When Too Much Is Too Much

Dear Mr. Dad: We’re a pretty busy family. Our two kids are in lots of extracurricular activities (Scouts, sports, drama) and we also do a lot of things together as a family. Lately, both kids have seemed more run down than usual. I’m feeling a little guilty because I suspect that it’s because they’ve got so many things going on. How do you tell when your kids are doing too much?

A: Sounds to me like your kids’ lack of energy is the result of burnout, and I agree with you: the likely culprit is trying to cram too many activities in to too little time. But don’t beat yourself up too badly. Childhood burnout is incredibly common these days and with pressure coming in from friends, family, the community, and the kids themselves—it’s hard to say who’s responsible.

Extracurricular activities are important. They give kids a chance to interact with their peers somewhere other than school. They can teach kids important life lessons, such as teamwork, self-confidence, and self-sufficiency, encourage them to develop skills and experience they’ll need later in life, and help them become well-rounded adults. That’s great—up to a point. And that point is when extracurriculars leave little or no time for children to just be children. Kids, like all of us, need time to do something other than work, time to think, and time to just sit and do nothing.

The fallout from non-stop activities goes well beyond exhaustion. Overbooking can lead to anxiety, depression, a nagging feeling of never quite being good enough, and a complete rejection of any and all activities. Perhaps worst of all, experts are finding that the more time kids spend doing structured activities, the less they’re able to think creatively and imaginatively. In other words, too much structure can lead to rigid thinking.
So let’s get back to your question: How do you know if your child is too busy? Whether they’re involved in activities they picked, ones you picked, or a combination, here are some signs that your children could be in danger of burning out.

  • Frequent headaches. Minor headaches are normal and shouldn’t cause alarm. But if they’re stronger than normal, last a long time, or happen a lot, it’s possible that the child isn’t getting enough sleep or than he’s feeling too much pressure to perform—either from you, his coaches, or his peers.
  • Stomach problems. Kids have been using stomachaches as a way to get out of doing things since chores were invented. But if they’re real, stomach aches could be a symptom of stress or anxiety. And even if they’re not real, they could be your child’s way of saying that he needs a break.
  • Temper, temper. Don’t chalk up irritability or short temper to “being a teen” or having an “off day.” Overreacting and snapping at people for no reason is another subconscious way of saying, “I need a break.”
  • Grades drop. Most kids struggle with their grades at some point, but while school problems can be a sign that a child doesn’t understand the material, it’s also possible that he’s so tired that he can’t think straight.

The answer to the overscheduling problem is simple: Stop it. Go over your kids’ schedules and figure out which activities are most important to them (not to you). Then, working with them, look for ways to free up some time. And be careful that you don’t turn around and fill up those “empty” hours with new activities. Instead, unplug, unwind, and do nothing.