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Activity Overload: Are Kids Doing Too Much?

School counselors across the country are reporting that more and more students involved in extra-curricular activities are on “overload” and becoming stressed out.  ScottCounseling ancorages parents and coaches to help the student athlete to develop a “balanced life;” one that avoids athletic pressures and activity overload. This article shares some thoughts and ideas by author, Jean Sather, to promote a healthy lifestyle for middle and high school students.

Athletic and Activity Overload

  • Hockey practice- 5:30 a.m.
  • Cramming for a final exam- 7:00 a.m.
  • Presenting a science power point assignment- 8:45 a.m.
  • Joining the advance geometry study group- 10:25 a.m.
  • Lunch with 800 other students- 11:45 a.m.
  • Auditioning for the select choir- 12:30 p.m.
  • Reporting cell phone stolen- 1:25 p.m.
  • Missing English class- 2:15 p.m.
  • Hockey endurance training- 2:45 p.m.
  • Meet with boyfriend- 5:00 p.m.
  • Miss super- 6:00 p.m.
  • Piano lesson- 7:00 p.m.
  • Homework 8:30 p.m.
  • Instant messaging time with friends- 10:45 p.m.
  • Bedtime- 12:30 a.m.
  • Hockey practice- 5:30 a.m. and, here we go again!

  • Jeanne Sather, author of this article, challenges many of us parents to take a good look at the lives of our children. We all know a kid like this: the one who gets off the school bus and goes straight to soccer practice, eats a take-out dinner in the car on the way to Scouts or chess, and gets back home just in time to fall into bed at 10PM.

Good Parenting vs. Busy Parenting

  • Maybe you see your own child in one of these descriptions. Sometimes kids like this make me think I’m failing as a parent by not providing them with enough “advantages” or extras. Other times I think that these kids are missing out on childhood.
  • Where’s the downtime? The time just to hang with friends, or read for pleasure, or whittle sticks? The time to play with the dog or draw on the sidewalk with chalk?
  • Some busy, active kids seem to thrive on a schedule that requires a Rolodex and spreadsheet to keep straight. Others are overwhelmed, heading for burnout at the age of eight or ten.

Seattle family therapist Flora Coughlin, MSW, says that some children are overloaded because of family pressures, and others due to their own desire to participate in these activities. Some kids experience such an intertwined combination of these two reasons for overload that it may be hard to distinguish one from the other.

Other factors, Coughlin says, include:

  • the changing structure of the family and neighborhoods. “Children are going to school outside of their neighborhoods, so we’re making communities for them with sports and music and other activities,” she says. “Another reason is that in households with two parents working, [the parents are] finding things to keep the kids as busy as they are.”
  • Individual kids have different thresholds of activity and may also handle stress in different ways. Some kids might be so involved in their activities that they don’t realize they’re trying to do too much. As a parent, it is up to you to help determine when your kids are in over their heads. You should then set a reasonable schedule for your kids, one that everyone can live with most of the time.

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Keep in mind the advice of Dr. Lois Nightingale, a psychotherapist in Yorba Linda, California, claims that when children truly have a passion for something and want to excel at it, they rarely feel too much stress or pressure. “It is more often when the parents are ‘giving the child the opportunity they never had’ that troubles start,”she says.

One thing’s for certain: If the activities your children are doing are stressing YOU out, your children are definitely doing too much.

Burned-out mom or dad

  • The first rule of thumb for setting a schedule for a child is whether or not you, the parent, can handle that schedule.

A stressed-out, overtired parent…

  • is seldom a good parent. When we are exhausted from driving in rush hour traffic and hungry because there was no time for dinner, we are cranky, irritable, and maybe even rude to our kids. A stressed-out parent passes that stress on to his or her kids.

Before you agree to a schedule of after-school activities for your child, consider…

  • The time commitment for each activity, such as games and practices. Then consider all the extras you will be expected to do to support your child in this activity.
  • Will you need to help organize the activity? Make phone calls to other parents? Run car washes or auctions to raise money? Bake cookies?

It takes time…

  • It has taken me a long time to learn this lesson. I am always wildly optimistic about how much I can do at first. Then, when reality sets in (usually on a cold and rainy winter afternoon when the car is out of gas and I’m late to pick up a child), I kick myself. Hard.
  • If you find yourself in this situation, my advice is to bow out gracefully. Don’t stay with a program if it isn’t working for you or your child. Say, “We are sorry, but we have to drop this activity. We love it, and you are a great coach [or teacher, or adviser], but we are too overwhelmed.”


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Most of the parents I know work full time. Many have two or three children. I see them, standing by their cars like race car drivers waiting for a signal, cell phones in hand, trying to make this all work.

Most of the parents I know are also in two-parent households, which means there are two people with driver’s licenses and cell phones to help manage their kids’ busy lives. I’m a single parent, which means there is only one of me for the two of them. So it’s even more important that I don’t overwhelm myself.

We have conflicts all the time. Even when the “regular” schedules don’t conflict, the special events–concerts for example–throw a wrench into the works. The end of the school year, with sports banquets, parties for various clubs and activities, and concerts, is a nightmare. Some evenings this past spring we were triple-booked.

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  • Is it stress, or a learning problem? How to decide when to get your child’s IQ tested.
  • The point is that you and your children should be enjoying these activities. They are supposed to enrich your lives.
  • Examples: Sometimes I watch Robin practice soccer on a perfect fall day and I think, “It doesn’t get much better than this.” Or Akira comes home late from a chess tournament, and sets up the chessboard on my bed and replays his games for me. That’s when I realize why I want my children to have these experiences.


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Set a reasonable schedule

  • Over the years I have tried to set reasonable schedules for my boys, for their sakes as well as my own. My basic rule is no more than two activities per boy per season.

That means Robin plays soccer in the fall, plus his saxophone; in the winter chess replaces soccer, and in the spring he has swimming or track, but not both. Akira has typically played chess and a sport or two, most recently lacrosse.

  • Sometimes we need to bend the rule, as we did when the boys were going to Japanese language classes on Saturday mornings, which upped the total to three activities each.
  • For your own situation, look at how many kids you have, how many parents are involved, how many hours a week each activity consumes, and do the math. This will help you come up with a reasonable schedule.
  • Children with no siblings and with a parent who doesn’t work outside the home can probably handle the heaviest schedule of activities, because they have so much parental support. A child who is one of six children of parents who work full time may only get to do one outside activity.

Back to the kids

  • If your kids are stressed out, you owe it to them to solve this problem. Studies show that stress is affecting American children at younger and younger ages.
  • Some stress, like the anxiety kids experience before a test, is an inevitable part of learning and growing. Other types of stress–from a parent’s illness or a divorce in the family–are also unavoidable, although children may need extra help to cope.
  • “If a child is filled with ‘Hurry we’re gonna be late’ and ‘why haven’t you finished … you know we have to get to … ‘ a child learns feelings of inadequacy and never being ‘enough,” says Nightingale.
  • Experts claim that ongoing negative stress can cause a range of problems in children, from behavioral problems like bed wetting to serious illness, even failure-to-thrive syndrome in infants. Stressed children cannot learn.


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