When a lot is too much: Childhood stress and extracurricular activities

When a lot is too much: Childhood stress and extracurricular activities

Share
Rowan University

Now that the languid late summer days have yielded to the frenetic school-year schedule, it’s a good time for parents to step back and make a careful assessment of whether or not their children are trying to do too much.

“After-school activities like sports, clubs, dance lessons and volunteering provide important enrichment opportunities for schoolchildren, but too much participation without enough downtime, or participating for the wrong reasons could lead to unhealthy levels of stress,” says Dr. Jennifer Caudle, a Rowan Family Medicine physician and associate professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. “Trying to ‘fit in’ socially or trying to please parents or improve their chances of getting into college can be strong motivators that cause kids to sign up for too many activities or ones they don’t really enjoy.”

According to the results of a “Stress in America” survey published by the American Psychological Association in 2009, children and their parents view school-related stress much differently.

Dr. Caudle notes that the survey found that 44 percent of children surveyed said they were worried about doing well in school, but only about one-third of parents thought this was an issue for their kids. And, while just five percent of parents felt their teenage children were worried about getting a good job or getting into college, 29 percent of teens reported feeling stress from this concern.

“Most parents want what’s best for their children and want them to experience all the good things the world has to offer,” Dr. Caudle says. “But, parents also need to be aware that their children may not have the same ability adults have to cope with the kinds of stress over-scheduling can cause.”

According to Dr. Caudle, signs of stress can include headache, stomach pains or fatigue, missing school assignments, mood or behavior changes, weight gain or weight loss, and changes in sleep. In younger children, new habits like thumb sucking or hair twirling can also occur.

While some argue that overscheduling is not necessarily a problem, Dr. Caudle feels that overscheduling can be a cause of stress for some children. The beginning of the school year is the perfect time for parents to talk to their children about their activities.

“Involve your children in the decision-making process about activities and remind them to choose an activity because they enjoy it, not because they think it’s what you want them to do or might help them get into college,” Dr. Caudle says.

She also advises the following tips to help prevent overscheduling:

  • Make sure your child has plenty of “downtime” and time for rest.
  • Monitor your child for signs and symptoms of stress.
  • Be flexible. Understand that your child’s interests – and, thus, activities – may change over time.
  • Talk to your child about how they are feeling and listen to their feedback.