Young and Stressed-Out

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD on August 22, 2002
4 min read

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."

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.

"Sometimes parents are overscheduled themselves," says Haller. "And these parents may [without being aware of it] have a tendency to get their kids into a lot of activities in order to cover for their own absence."

Gurian agrees. "The parents' schedule and lifestyle has the biggest effect on a child's needs," she says. "Parents need to be aware of their own needs and pay attention to the fact that they are in large measure forming or strongly influencing their children's needs."

Another motivating factor for overscheduling may come from parents' desire for the child to be well-rounded. But it may be smarter in the long run to let children focus on activities they feel strongly about rather than expose them to too many activities.

"People are thinking about their kids' resumes earlier and earlier," says Haller. "They may be driven to more and more activities in hopes of improving the child's ability to be accepted into schools. If kids truly want to participate, that's great, but if there is resistance on the child's part, then that is something to pay attention to."

In the end, what's overscheduling for one child or family, may be underscheduling for another, say these experts. That's why this problem is ideally suited to be worked out as a family.

"The family needs to sit down and have a discussion about what activities to keep and which to drop," says Gurian. "A discussion like this can be very fruitful in terms of identifying the problem, talking over solutions, and implementing the best one for the whole family."

Gurian says that key to this process is parents guiding children to see themselves as valuable.

"It's important to stress to kids that their own value rests in who they are, not what they can or can't accomplish."

Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD, August 22, 2002