Finding a balance between school, activities, and play can mean the difference between a well-adjusted child and a stressed-out one. Finding this balance is different for every child. It’s up to you, as the parent or guardian, to find the mixture of scheduled time and play time that works best for your child.
Determine if your child is overbooked
Experts don’t agree on the ratio of time that makes the ideal balance. However, they do agree on what an over-stressed, overscheduled child looks like. If you see these symptoms in your child, take a look at his or her schedule.
- Your child is tired a lot.
- Your child is grumpy or cries easily. He or she doesn’t seem to have much control over emotions.
- Your child has recurring physical problems, such as headaches or stomachaches.
- Your child has trouble sleeping.
- Your child is being antisocial and doesn’t want to participate in fun activities. He or she seems to have lost touch with all close friends.
- Your child is having trouble finishing homework. Grades are starting to suffer.
- Your child is slacking on chores or needs reminders to do them.
- Your child doesn’t have free time most days.
- Your child is prone to accidents, like falling.
- Your child frequently says he or she would like to stay home and do nothing.
- Your child suffers more than usual from asthma and allergies. There is evidence these are made worse during times of stress.
These symptoms may seem easy to spot but can be overlooked by parents. Plus a schedule that worked at first may now be causing added stress for your child. This change in behavior may be hard to spot.
Also consider how you feel. Are you tired all the time? Are you agitated and lose your temper? Do you see your kids in the car more than anywhere else? These are good indicators it’s time to reevaluate your family’s schedule.
If you find your child is overscheduled, decide together which activities to cut. Don’t make your child decide alone and don’t decide for them. Maybe your child postpones some activities now and picks them up when other activities end.
Path to improved health
Kids should have at least some days each week where they have nothing to do. Also, they need free time every day. Free time is time where they can choose to what to do.
Put a priority on this free time and make it productive. Suggest they spend time with friends or go outside if the weather is good. This is where truly creative play happens—and usually exercise, too. Being outside has been shown to make people calmer and it reduces stress. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) encourages that all children and adolescents accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic physical activity every day. Encourage these activities instead of watching TV or playing video games. 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 make time to play with your kids. Experts agree that unscheduled family time is an important part of a healthy balance for kids—and families. This is one of the best ways for parents and children to get to know each other. It also helps children feel their parents love the “real” them—not just the “over-achieving” them.
Try to eat together. Sharing a meal as a family has many benefits, especially for children. Not only is it a great way to teach manners and appreciation, but it also teaches conversation. Encourage your child to talk about his or her day. Some studies show that children who eat with their families even earn higher grades at school.
Things to consider
While some stress is good for children, some types of stress can negatively impact a child’s health. Major stress—called toxic stress—can happen after a traumatic event, such as a divorce or death in the family. Long-term stress—like that from being overscheduled—can negatively impact a child’s health. Children under these stresses may suffer from high blood pressure, headaches, stomachaches, and extreme tiredness.
Also consider your child’s sleep pattern. If your child is so busy that he or she must stay up late to complete homework, you don’t have a good balance. School-aged children need 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night. Teens should average 8 to 9 hours each night. Set a consistent bedtime for your kids.
Overstressed and overscheduled children are more at risk for depression and anxiety. Stress disorder, which can trigger severe anxiety, can happen at any age. Stressed children also can show an overall lack of creativity and have fewer problem-solving skills.
Lastly, think about the example you’re setting. If you limit your child’s screen time—but you spend many hours with your device or watching television—that may send the wrong message to your child.
When to see a doctor
Stress can cause an increase in infections and illnesses because it impacts your child’s immune system. If your child is frequently getting sick, look for 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, sleep problems, the inability to concentrate, or is not eating normally, you should contact your doctor.
Questions for your doctor
- My child wants to do everything but there’s not enough time to do it all. How do I help him or her limit activities?
- If I don’t schedule my child’s time, he or she will choose to play video games all the time. How can I steer him or her toward creative play during free time?
- My child wants to quit the team halfway through the season. If I let him or her, am I teaching my child to be a quitter?
- My child is shy and doesn’t want to participate in extracurricular activities. How do I encourage involvement?
- How old should my child be before beginning scheduled activities?
- What is a realistic number of activities for my child to select?
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.