A  child has one job in life – to be a child. Yet, some treat them like mini adults, which can result in childhoods crammed with activities, commitments, and obligations.

As such, childhood is no longer carefree, but a pressure cooker in which children are expected to perform at all times at home, at school, and beyond. Today, experts say children are busier and lonelier than any generation before them.

Many kids attend before and after-school programs or daycare so parents can work. Sports and other enrichment activities can be seen as ways to build a child’s college resume rather than opportunities for joy. Many eat dinner in the car most nights and cram homework in right before bed. All of this allows for very little downtime and can leave children stressed and sleep deprived. While some kids seem to handle their busy lives just fine, not all children can handle the stress associated with over-scheduling.

Jeanine Fitzgerald, author, certified human behavior consultant and specialist, and owner of The Fitzgerald Institute of Lifelong Learning in Northboro, says that 1 in 3 children are suffering from stress and most of that stress comes from living over-scheduled lives. “Over-scheduling has become how we parent. Children spend very little time with their own parents but with other adults,” she says.

In today’s society, some equate idle time with laziness, when in fact downtime is a necessity in life helping to restore bodies and minds. Knowing when your child needs a break from his own busy life is essential.
How Many Activities Are Too Many?
We all want to do what’s best for our children and give them every opportunity to try different things. Parents think exposing them to a variety of sports or activities will make them well-rounded, and may feel compelled to keep signing up for this team or that lesson just so they don’t let others (i.e., teammates and coaches) down. Is any of that bad? Not as long as your child is happy.

“Parents should consider the cost of over-scheduling to the child’s mental health,” says Fitzgerald, who often sees children who have anxiety and are depressed. More often than not, a child feels over-scheduled but won’t tell parents for fear of letting them down. “Kids want to please their parents and are afraid to talk to them,” she adds.

Although there is not a magic number of activities in which a child should participate, a good rule of thumb is one activity per season.

Lori Lite, parenting expert and author of Stress Free Kids – A Parent’s Guide to Helping Build Self-Esteem, Manage Stress, and Reduce Anxiety in Children, says that parents should ask: “Does the activity add something positive to the child’s quality of life?”

Activities should help your child build self-esteem and make friends, as well as be something that he or she is proud to be a part of. An activity is no longer serving a purpose if you have to drag your child to it.

Fitzgerald suggests that children wait to participate in organized sports until at least age 7: “The most important thing for a 4-year-old is to be a 4-year-old. We need to let our kids be kids and have unstructured time to play.”



Next page: When is Quitting an Option?

When Is Quitting An Option?
Parents want their children to finish what they start because it teaches responsibility and commitment.  Not to mention, they likely paid for it. However, it’s not always healthy to force a child to do something they don’t love, especially if a child feels inadequate while participating in a sport or activity. Remember, the activity should build self-esteem, not reduce it. If a child wants to quit something or is feeling stressed, it may be time to shift gears and eliminate that activity.

“It’s OK to tell your child they need to finish the commitment they’ve made before they quit. But not if it’s causing stress or anxiety for the child,” Fitzgerald says. In other words, if your son wants to quit hockey mid-season because his schoolwork is suffering or because he’s tired all the time, those would be good reasons to quit regardless of the commitment.

Lite adds that parents should check in with themselves, too: “If mom or dad feels resentful of the demanding schedule, then it’s time to look at the schedule.”
How Can I Tell If My Child is Stressed?
Believe it or not, kids of all ages worry — or stress — about many things, such as friendships, crime, grades, terrorism, ticks (yes, the bug), and the future. In her book, Lite writes that the range of stress a child experiences can be as simple as arriving at school to find out there is a substitute teacher to being exposed to a violent experience.

If you think your child will tell you he’s feeling stressed, think again. Children tend to express stress through symptomatic, such as headaches, stomachaches, and asthma symptoms. Childhood stress is also expressed through behaviors such as bedwetting, withdrawing, regressing, frequent meltdowns, or clingy behavior, “which is so hard because all of those symptoms are ordinary childhood complaints or behaviors,” Lite notes.

 



However, if a symptom or behavior appears suddenly or seems to happen only on certain days, parents should check in with the child. “I tell parents to trust their instincts,” Lite says. “Parents know what is normal for their child and what is not. Don’t worry, however, if you don’t recognize something right away. It’s normal for a behavior to happen over the course of a few weeks before you think, ‘something’s not right.’”
How To Help
Understanding how your child responds to stress is important for your child’s well-being. Teaching them how to cope with it is equally important.

“Kids are using drugs and alcohol to cope with stress and many are committing suicide to get away from stress,” Fitzgerald says. It’s important to help children learn how to recognize when they are feeling frazzled and how to manage it. Family coaching, parental education, and professional help are all successful methods. Lite also suggests things like breathing techniques, visualizations, muscle relaxation exercises, and affirmations.

Thanks to the Internet, we live in a heavily connected society, yet we are very disconnected. Fitzgerald notes that 16% of families spend time together, but in separate rooms on their electronics. For many, Sunday dinners with extended family are a thing of the past, let alone dinner together as a family during the week.

Lite says it’s a parent’s job to foster a positive parent/child relationship: “If you’re in the car all the time driving to activities or saying, “Hurry up!” to your child a lot, it’s time to reevaluate.” And while having an occasional dinner in the car isn’t a bad thing, “being able to sit across from your child at dinnertime and look them in the eyes goes a long way to fostering the parent/child relationship.”

Eating dinner together is a great place to start. Also, spending time with your child doing a puzzle, snuggling, riding bikes, or playing a game is much more important for the child’s mental health than any organized sport or activity.
7 Signs Your Child May Be Over-Scheduled
1. Child isn’t getting enough sleep recommended for his age

2. Child eats dinner on the run most nights

3. Child is having frequent meltdowns

4. Child is asking to quit an activity

5. Child complains of being tired all the time

6. Child doesn’t have a couple hours of downtime per day

7. Child complains of headaches, stomachaches, or has changes in behavior