Family

7 Signs Your Child Is Over-Scheduled

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Parent comforts stressed out teen girl

As I write this article, we encroach yet again into the busy time of fall when many programs, schools, and sports release their schedules and sign-ups.

The return of structured activities offered by the community is often welcome after a summer of intermittent camps, vacations and otherwise unplanned gaps of time where the kids have had a chance to welcome their wilder sides. A return to rhythm and some predictability, please! 

Parents vie for spots in desired organizations and often find themselves competing for ALL the possibilities just in case something falls through. 

With these endless possibilities, how can families embrace these rhythms and commitments without turning family life into a non-stop train schedule of plans and pick-ups, endless commuting logistics, and activity juggling gymnastics?

How do you know your child might be overscheduled and stressed out? What can be done about it?

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Here are six signs your child is over-scheduled and likely to experience stress: 

1. There’s no free afternoon in their week.

And I don’t mean just the weekend, though those two precious days often get booked up as well. If your child has a class, practice or other activity planned every weekday, you may have over-booked your child. This is often highlighted in plain sight when a commitment needs to be moved to another day and there is no opening in sight.

For your child’s well-being, they need at least one free afternoon during the week, ideally many more than that, for catching up with homework, family time, play dates, and also for unstructured alone time.

This is how your child unwinds and the imagination develops, even allowing them to be a bit “bored.” It is through free time that a child learns to lean on their inner resources, allowing them to develop strengths and guidance from the inside out, not just from outside authorities. 

2. Dinners that are disparate, on the go, and eaten separately. 

How would you describe your dinner time with the family? Does everyone eat together or in a hurry to “shove it down” in order to make the next commitment?

If there’s lots of driving involved to get from place to place, food may come largely from the service industry and even be eaten in the car. The act of gathering, seeing each other’s faces around a table, and having time to ask “how was your day?” can be a vital ritual in a youth’s daily life, providing a sense of stability, safety, and connection. 

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3. They regularly do homework in your car.

There’s just no other time to get it done. This period in the car, going from school to practice, or another commitment to home, has become an acceptable window of time for kids to get their work done.

If you are noticing this becoming a frequent habit, it may be time to re-examine the time and commitments crowding your child’s schedule. 

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4. Your child never has a moment to “do nothing".

It is said that “nature abhors a vacuum” and an unscheduled afternoon can be a tempting slot of time to finally book that dance class or swimming lesson.

Before the dive into the next commitment, take a look at how much downtime your child actually has. You might have to block out this special time to preserve it and not book it. Speak with your child about the importance of downtime to unwind, reflect, and self-guide toward their own spontaneous interests. 

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5. Your child appears overly tired, overwhelmed, sad, or stressed.

Children naturally have many interests and it may be they themselves that have said yes to all the activities. Learning that they can parcel out interests and commitments over time can be valuable for their social-emotional health.

If you notice that your child is exhibiting adult-level stress responses and appears to be overly tired, overwhelmed, drained or sad, speak with them about their commitments and empower them to make amendments to their schedule. What can wait until a later time? What is gained by letting some things go? 

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6. Your child no longer has time to play or "hang out."

Play is essential for children to work out what they are learning in their life experiences. It builds their interests and gives them a connection to their deepest selves and imagination. This sense of self and the ability to solve life’s problems is cultivated through improvisational play.

If a child’s time is completely taken up by structured learning and activities, they miss out on this valuable play time that is often overlooked or taken for granted in our overscheduled society. This “waste of time” gets filled with further learning and instruction from the outside, robbing children of carefree exploration vital to childhood experience.

Founder of the National Institute for Play, Stuart Brown, MD, says: “The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.”

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7. You are feeling pressed for time just trying to keep up with their schedule.

Do you feel like you are struggling to keep up with your child’s commitments? Are important recitals or dates slipping your mind? Do you feel like you are running a taxi cab service for children, constantly in the car for a pick-up or dismissal?

It may be time to reevaluate your child/life balance! What is genuinely worth the drive, the time, and the money? What is a “should” that can possibly wait for another season? Recognize that each one of these blocks in the Tetris game has the added obligation of getting there and back. Be kind to yourself and explain to your child why cutting back may be necessary for the family’s happiness. 

As a Director of After School Programs, the classes and lessons I organize are often the culprit of commitments and also the saving grace “one-stop-shop” for parents with busy schedules. I recently had a parent turn down an attractive piano lesson spot (openings are often rare with a long waitlist).

When the mom declined the lesson I told her about this article idea and asked if she would offer her thoughts on making the decision to turn the lesson down. She described her daughter, entering the second grade, as having a boundless enthusiasm for so many things: “It’s tough because, at this age, she is still excited about so many things and figuring out what she wants to do more of, so she is trying a lot and keeping with other activities that she knows she loves.

My partner and I, as children of Iranian immigrants who had a pretty rigid view of what kids “should” be doing, promised each other before we had kids that we wouldn’t force them to do anything, but would encourage them to do what they love. But now we have a child who loves MANY things, and we want to encourage that but also just let her have free time to use her amazing imagination to just play freely.”

It was wonderful to witness this parent reconsidering her daughter’s schedule. With a smile, I turned to the next child on the music lesson waitlist. What decisions awaited in this next child’s world? 

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In addition to being a writer, storyteller and card reading consultant, Cyndera Quackenbush, MA has worked in K-8 extended day programs for 12 years. Learn more at her website.

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