Maxed Out Kids

Aidreen Hart is busy. As a mom of two tweens who are committed to multiple activities, her family wakes at 5:00 every morning and many nights isn’t in bed until 11:00. After a full day of school, her older daughter Zahria has student council and leadership meetings – and that’s before she’s started any of her homework or practiced her cheerleading routine. Her younger daughter Kennedy is also in cheerleading and attends church functions with her older sister.

“It becomes too much, and they get worn out,” says Hart.

The Harts aren’t the only family that keep a turbo-charged schedule. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 6 out of 10 children between 6 and 17 years old participate in at least one after school activity. “Extracurricular activities have been shown to benefit children in a variety of ways,” says Dr. Lois Pilipis, Clinical Director at Pilipis Behavior Group in Noblesville. “In my therapy practice, however, I routinely encounter children who are experiencing mood symptoms and behavior problems related to being overwhelmed with school and other activities.”

How children manage a busy lifestyle depends in part on their personality, but also how their parents handle the stress of family life. “At the end of the day, if the foundation of the family is not solid, the child ultimately suffers,” says Dr. Pilipis. “Recent survey research from the American Psychological Association has shown that 7 in 10 parents say that their stress has little to no impact on their children; however, 91% of children report knowing when their parents are stressed and being directly impacted, in the form of not having enough quality time with their parents, being exposed to arguing and yelling, feeling sad and worried, and experiencing physical symptoms.”

Red flags

In a recent post on the Hamilton County Family Facebook page, readers were asked, “If your children are involved in multiple activities, how do you know when enough is enough?” Holly L. commented that “whining is one of the most noticeable things my kid does when she’s done. We just finished a year long stint of Tae Kwan Do. Some days she would cry about having to go twice a week because she didn’t have time to play at home (being in school all day).” Another reader, Stephanie L., agreed, “When they start complaining about going to things that are supposed to be enjoyable, then it’s time to cut back.”

Dr. Pilipis describes these other signs that your child may be feeling the effects of being over-scheduled:

* Psychological symptoms: anxiety, depressed mood, irritability

* Behavioral changes: trouble sleeping, withdrawal from friends and family, a feeling of disconnect from school and related activities, missing or late schoolwork, a decrease in quality of schoolwork, conflict with family members

* Physical signs: stress, headaches, stomach aches and other complaints of pain

Parents may also notice that their children have become too serious about their schedules and have difficulty relaxing. Children themselves often report feeling overwhelmed.

Achieving balance

For some families, even just one extracurricular activity can be enough. Stephanie Abel’s daughter Sadie plays volleyball at her middle school. Though she plays just one sport, Sadie has games and practices five days a week. On Friday evenings, just as many families are beginning to wind down, Sadie has private lessons. For many children pursuing competitive sports or musical activities, tacking on private lessons is the norm – adding to an already busy agenda of practices, tournaments or performances. That’s why Abel’s family works together to make sure they have an oasis of rest amidst their busy schedules. “Tuesdays and Thursdays are home days,” says Abel. “We try to put away our phones and focus on each other. Sunday is downtime and together time. We teach Sunday school at our church, and that is time to do something together.”

Indeed, scheduling time to relax is exactly what is recommended by the experts. “Parents can help their children achieve a healthy balance by first creating a healthy balance in their own schedules of work, play and down time,” Dr. Pilipis advises. “Another way parents can help their children is by setting some parameters on how children’s (and the family’s) time is structured. This may sound like it would add to the problem of overscheduling, but it actually does the opposite by ensuring there is time saved for family, homework, socializing and relaxation.

A thoughtfully organized extracurricular schedule can also mean a no-nonsense approach to other commitments. “When Zahria first started cheering, her grades were awesome,” says Hart. “They have to be more focused because they have to learn to manage themselves.” Abel’s daughter Sadie has developed the same good homework habits. “She uses her time in school efficiently so she doesn’t have to bring homework home,” says Abel. For both families, the girls love their chosen extracurricular activities. Carving out the time to complete their other obligations has been worth it.

Keeping the family organized and on track using technology is another way to take the stress out of getting everyone where they need to be. “In Google Docs, we all share a calendar,” says Hart. Weekends have become a time of relaxation in their household as well. “I think it’s important [the girls] have the time to just do nothing.”

Whether children are committed to multiple extracurricular activities or none, Dr. Pilipis recommends one practice for the whole family to follow. “Children should have at least one hour of downtime per night where they do not use electronics just before bed. This ‘winding down’ hour is essential for promoting healthy sleep habits. I routinely recommend that families implement ‘unplugged’ nights, in which all members of the family spend quality time together at home with no electronics or other distractions. Interestingly, children are often the biggest supporters of this idea.”

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