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Young and Stressed-Out

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Young and Stressed-Out Our overscheduled kids may be doing it all -- from soccer and little league to music and language lessons -- but that's not the same as having it all, some experts say. Today's overachieving youngsters may, in fact, be missing out on being children.

When it comes to childhood activities, more may well be less, say some child psychologists -- less time for a child to develop friendships, less time for the kind of self-reflection and daydreaming that helps a child understand who he or she is, less time for just plain playing.

"Parents need always to keep in mind that playing time is just as important, if not more important, than exposure to lots of different experiences," says Anita Gurian, PhD, a child psychologist at New York University's Child Study Center. "Kids are learning about the world in play time or even when they are just hanging out, especially when they are younger. Those are not frivolous things."

Boredom, or what psychologists call "unstructured time," can play an important role in child development.

"Kids need to have time to sit around and day dream," says Ken Haller, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the St. Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri. "They need to be bored sometimes. It is those unstructured times that foster a child's imagination. And it is [during those times], they are not being lead in structured settings of piano lessons or swimming lessons or what have you, that children form friendships and start to see how they are different from other children."

Time to Be Children

Of course, this does not mean kids should be left to their own devices for large blocks of time, says Haller. But kids need to have time when they aren't being told what to do. He includes watching television as another activity that may contribute to overscheduling.

"The American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP] has guidelines that say kids shouldn't be spending more than an hour or two playing video games or watching television per day," he says. "Also, a kid should not have a television or a computer with Internet access in the bedroom." He recommends that parents visit the AAP's website to learn more.

Gurian says that the current trend to have children scheduled to attend near-constant structured activities -- soccer practice, music lessons, play dates, gymnastics, volunteer activities -- can be fine for children who enjoy a high level of stimulation. But for children who are less outgoing or have less interest in social stimulation, a heavily scheduled lifestyle can create significant stress.

"Many kids won't come to a parent and say, 'I'm feeling overwhelmed by all this activity,'" he says. "Stress in children tends to manifest itself physically. A kid with asthma who is under stress may start having more attacks or more severe attacks. The same is true of allergies and stomach disorders."

Other warning signs of stress include sudden changes in sleeping habits, increased irritability, and fatigue.

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