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Headline: Is your child too busy?Feature
Is your child
too busy?

Hectic schedules can leave
kids feeling stressed
Wave Staff Sept / Oct 2017
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Summer's over, September is here, and the busy season is about to begin.

For many families with school aged children, that means getting the kids back into a routine and scheduling their extra-curricular activities: swimming on Monday evenings, dance on Wednesday, music lessons on Friday afternoon with soccer practice twice a week in between. And that doesn't take into account time for homework and other family activities.

Inevitably the question arises: How much is too much? Is it possible to over-schedule our kids?

The answer is "that depends, each child and family has a unique need for balance in structured and unstructured activities", according to Darlene Girard, Team Manager for Healthy Parenting and Early Childhood Development with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

"Parents want what is best for their kids so the over-scheduling comes from a good place," says Girard. "They want to give their children plenty of opportunities to learn new skills, develop competence, autonomy and connectedness or a sense of belonging."

But all this rushing around has the potential to leave you and your kids feeling stressed and overwhelmed, says Girard.

That's why it's helpful to ensure your child's busy schedule also includes some unstructured or down time. Unorganized play and free time gives children the space to learn at their own pace, to be creative, and to learn self directed functions like problem solving skills Up until about the age of seven or eight, play is the primary way your child learns, says Girard. That's why unscheduled time is so important.

"Over-scheduling can create a cranky, anxious, child with a hair trigger temper."

"With younger kids in primary school, parents are responsible for scheduling and sometimes over-scheduling of activities," says Girard. "You want to give your kids access to develop their talents and promote their physical, social, spiritual and emotional well-being. It can be hard to have balance, but both kids and parents need unscheduled time when they can recharge in a way that best suits them."

"What children need most is relationship with caring adults - not activities". Unscheduled time may create the opportunity to develop family traditions that can comfort and build your family. A shared meal, reading a book together, going for a walk or a bike ride, or simply talking (and listening) to each other develop character and can be important touchstones in our busy lives.

"It's about being family-centred, finding balance in life and meeting kids' needs for development during critical periods," says Girard.

To help find the right pace for you and your family, Girard suggests you start by slowing down a smidge, if only to perform an honest assessment of the current situation.

"Parents need to think about what they're scheduling," she says of the extra-curricular activities that can consume a typical family's week. "Ask yourself "how is your child coping? As a family are you able to manage all of the activity physically, mentally and financially. If you can, great. If you can't be a healthy, happy parent while supporting your child's growth and well-being, then it's time to step back and reconsider." Start by eliminating one activity per week or having a "no activity day" every second week.

Balance is key!

Warning signs your child is over-scheduled

Warning signs your child may be over-scheduled or in need of some extra down-time

  • Changes in behavior, appetite or mood
  • Tired, anxious or depressed
  • Irritability, unhappiness and they're just not themselves
  • Less able to regulate their emotions (i.e. going from zero to 60 in seconds)
  • Having trouble paying attention, transitioning or retaining information
  • Falling behind in school or their grades are dropping
  • Having frequent headaches, stomach aches or other physical symptoms
  • Engaged in increased conflict with their siblings, parents or their friends

If you have concerns about your child and are worried that he or she is stressed or having difficulty coping, it may be time to speak with someone about your concerns. Connect with your child's teacher at school and/or their primary health care provider. The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's centralized intake for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Program may be able to offer some supportive insight. You can reach them at: 204-958-9660.

Tips for activity planning

Here are factors to consider when deciding how much scheduled activity is right for your family:

  • What's right for your child's personality? An acting class could either be a great way to encourage your child to communicate more confidently . . . or it could be upsetting. Only you and your child know what the right answer is to that question.
  • What does your child want? You may have enjoyed hockey but your child may prefer soccer. Ask the question and listen to the answer.
  • What can reasonably be done? You may want to involve your kids in sports, music and community but you could be overwhelming them. And yourself.
  • Is it working? Some kids - and parents - thrive on a high level of activity and a hectic pace. Others find it stressful and overwhelming. It needs to work for both the parent and the child - and ultimately the family.
  • Do we have the time, money and interest? Time isn't the only resource to consider.
  • Does this fit with our family values?