Scheduling your child in extracurricular activities, such as sports, music lessons or art classes, has numerous benefits, such as helping them develop new skills, interests and time management abilities. It also looks great on college applications. But too much of it can have harmful effects.
With the rise of helicopter parenting paired with lower college acceptance rates, there’s been an alarming trend of kids who are being signed up for more activities than they can handle, says Caroline Maguire, who runs a personal coaching business for children and their families in the Boston area. Maguire is the author of the upcoming book “Why Will No One Play with Me? The Play Better Plan to Help Children of All Ages Make Friends and Thrive.”
According to Dr. Harpreet Kaur, a licensed clinical psychologist for youth at CHOC Children’s in Orange County, California, kids who are too busy to get any free time are at risk for developing anxiety and depression. In fact, a recent study found that depression and suicide among children and teens are on the rise, and some doctors believe it’s partly due to increased stress and pressure to achieve.
Not sure if your child is overscheduled? Experts share five signs that kids may be getting too stressed out, and they offer advice on how parents can bring back some balance.
1. They’re moody
When a child is overly stressed, they may become moody, Maguire says. Overloaded kids could become negative, and it may seem like nothing can please them.
“They could be crying, but they also could be overreacting and being snippy,” Maguire says. “It’s their body and brain’s literal way of telling us they have too much stress.”
2. They complain about it
This may sound obvious. (After all, your kid is telling you they’re stressed and tired.) But parents often ignore these cries for help, Maguire says.
“As parents and as adults, I think we tend to dismiss it and pass it off, almost under the guise of laziness,” she says. “We tend to say, ‘Oh, you don’t understand, you have to do this stuff,’ but really it’s like leakage. It’s little ways they’re telling us, ‘This is not fun for me anymore.’”
Children might complain of having no downtime, or say things like, “I need my TV time,” Maguire says. Instead of ignoring it, consider it a red flag that perhaps they are too stressed.
3. Their energy is low
Kids are known for their bountiful energy, but if they’re dragging, it may be a sign they’re too overscheduled. Maguire says parents should pay attention if their child’s energy levels are starting to seem below normal.
4. They’re getting sick a lot
Does it seem like your kid gets one cold after another? Maguire says that could be another warning sign that they’re doing too much. If your child is starting to get sick more frequently, this could indicate that the stress is beginning to impact their immune system.
5. Their schoolwork is suffering
When a child is overscheduled and stressed, their academic performance often begins to tank. Maguire says this typically happens for one of two reasons: In some cases, it’s simply because they’re too busy.
“They can’t keep up and brains are shutting down, and they don’t have enough energy,” she says.
Other students use academic problems as a way to show rebellion.
“Especially if parents very much care about grades, sometimes kids show their disappointment or the fact they’re unhappy in self-destructive ways,” Maguire says.
If the kid knows parents care about grades, performing poorly in school is a way they can show that the status quo isn’t working for them. Maguire notes that this form of rebellion isn’t always conscious, however.
What to do if your child is overscheduled
If you’ve noticed any of these warning signs in your child, Maguire says the best thing you can do is introduce unstructured play time.
“A lot of what parents are struggling with is they don’t really realize the benefits of play,” she says. “They’re more looking to schedule it rather than let it happen in that very natural way — like the kid takes a box and draws on it and plays with their siblings and goes in the back yard, which is what unstructured playtime is.”
Maguire, who’s 43, says when she was a child, it was common for kids to go outside and play freely all day.
“What happened was we learned a lot of negotiation, a lot of proactive self-sufficiency, and we also were able to develop our own self-regulation,” she says. “We had to figure it out. All of that is bound up in social skills.”
While play groups and other forms of structured play are better than nothing, Maguire says, they’re not necessarily the best way for children to learn and grow. Unstructured play is what helps you develop self-regulation and your ability to negotiate and get along with other people, she says. Kaur says some pediatricians are even beginning to prescribe unstructured play to emphasize how important it is, especially for very busy kids.
When Maguire encounters families where the children are having a clear reaction to too much structure and stress, she asks the parents to think about how to add in that unstructured time. This could look like picking a day of the week or weekend when they’re free and they can do whatever they want.
Teens need playtime, too
While we tend to associate “play” with younger kids, Maguire says even teens need unstructured play time, because it can reduce stress and give them some relief.
“I think with teenagers, some of the mood and things we see in our culture that are so negative is partly because they’re in a constant state of being on and being stressed and overscheduled,” Maguire says.
For teens, this free time could look different, like playing digital games.
“Whenever we do something fun and we do something of high interest and it’s unstructured and we’re creative, we’re playing,” she says. “We’re just doing it in a way that’s not as easy to identify.”
Maguire says research shows that getting a break or vacation actually leads to more productivity and creativity, so giving your child or teen free time for a break could be more beneficial than you realize.