Dance class on Mondays and Fridays, chess on Wednesdays, and horseback riding on the weekends. And between birthday parties and other commitments, I can schedule that play date six weeks from Thursday. Does this sound familiar?
Let’s not forget the daily hustle that happens when kids get home from those after-school activities—homework, dinner, showers if you’re lucky, and eventually bed. I’m describing my eight-year-old daughter’s typical routine. And I’m supposed to know better!
Well, I do and I don’t. We’re still trying to figure out what a healthy balance between free time and structured activities looks like. The “healthy balance” concept is elusive and evolves as my children continue to grow and develop.
Today’s kids, especially in an area like Silicon Valley, can be overscheduled, underslept, and overstressed. Yes, kids get stressed out just like adults when they’ve got too much on their plates.
Not surprisingly, my daughter showed obvious warning signs, which I minimized for a while. She would cry when she was hungry and couldn’t find time to eat; she became irritable when bedtime was pushed out because she was trying to get everything done; and she rebelled and simply refused when she was feeling too overscheduled.
At this point you might say, “Then why were you overdoing it if you knew she wasn’t managing?” Good question, and one that many parents grapple with.
There were multiple factors at play. See if you can relate to the following scenarios, which led to me scheduling five or more activities in a week in addition to school:
A few months into the school year, I began noticing her stress. Thankfully, we were able to reevaluate before it started to negatively impact her school work and health. We determined that for her, three activities per week, including the weekend, was her sweet spot. Everyone was happier and definitely less stressed in the second half of the year.
When I was a child, I remember playing in the street with the neighborhood kids after school, which served as both our “play dates” and after-school activities. Yes, school work was a priority, and I was encouraged to do my best, but I was afforded the opportunity to be bored and therefore creative. I want to provide my daughter the same opportunity. She loves those moments when she can just walk around the backyard talking to herself and making up imaginary worlds. This time is therapeutic and renewing, allowing her to reset for the rest of the evening and her weekly responsibilities.
So how do you know if your children have too much on their plates? Here are some things to think about when planning your week and the school year.
How does your schedule look and feel to you? Chances are if you run your life on overdrive, you may be doing the same for your child. It may be hard to judge how many commitments are too many, especially if that’s how you were raised. Your routine and lifestyle choices may work for you, but not for your child.
Consider your child’s unique temperament and coping skills. Every child is different in temperament and capacity to handle stress. Some children need recovery time to recharge, while others thrive on multiple daily activities. If you have more than one child, it may be tempting to just get them all scheduled at the same time to ease logistical challenges. But that may be putting too much stress on more sensitive children.
Keep the lines of communication open. If your child is experiencing too much stress it can turn into anxiety or depression. Children have a hard time labeling and verbalizing their experiences and feelings. So they may not be able to come and tell you they feel overwhelmed. Be proactive and start the conversation.
Stay informed. Know what’s going on in your children’s lives and check in often. School is not the only stressor. Competitive sports, music lessons, and extracurricular clubs all contribute. Try to touch base with the adults in charge to get a sense of how your children are doing.
Prioritize. Make a list of each of your children’s commitments. Decide as a family which ones are most important and why. Try balancing physical activities with others. When possible, work in a day off or two during the week, and block out free time on the weekend to spend as a family.
There’s a lot of pressure on parents and children to succeed today. I’ve certainly felt it. It’s hard to know when to push and when to pull back. Your child may give you clues, like mine did, so you can tune in and brainstorm ways to strike a balance. When in doubt, ask.
The recipe will not be the same for all families—or even all of your children. Like any aspect of parenting it can be an ongoing process of trial and error. We love our kids and want to them to be healthy and happy. Sometimes it just takes a little reevaluating. Talking with other parents or a professional can help you to figure out how to find the right balance for your family.
If you want help for you or your family, Lyra can connect you to a therapist. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up now.
The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Levoy, PsyD is a licensed child and family psychologist from the San Francisco Bay Area. She maintained a private practice for 13 years in both California and Washington State, consults in schools as a learning specialist, and is a speaker on many parenting and developmental topics. Sarah has a passion for helping families navigate the challenges and responsibilities of daily family life, educational issues, and life transitions. She enjoys time with her family, cooking, and being involved in her community and charitable work.