The Reason Some Kids Are as Stressed as Adults

July 10th 2016

Summer is supposed to be a carefree, playful time for kids.

The season is meant to give children a respite from the academic grind. But certain kids are just as busy as — if not busier than — they are during the school year.

That's because many of these children are over-scheduled, which can have negative developmental consequences, research has suggested.

Many parents in recent years have been vocal about filling their children's time with multiple activities to enrich their lives. Parents may put their children in lots of different extracurricular activities to make them well-rounded, but that can also create a great deal of anxiety in children, Jennifer Hartstein, who specializes in psychotherapy with children and their families, told ATTN: via email:

"Excessive tiredness, irritability, refusal to participate, tearfulness, an increase in anxiety ... all of these might seem like your child is just being oppositional, when in fact she might just want to be left alone and have some free time."

Research has also revealed that exerting too much control over a child's routine can be counterproductive.

Children who took part in less-structured activities, such as playing outside and reading, demonstrated higher levels of executive function than kids in more structured activities, a 2014 study from by the University of Colorado Boulder found. Children who participated in structured activities, such as soccer practice and piano lessons, were less inclined to set and meet their own goals compared to their less-structured counterparts.

"Executive function is extremely important for children,” study author Yuko Munakata said in a release at the time. “It helps them in all kinds of ways throughout their daily lives, from flexibly switching between different activities rather than getting stuck on one thing, to stopping themselves from yelling when angry, to delaying gratification."

The parental thought process behind keeping kids occupied and structured.

Many well-meaning parents are merely to prepare their children for adulthood, but don't realize the potential damage that this can cause, Hartstein said:

"Unfortunately, we live in a society where we believe that in order to be the best, we need to be the most well-rounded, most involved, most experienced. Parents believe that if their child is involved in many things, this will prepare them for anything in the future and may give their child a leg up because they are so involved. Many parents do not see that it can burn their child out and create a negative impression of activities, rather than a positive one."

Parents who over-schedule their kids ought to take a step back and really think about the reason behind their decisions, Hartstein added:

"It’s also important to ask yourself why you are engaging in so many activities. Is it because you think you need to 'keep up with the Joneses?' If that’s the motivation, it’s important for the parent to step back and reassess."

Over-scheduling can cause children to feel like failures if they're not able to do everything expected of them, Hartstein said.

"This can carry over into other areas of a child’s life, like school, for example," Hartstein said. "Generally, being too tightly scheduled prevents children from really learning how to take care of themselves and to problem-solve how to manage boredom or to be creative and learn how to just be. While over-scheduling seems like it could be a good thing, for many children, it just adds another layer of pressure that is hard to manage and can burn some children out."

But some have argued that over-scheduling is better than the alternative.

Wall Street Journal writer Laura Vanderkam criticized the idea that over-scheduling children is always a bad thing, arguing in 2009 that this view "sets the cultural narrative" and reduces "support for additional study time and the after-school activities that less-privileged children need."

Vanderkam cited research from education professor Joseph Mahoney, who published a study in 2006 that found that participating in more organized activities was associated with higher academic and social success among children. In his research, Mahoney estimated that around 40 percent of children don't do any activities.

"Unfortunately, these young people tend not to fill their free time with the high-quality unstructured play that pundits praise," Vanderkam wrote of his findings. "Many are at home, by themselves, watching TV — the 'dominant leisure activity,' Mr. Mahoney calls it — and eating junk food, which is probably why he finds that participation in organized extracurricular activities correlates with better academic performance and even lower body weight."

Parents can avoid overburdening their busy kids by regularly checking in about how they're doing, Hartstein told ATTN:.

"It’s very important to know, and check in, with your child," Hartstein said. "Is he excited about the things he is doing? Is he complaining that there is too much going on? Is he tired? All of these are signs that there is too much. Some children are great at being on the go a lot. Others really need some downtime."

It helps to encourage one's child to find out what he or she really enjoys, Hartstein added:

"Encourage your child to find one or two things that he or she likes, and maximize on that. Allow for there to be opportunities to do nothing. Nothing doesn’t mean nothing; it means a chance to create, to relax, to refuel. Learning to utilize downtime is as valuable a skill as anything else. We need to allow children to understand the benefit and give them opportunities to do so."

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