Extension Connection

Extension Connection

Overscheduling Hurts Children and Families

Photo of Cheri Burcham

Cheri Burcham
Extension Educator, Family Life
cburcham@illinois.edu

With the beginning of school also comes the beginning of many sports practices and games, club meetings, and extra-curricular activities that not only wear parents out, but can become overwhelming for the children. Modern family life often happens at a fast pace. According to Dr. Angela Wiley of the University of Illinois, as children age, it is common for them to spend more time outside the home which means family time decreases. There is no doubt that activities can enrich children's lives and expose them to more possibilities for future success. But too many activities can create stress and exhaustion for children, spreading them too thin. There has been a notable rise over the last twenty or so years in children's physical and emotional difficulties associated with stress, depression and anxiety.

Such difficulties are related to the build-up of small everyday stressors (not just big traumas) such as those faced children as they go through their busy days. Author and family expert, William Doherty has said it clearly, "children become frantically overscheduled as we try to maximize their opportunities." Overscheduled children lack time to simply be children. Family time also decreases as more activities are added to an already full plate. Many experts believe that family time and family rituals are the glue that binds separate family members together.

In his book, The Intentional Family, William Doherty argues that parents must be deliberate in how they keep their families connected and strong. They must remember that their children's best interests are not served by a crazy schedule that threatens family togetherness and time for play and relaxation. Here are some tips to make the most of your family's time together and prevent burnout:

· Carefully consider the value of sports. While involvement in sports activities can provide important and positive experiences and needed exercise, over-involvement and intense competition can be unnecessary stressors for children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children should not focus on a single sport until they reach adolescence, and then they should be carefully monitored so that they do not become overly obsessed or stressed.

· Encourage some "nothing time." Many experts recommend that children not be involved in more than two activities at any one time. Interspersed with enriching activities, children (and their parents) need down-time: time that is unplanned and open for relaxation, thinking and talking. This time works best when there is no distraction from the television, computer or phone.

· Protect family time. Some parents set aside dinner times as non-negotiable family time. For families with older children, this often means a nutritious snack and a late dinner. For other families, a game night or a weekend afternoon are better alternatives. The point is to make sure that family time is valued for its important bonding purpose.

· Teach children problem-solving skills. Helping children learn to problem-solve about stressful events or situations is like giving them tools for the future.

· Take time to create a family plan. Reviewing the family schedule each week with daily reminders can reduce stress and chaos by orienting everyone to places and times. Some families find it useful to use a few minutes to talk about scheduling during breakfast or dinner.

More information on this and related topics can be found on the University of Illinois Extension Parenting 24/7 website.

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