The dangers of overscheduling your child

Between school and a myriad of after-school activities, your child may not have a second to breathe. Here are some warning signs that they have too much on their plate and tips to avoid overscheduling…

overscheduled child

My firstborn started swimming lessons at five months. Play group at six months. Music classes at one. Gymnastics at 18 months. Ballet at two.

My twin girls did a few months of swimming lessons, but we missed most of them due to illness. That’s the only activity they’ve ever done and they’re three.

Why the discrepancy? My honest answers: money and time. If I told you how much that semester of swimming lessons for three kids plus ballet lessons for my big girl cost us, your jaw would drop. But more importantly, it left us frazzled and exhausted. I felt like I was constantly racing around, and our precious Saturday morning family time was replaced by a mad dash to get two screaming toddlers to the pool on time. No fun was had by anyone.

So, we decided to give activities a rest for a while. I’d love to say that it was an easy decision and I didn’t feel guilty, but I’d be lying. Every time my friends sent me photos of their kids heading off to their lessons and classes with huge smiles on their faces, my heart sank. I felt like the worst mum in the world for depriving my kids of that joy.

But the fact was that my family was happier without the crazy schedule. My kids were thrilled to hang out in their pajamas on Saturday mornings, and my husband and I were much more relaxed. Now that my big girl has started school, she has plenty of fun activities during the day. The little ones are still lesson-free, but that’s OK – they’re only three and there’s plenty of time for busy schedules.

The dangers of overscheduling

Choosing to slow down can be difficult in our fast-paced world where busyness is worn as a badge of honor. But according to the American College of Pediatricians, children who have too many commitments can suffer some pretty serious consequences. These include:

  • Stress and anxiety: Research has shown that children who spend more time participating in activities report higher levels of anxiety.
  • Missing out on family bonding time: According to Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, author of The Over-Scheduled Child, unscheduled family time is one of the keys to building healthy parent-child relationships.
  • Loss of interest: Kids can grow bored and refuse to do activities they once loved if they feel too much pressure.

Signs your child may be overscheduled

How many activities are too much? The answer varies from child to child, so look for these warning signs that your child might be too busy:

  • They’re moody, grumpy or irritable
  • They look and act tired
  • They aren’t sleeping well
  • They complain of headaches, stomachaches or other ailments
  • You never see them having any downtime
  • They’ve lost interest in things they used to love
  • Their grades are slipping
  • They don’t connect with their friends anymore
  • They turn to you for guidance on everything

Tips to avoid overscheduling

Whether you’re eager to get your child’s schedule right from the get-go or you’ve realized that it needs some tweaking, here are five tips to achieve a healthy balance for your family.

  1. Make a list of priorities

Sit down with your child and make a list of all their current activities and any new ones they’d like to try. Discuss each one and why it’s important to them. Strike any activities that aren’t a priority until you feel that you’ve achieved a good balance.

  1. Eliminate activities that represent your dreams

Make sure that you’re not inadvertently pushing your unfulfilled ambitions on your child. When writing down their list of priorities above, resist the urge to “convince” them that piano lessons will look good on their college application. Listen attentively and get rid of any pursuits they’re not truly passionate about.

  1. Establish ground rules

Set some clear rules regarding the number of activities your child can engage in during the school year, the number of hours per week they can dedicate to each one, and your expectations when it comes to their grades and behavior. Make it clear that if they’re unable to stick to the rules, you’ll have to reevaluate their schedule. 

  1. Schedule downtime and family time

Kids need both some solo downtime to relax and disconnect (no screens!), and some family time to increase bonding with their parents and siblings. Don’t be afraid to write these “activities” on your calendar because they’re just as important as soccer and dance. Family activities can include going for a walk, playing a board game and gardening. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you disconnect from technology and focus on a shared pursuit (and each other).

  1. Know when to let go

Periodically reevaluate how your child is coping with their schedule by observing their behavior and asking them how they’re feeling. If they seem overwhelmed or they’re exhibiting some of the warning signs outlined above, talk to them about the possibility of dropping an activity.

Remind them that their wellbeing is more important than winning a game or being the fastest swimmer in their class. Teaching your child to reduce stress and seek balance in their life at an early age will set them up with a valuable skill set for adulthood.