Young & Stressed – Out Today’s overachieving youngsters may, in fact, be missing out on being children.


Our over scheduled 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.”

By John Casey
WebMD Medical News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD,

Our over scheduled 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.

Overscheduled Parents

“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.”


Overscheduled Child May Lead to a Bored Teen

By: Sid Kirchheimer
WebMD Medical News
Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

If you think you’re burned out from driving to all those after-school activities, take a good look at who’s in the backseat.

Many kids are more frenzied than ever because of overzealous parents who think the more activities a child does, the greater the likelihood of creating a trophy child: Scouts. Little League. Music lessons. Dance recitals. It’s not uncommon to see a well-marked kitchen calendar of scheduled events that is just as crammed as many CEOs.

What happened to pickup games at the local Y? They may still be there, but what’s packing them in more recently are yoga classes for children as young as 3. Not for fitness, mind you, but to help them chill out from their countless other organized activities.

“We’re just responding to the needs of the community,” says Lynette Lewis, family program director for the YMCA in Ridgewood, N.J. “We live in an area that’s saturated with organized activities for children, and our residents take full advantage of that. We’re finding that kids don’t have enough down time to unwind … just like their parents.”

So in her suburban Manhattan burg, as well as the YMCA in Golden, Colo., and other facilities in between, kids from preschool to middle school are getting structured lessons in stress reduction — both with and without their parents — to better help them deal with their overstructured lives.

“Kids no longer go outside and hit the baseball. They have a game. They no longer sit and color, they go to art class,” Lewis tells WebMD. “There is no doubt that they are spending their time in constructive activities that provide them with fun and useful skills. But they are spending a lot time in these activities and everything is so structured that everybody is stressed. Parents spend several days a week, sometimes every day, rushing from one after-school activity to another.”

And notice who’s sitting in the back of that minivan.

That might explain why in the past 20 years, the number of children who participate in organized youth sports has doubled — yet teens who try out for their high school’s sports team has reached an all-time low.

“By the time they reach high school, they are bored and burned out,” says Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, former head of child psychiatry at Stanford University and author of The Over-Scheduled Child. “And it’s because their parents have the well-meaning idea that the right way to parent is to overschedule them, with hopes of keeping them busy, active, and out of trouble.”

Overscheduling Can Lead to Burnout

But what happens? By age 13, statistics show, three of every four children who participated for several years in organized activities have permanently shelved their cleats, Scout uniforms, or music books. Often, Rosenfeld says, it’s those who started these activities before first grade.

“We see it in early adolescence, kids are bored from these once-beloved activities because it’s no longer fun for them; they’ve been playing for so long,” says David Elkind, PhD, professor of child development at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child.

“But they’re also bored for another reason: They have grown up going from one structured activity to another that they have come to expect that they will be entertained and occupied all the time,” he tells WebMD. “They have never learned to use their inner resources to keep themselves busy. Their parents often put them in these activities so they’ll have fun and friends to play with. But it’s good for growing children to sometimes be alone, so they can work out things for themselves. In fact, it’s important.”

Not only because it gives kids some breathing time from homework and their own busy schedules, but because it provides them with an even more important break — from you, the well-meaning parent who only wants what is best for Junior.

“I’m a soccer coach, and I see games with 4- and 5-year-olds on the field,” Rosenfeld tells WebMD. “There are two kids on the side picking dandelions, another kid milling about, three kids running up and down, and one kid who is really good, but kicking the ball at the wrong goal. And all the while, the parents are on the sidelines, yelling at them.”

You call it cheering. He calls it pressure.

“I’ve had to pull parents off the field because they’re acting as though their kids are in the World Series, not a children’s game. They’re so sure that coaching them on better ball control is a sure ticket to Harvard. They give their children Japanese lessons when no one at home speaks Japanese and have them learn the flute so they’ll be more cultured.

“Good intentions aside, they think they need to always self-sacrifice their time and money for the better development of their child,” says Rosenfeld. “But what they are doing in this is sending a message that their kids are in constant need of self-improvement, that they need to always need to learn new skills. And that’s undermining the child’s self-esteem.”

There’s no argument that these activities are helpful. Valuable life lessons and plenty of fun result from learning Chopsticks, building Pinewood Derby races, and playing team sports. The concern is that young children may be getting too much of a good thing — especially before they should.

“Often, this overscheduling of structured activities is more the result of parental anxiety than for the needs of the child,” Elkind tells WebMD. “Parents feel that because they’re working or busy with their own hectic schedules, they need to keep their children occupied. But children don’t have need to be in any organized activity before age 6 or 7, any earlier than that is really not age appropriate.”

And when they reach elementary school? “My rule of thumb is there should be no more than three activities — one sport, one social activity like Scouts, and one artistic endeavor like music lessons or art class,” he says. “And they should only go for an hour or so to each one each week. It’s really inappropriate for elementary school children to go to daily practices.”

Better Use of “Free” Time

“Let them be kids, and you be the parent,” says Rosenfeld. “Set limits on the number of scheduled activities they attend, and instead you play with them. Have family dinners instead of chauffeuring them to practices and lessons every day. Don’t coach them on how to better throw a baseball, just throw it around. Don’t always teach them on how to be better. Just let them be themselves.”

That may be the real ticket to success after Harvard. Rosenfeld, who once served on its faculty, points to research that followed graduates into their 50s, to help determine which factors from their youth where most important in shaping their later success — both in the workplace and overall lives.

“The one thing that stood out was whether or not they had at least one good relationship with someone when they were growing up — someone who accepted them for the people they are and not whether they could hit the long homerun. That relationship didn’t necessarily have to be with their parents. But if it was, all the better.”

SOURCES: Lynette Lewis, family program director, YMCA, Ridgewood, N.J. Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, child psychiatrist, New York City and Greenwich, Conn.; author, The Over-Scheduled Child. David Elkind, PhD, professor, child development, Tufts University, Medford, Mass.; author, The Hurried Child.
Published March 9, 2004


Kids Really Aren’t Overscheduled

By Salynn Boyles
WebMD Medical News
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD,
Monday, August 14, 2006

5 Hours a Week Is the Average for Organized Activities

Little League, music lessons, Scouts, and dance recitals are just a few activities that may be on your kid’s agenda. Is today’s typical child as overscheduled as a corporate CEO — and just as stressed?

A group of leading child development experts is challenging the popular notion that kids engage in too many organized activities, and that the pressures of overscheduling are leading to substance abuse and other developmental problems.

Rather than spending too much time participating in organized activities, most kids don’t spend enough, they say. Around 40% don’t participate in organized sports or other organized activities at all.

Joseph L. Mahoney, PhD, of Yale University, and his colleagues reviewed the published research and concluded that children and teens involved in organized activities tend to be better adjusted than those who are not.

Such children are apt to have better academic performance, more functional family relationships, and less substance use.

“Nearly half of children are not involved in organized activities at all,” Mahoney, a child development researcher, tells WebMD. “This is of great concern, because across a wide range of outcomes, studies show that children who don’t participate tend to have more adjustment problems than those who do.”

Five Hours a Week

Among Mahoney’s and his colleagues’ major findings:

bullet The average youth (aged 5-18) spends about 5 hours a week participating in organized activities, compared with around 15 hours watching television.
bullet Only about 6% of adolescents aged 12-18 spend 20 hours or more a week engaged in organized activities.
bullet Kids and teens tend to participate in organized activities because they want to. Pressure from parents, coaches, or other adults is seldom given as their reason for joining in.

Busting the Myth

There was little support for the hypothesis that kids who lack free time end up stressed out and developmentally impaired.

Even those who spent 20 hours or more a week participating in organized activities tended to be as well adjusted, or even better adjusted, than children who didn’t participate at all, according to Mahoney.

The findings appear in the latest issue of Social Policy Report, a journal published by the Society for Research in Child Development.

The Overscheduled Parent

Another child development researcher says that among affluent youth especially, the overscheduling of parents may be the bigger threat to child development.

“Perhaps more so than the children, it is the parents who are overextended, with ongoing conflicts regarding their life roles,” Suniya S. Luthar, PhD, of Columbia University Teachers College, writes.

“On the one hand is the deep-seated desire to be the best possible parent for their children. On the other hand, there can be powerful draws from work.” Luthar says.

Luthar tells WebMD her research suggests affluent, highly educated, overextended moms are under tremendous pressure to do it all. She says most women who balance motherhood and high-stress careers end up frustrated.

“We shouldn’t have to choose between our children and our careers, but that is a choice that society forces us to make,” she says.

“The system doesn’t encourage parental leave, and it gets worse the higher up the ladder you go. Flextime and job sharing aren’t options for CEOs of major corporations,” Luthar adds.

Rather than discouraging kids from participating in organized activities, we should be exploring ways to engage the large number of children and teens who don’t participate, Mahoney says. That means making organized activities affordable and accessible to everyone.

“Transportation is a big problem for many families, especially when both parents work,” he tells WebMD. “If these activities were affordable, and reliable and safe transportation was provided, that would cut down enormously on the stresses that many parents feel,” says Mahoney.

SOURCES: Mahoney, J. Social Policy Report, Aug. 12, 2006; vol XX: no IV. Joseph L. Mahoney, PhD, associate professor, Yale University, New Haven, Conn. Suniya S. Luthar, PhD, Columbia University, New York City.


Raising Superkids? Parents Show Stress

By Denise Mann
WebMD Medical News
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD,
on Thursday, August 10, 2006

Today’s parents are pretty stressed out about their children’s academic success and believe starting early is the key to achievement, according to a new poll.

In fact, 54% of parents of children aged 2 to 5 said they had anxiety about their child’s academic performance and 38% felt that their child was in competition with other kids. The new findings come from a telephone poll of about 1,000 parents of children aged 2 to 11 conducted in July 2006 by the National Parent and Teachers Association (PTA) in New York City, and the Public Broadcast Service (PBS) Parents.

More than 90% of all parents polled said that they believe that starting early to prepare their children for academic success is key. When the findings were broken down by income status, low-income families had significantly greater concerns about education and were three times more likely to think that they are not as able to help their child prepare for school as their richer counterparts.

Making Priorities

“Parents need to be very careful about how they pick their priorities in attempting to raise successful kids,” warns Michael J. Bradley, PhD, a clinical psychologist from Feasterville, Pa., and the author of several books including Yes,Your Teen is Crazy! Loving Your Kid without Losing Your Mind. “Our goal is not to raise an Ivy League student, our goal is to raise the future parents of our grandchildren.”

Close to 80% of all parents polled said that they think parents today do overschedule their children with extracurricular activities, but only one in eight think their own child is overscheduled. What’s more, two of three parents are satisfied with their child’s schedule.

“You have to decide what success means for your child,” Bradley tells WebMD. “For your neighbors’ kids, maybe it is six activities a day,” he tells WebMD. “Sometimes you have to get your blinders on.”

Structured vs. Unstructured Activities

Many parents often feel that structured activities — whether swimming or ballet — are the key to success, but the science says otherwise, he says. The learning that comes from unstructured activities may exceed the type of learning that children get from structured activities.

In Bradley’s list of the top five priorities for children, such activities are the least important.

“Don’t make the assumption that all kids should be in as many activities as possible,” he says.

Grades, too, rank low on his list. “If we go to war with our kids over grades and push them too far, it can be a battle won, but a war lost.” More important than activities and grades are your child’s heart, character, relationships, and his or her sense of identity.

Being a Role Model

“In the game of parenting, it’s not about the length of his hair, it’s about his heart,” Bradley says.

Set good examples, he says. “If you want a kid to be caring and compassionate, what are you showing them?”

Darrel Andrews, a motivational speaker and father of three kids in Bear, Del., agrees. He said that the best way to raise successful children is to be a good role model. “Before kids started to idolize actors and entertainers, they were walking around in our shoes,” he says.

“Your children need to see you as an example of the educational values you expect from them,” he says. In the poll, 88% of parents trust that their kids will get a good education, but 95% reported feeling responsible for continuing their child’s education at home. Make sure your kids see you reading books and newspapers, Andrews suggests. “Set the bar high.”

SOURCES: PTA Back-to-School Media Briefing, Aug. 10, 2006. Michael Bradley, PhD, clinical psychologist, Feasterville, Pa.; author, Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy! Loving Your Kid without Losing Your Mind. Darrel Andrews, motivational speaker.

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