer — when one parent is driving to basketball practice and the other is carpooling to dance class, meals are missed. As a result, some families rarely eat dinner together, and may not take the extra time to stay connected. Plus, the weekly grind of driving kids all over the place and getting to one class, game, or practice after another can be downright tiresome and stressful for parents. This can all impact the connection between kids and parents, and between couples as well. We can easily end up feeling very disconnected from one another… this can lead to poor communication, being out of touch with kids’ lives, and marital struggles.
  • Agree on ground rules ahead of time. For instance, plan on kids playing one sport per season or limit activities to two afternoons or evenings during the school week. This may make for some difficult choices, but this is one way to keep a balance.
  • Know how much time is required before committing to an activity. For example, will there be time to practice between lessons? Does your child realize that soccer practice is twice a week, right after school until dinnertime? Then there’s the weekly game to consider, too. Is travel involved? Be very clear about expectations as you make decisions to join a new team, musical, or activity.
  • Keep a calendar to stay organized. Display it on the refrigerator or other prominent spot so that everybody can stay up-to-date. And if you find an empty space on the calendar, leave it alone!
  • Create structured family time. If you’re eating fast food on the run every night, plan a few dinners when everyone can be home at the same time, even if it means eating a little later. Numerous studies have shown that families who eat dinner together report stronger relationships and better grades. According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Abuse at Columbia University, kids and teens who eat dinner with their families at least five times a week have a much lower risk of substance abuse. Schedule family fun time, too, whether it’s playing a board game or going on a bike ride or hike. We can easily forget or underestimate the importance of family connection in protecting our children.
  • Take charge of technology! Set up a central family charging station so that our children can turn in technology each night. This helps kids set a boundary with their peers – for example, no phones after 9 pm. In addition, it keeps kids from being disturbed in the night, and also helps prevent them from making poor choices online late at night.
  • Try to carpool with other parents to make life easier, and to free up more time for our other children, spouse, and/or ourselves. When you do end up driving, turn off the radio and use the time to TALK. Kids frequently open up while you are driving and they aren’t looking at you….it can be a surprisingly good time to connect.
  • Build in time to do things for yourself. It is important to make some time for ourselves – whether we make time to read, take a walk, chat with a friend, or whatever, we need to do this so we don’t get too burned out.
  • Help your children set priorities. If kids start struggling academically, they may need to drop an activity. Or, consider avoiding some AP classes if students can’t keep up at that pace. But while school is a priority, remember to not let the focus be all about academic achievement. We need to have talks with our kids about finding a balance – let them make choices about where to put their energy. Let them know that taking care of themselves (having some free time, being involved in some other activities) is at least as important as making that 4.0 that they are striving for. So many young people are obsessed with having straight A’s that they start developing anxiety and perfectionistic tendencies. Help your children see that having balance and stable mental health is important for the big picture of their lives, and that they are valued for who they are, not what they achieve. Assure them that their performance does not define them!
  • Know when to say no. If your child is already doing a lot but really wants to take on another activity, discuss what other activity or activities need to be dropped to make room for the new one. And don’t be afraid to set boundaries to protect your family time! It is perfectly ok to say no to a practice or game when you want to protect your family time (ie. traditional family activities around holiday times, weekends to the lake, family gatherings, etc.). Let children see that it is acceptable to make family connections a priority!
Essentially, it comes down to realizing that it is our job, as parents, to protect our children and families. We need to be brave enough to set boundaries and take the lead on this. While this is a cultural struggle, it is up to us as individuals to start drawing the lines and take back our families. We can’t expect change unless it begins at home. We need to give our children the message that they are not defined by their achievements, as society is telling them that they very much are. And, while many of us are fearful that if we miss games or don’t feed into societal expectations our children will pay the price, it could be argued that the price our kids pay is much greater if we do nothing. Our children need us, they need their families. Let’s show them that we will make that a priority.