When children express interest in joining a sport or activity, parents will try to accommodate their children’s wishes out of love and wanting their child to “grow” as an individual. But is there also pressure from parents to get their child in those activities? Dr. Vivian Friedman, a UAB child and family psychologist, believe most parents feel this responsibility: “Parents compete with other parents; they don’t want their child to ‘fall behind’ in skills. They worry their child won’t make the baseball team or cheerleading squad.”
A 1998 University of Michigan study found a dramatic spike in the amount of time children are spending in organized activities. The study showed children’s free time, the time not spent in school or participating in activities, decreased from 40% in 1981 to 25% in 1998. Also, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 78.3% of children had at least one parent working year-round in 2005. Friedman agrees there is a correlation between the number of working parents and children’s increased time spent in activities: “I think that parents who work, whether single or two working parents, have less energy to occupy their children in a creative manner. However, one of the hurdles for parents is to get children in these activities. They want to give their children a competitive advantage.”
While we teach children to strive for excellence and do their best, is there a danger of over-pressuring these young minds to succeed? There certainly is a case for more stress in our children’s daily lives. This is likely due to increased expectations at schools and at play like Little League, performing groups, etc. It is difficult to generalize a stressful schedule because every child is unique in handling stress. Children have different personalities and temperaments, so what is stressful for one child may have little effect on another child.
When scheduling activities, parents need to consider their children’s ages. In general, the younger the child, the less expectation there should be in the activity. Friedman notes that stress in children is most likely a response to change: “Change is constant in life, but children are more vulnerable than adults because they have less control of their worlds and too much stress can affect even the youngest child physically, emotionally and behaviorally in a negative way.”
What are the warning signs a child has become too overloaded with activities? It’s not always easy to recognize stress in children, but there are some noticeable symptoms. Physical stress, a decreased appetite, sleep disturbances or nightmares can be signs. Any physical symptoms without physical illness can be a sign of stress. Children may either directly complain, exhibit irritability due to exhaustion or tell their parents they wish to have time to play.
If children want to join multiple activities, parents can be encouraging but also set boundaries. When mediating activities for your children, it is important to include non-activities like playtime into the scheduling. Consider free time to be an activity too. Schedule it along with other structured things. If your child wants to experiment with different activities, this is a good thing as she needs to learn what she likes and what she is good at. Just set the rule that once you start something, you finish it, meaning that each season or cycle of the activity must be completed, even if she decides she does not like it or is not good at it.
Much of the success of extracurricular activities depends upon a healthy balance for the child and parent. In fact, children’s participation in activities can improve a child’s performance. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, moderate amounts of stress can motivate a child to keep his grades up or participate fully in activities. Successfully managing these situations can enhance a child’s ability to cope with stress in the future.