If your child shows signs of wear and tear from a busy schedule, help them dial back. Being stressed because they do too much can lead to unhealthy habits like eating junk food, playing video games, and not getting enough sleep. You can help them cut back on activities and show them how to deal with stress in healthy ways.
"Children need to be given time for their work, and play is their work," says Laura Markham, PhD, a child psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.
So give your child the free time to build that block tower, play pretend, and run around. They are not going to fall behind other children because they’re not involved in as many structured activities. Downtime helps kids relax and recharge, both of which are important parts of staying healthy.
If your child seems to be taking on too much -- they're irritable, show anxious or stressed body language, want to be left alone more than normal, complain about no control -- Markham offers some ways to slow down the pace.
Choose one activity per child at a time. Maybe Julia gets soccer in the fall and ice skating in the winter, while Joshua gets lacrosse in the fall and French classes in the winter. Explain to your child that sometimes when people feel sad or mad because they're doing too much, they can eat unhealthy foods or just want to watch TV. That's why it's good to take time out to relax and just have fun. That way you won’t be stressed and make unhealthy choices.
Help kids find relaxing ways to spend free time. Summer is about downtime, but you don’t have to wait until then to let your kids relax with unstructured time. It's a great stress-buster.
"Downtime is when a child’s imagination takes hold, and when they learn to structure their time and direct themselves," says Markham. "Kids who are directed every moment of their lives never learn to direct themselves."
Or they could listen to some soothing music to help them chill. Teach them that these are all great ways to relax and feel good, so they’ll be energized to make healthy choices. Then, challenge them to see what they can come up with.
Talk to your child about what she's doing. Every child is different. Some kids can handle a lot of different things. Others like doing just one. Don't assume you know how your child feels. Observe what she's doing and have conversations.
"If your child starts to melt down from too many commitments, there’s nothing to gain by insisting she stick with them all," says Markham.
If she heads for the junk food and stress-eats when she knows that she has a game, then a party, then a music lesson later today, it may be safe to assume she's dealing with overload in an unhealthy way. Ask her which activities she likes most, and suggest that she stick with just one.
Explain to her, too, that sometimes people eat when they're bored; maybe she just isn't having fun with the activities she's doing. If that's the case, find something for the two of you to do. Have a dance-off in the living room or jump rope in the yard; they're great ways to move, have fun, and feel good.
"Remember that playing is about as stress-free for most children as it can get," says George Scarlett, PhD, of Tufts University. "That’s because in play, children can take control!"