Finding a balance between school, activities, and play can mean the difference between a well-adjusted child and a stressed-out one. What makes it difficult is that this balance is different for every child. It is up to you, the parent, to find the mixture of scheduled time and play time that works best for your child.
Even experts don’t agree on the ratio of planned time and unplanned time that makes the ideal balance. However, they do agree on what an over-stressed, overscheduled child looks like. If you see any of these symptoms in your children, it’s time to take a serious look at their schedules.
- They are tired. A lot.
- They are grumpy or agitated. They don’t seem to have much control over their emotions and cry easily.
- They have recurring physical problems, such as headaches or stomachaches.
- They have trouble sleeping.
- They are being antisocial and don’t want to participate in even fun activities, such as birthday parties or hanging with friends. They seem to have lost touch with even their best friend.
- They are having trouble finishing their homework. Their grades are starting to suffer.
- They are slacking on their chores or need a reminder to do them.
- They don’t have free time most days.
- They frequently say that they’d like to stay at home and do nothing.
- They no longer enjoy something that was once fun for them.
These symptoms may seem easy to spot, but parents sometimes get so wrapped up in their day-to-day routine that they overlook them. Plus, the schedule may have worked fine, at first, but over time has added stress that can go unnoticed.
Another good gauge for determining if your child is overbooked is stopping to consider how you feel. Are you tired all the time? Are you more agitated and find yourself losing your temper? Do you see your kids in the car more than anywhere else? These are good indicators that it’s time to reevaluate your family’s schedule.
As you look to find a balance, keep this in mind: How your child spends his or her free time should be constructive (such as playing outdoors, creative playtime, spending time with friends). You don’t want them overscheduled, but you don’t want them sitting around watching TV or playing video games, either.
Keep in mind that some stress is good and actually enhances performance. But too much stress has the opposite effect.
If you find that you are overscheduled, you and your child should decide together which activities to cut and which to continue. Don’t make them decide and don’t decide for them. It could be that you postpone some activities for now and pick them up when other activities end.
Path to improved health
Kids should have at least a few days a week where they have nothing to do, and they need free time every day. Free time is time where they can choose to what to do. This is time for them to relax and do something they enjoy — something besides playing video games or watching TV, of course.
Put a priority on playtime, but make it productive. Send them outside. This is where the truly creative play happens — and usually the exercise, too. Just being outside has been shown to make people calmer. So it reduces stress. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends that all children participate in physical activity for at least 30-60 minutes a day.
Take time to play with your kids. Experts agree that unscheduled family time is an important part of a healthy balance for kids. Even more than that, it’s important for families to play together. This is one of the best ways for parents and children to get to know each other. It also helps children feel that their parents love the real them — not just the over-achieving “them.”
Have meals together. Eating together as a family has many benefits, especially for children. Not only is it a great way to teach manners and appreciation (for the food and for the cook), but it also teaches children the art of conversation. It can also be a time to talk about their day. Some studies show that children who eat with their families actually earn higher grades at school, too.
Just make sure that you’re not swapping productive activities for screen time. You already know that, if left to their own devices, your children would choose to spend the bulk of their time watching TV or playing video games. Some screen time is OK, especially if it’s spent on educational games and activities. For the most part, though, you should limit your children’s time spent in front of electronics. The AAFP recommends no screen time before 2 years of age and no more than two hours a day for children 2 years of age and older.
Also, think about what kind of example you are setting with your use of electronics. If you are forever multitasking on your phone while spending time with your child, he or she is going to want to model your behavior. Limiting your child’s screen time and not yours can send the wrong message.
Don’t overlook the value of sleep. If your child is so busy after school that he or she must stay up late to complete homework assignments, you don’t have a good balance. School-aged children need 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night. Teens don’t require as much sleep but should average 8 to 9 hours each night.
Keep in mind that kids do well with structure. Limit their activities and make sure they have free time, but don’t do away completely with structuring their time, including a consistent bedtime.
Things to consider
Kids can suffer from some of the same stress-related heath risks that affect adults. When we think of adults under stress, we think of high blood pressure, anxiety, ulcers, and chronic fatigue — even weight gain. In children, blood pressure can increase and your child might complain of a headache. Anxiety can take hold and your child may complain of a stomachache. Your child may be tired all the time.
Children who are stressed are also more prone to accidents, like falling.
There is evidence that even genetic conditions like asthma and allergies are made worse during times of stress.
Overstressed and overscheduled children are more at risk for depression and anxiety. They also can show an overall lack of imagination or creativity and have fewer problem-solving skills.
Stress disorder, which triggers severe anxiety, can happen at any age.
While some stress is actually good for children, major stress (also called toxic stress, like that suffered due to a divorce or death in the family) or stress over a long period of time (like that from being overscheduled) can negatively impact a child’s health.
When to see a doctor
There are a number of ways that stress can impact your child’s health. The symptoms can be hard to recognize. Stress can cause an increase in infections and illnesses because it impacts your immune system. If your child is frequently getting sick, you may look for other symptoms of general stress. Relieving stress for your child could be as easy as modifying his or her schedule.
Chronic stress symptoms will be more severe. If your child is showing symptoms of anxiety, lack of sleep or sleep problems, has a rash, is unable to concentrate, or is not eating normally, you should contact a doctor.
Questions for your doctor
- My child wants to do everything but it’s obviously taking its toll. How do I make her choose?
- If I don’t schedule my child’s time, he’ll sit and do nothing. How can I steer him toward creative play in his free time?
- My child wants to quit the team halfway through the season. If I let her, am I teaching her to be a quitter?
- My child is shy and doesn’t want to participate in any extracurricular activities. How do I encourage him to get involved?
- How old should my child be before beginning scheduled activities?
- What is a realistic number of activities for my child to select each season?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.