We’ve all heard about the signs to look out for if your kid is using drugs—the glassy eyes, spending less time with friends and family, apathy towards everything—but what if the culprit isn’t pills but programming—and too much of it?
The epidemic of overly scheduled kids has caught the attention of educators, doctors and child psychologists over the past few decades. And not surprisingly, overscheduling kids leads to the same stress-related health and psychological problems that overscheduled adults experience. According to research, most kids who are overscheduled have parents from an educated, higher income bracket—and they tend to be girls.
There’s a middle ground, though, between back-to-back dance classes, soccer games, band practice and church group, and the other extreme: undirected hours of unfulfilling TV-watching and phone-talking.
How do you know if your kid is too busy? Watch for these signs:
1. You Never See Your Kid Just Doing Nothing
Replay some mental pictures of your child over the past week. If all your images are of him or her on the go—heading to an appointment, on the way back from one, doing homework, practicing an instrument—and there are not many moments of quiet and relaxation, your kid is too busy. “Every hour kids come into my office and throw themselves onto my couch complaining that they are overbooked with too many appointments,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a child psychologist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building A Better Bond with Your Child.” “All they want is down time,” she says.
2. Your Child Has the Constitution of an Old Man
OK, so maybe there’s no hunchback or gray hairs yet, but it’s a warning sign if your child looks and acts tired, complains of headaches and pains, isn’t sleeping well or “just doesn’t feel right,” according to Dr. Kate Cronin, a pediatric physician at the Nemours/AI duPont Hospital for Children in Delaware. Irritability and grumpiness are also signs that their life balance is out of whack, she says. Pay attention to those “grumpy old man” symptoms—there might be underlying issues.
Is Your Child Too Busy?
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3. Your Kid No Longer Loves Her Peanut Butter Fudge Ice Cream, Flute or Justin Bieber Singalongs
“One of the surest signs that a kid is overscheduled is when what used to be fun isn’t fun anymore,” says Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of Crazybusy. “Activities are like ice cream—they’re great, but when you have too much, it makes you sick.” How can you tell if she’s just growing out of a unicorn phase as opposed to protesting an overscheduled life? “They start saying no to everything that used to be fun for them,” says Dr. Hallowell. If it’s just grumbling about one activity, let it go—but if nothing seems to appeal to them anymore, take notice.
4. His or Her Grades Are Dropping
If you can’t read your child’s face, head to the data—look at the grades. One of the most oft-cited signs for an overscheduled child is that his or her grades start to drop. School should be a top priority, and if activities are sapping a child’s time and energy away from homework, something needs to get cut. “I hear of kids getting up as early as 5 a.m. to get their homework done because they didn’t have time to finish it the night before due to all their activities,” says Cronin. That kind of scenario can’t be good for grades.
5. Your Car Has Become the Fourth Member of the Family
Your gas bills have shot up. Your car has become an extension of the home. You’re spending more time with your kids in the car than anywhere else, because you’re constantly shuttling them back and forth to activities. This is a sign that activities and schedules are dominating as the focus of family time. “What’s worse is that nowadays everyone is plugged in to separate devices,” says Hallowell. He suggests unplugging and at least using the car time to have conversation and bond.
6. Your Child Is Moody and Anxious
Dr. Bob Block, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has been seeing an increase in the rate of depression in kids, and he links it partly to overscheduled lives. “The more activities a kid is involved in, the more opportunities there are to not do well in them—not live up to a standard, either their parents’ or their own.” Signs of depression and anxiety include bad moods, being very quiet, avoiding friends and family. Which leads us to …
7. Her Best Friend Isn’t Around Anymore
Your child and her best friend used to be thick as thieves—now you never see her. Ruling out a fight, a sign your child is too busy is when he or she no longer connects with friends, according to Jennifer Little, Ph.D., an educator for over 40 years. If there used to be sleepovers and phone chats and impromptu catch games, but now your child seems more isolated, take that as a warning sign that she’s too busy.
8. Family Mealtimes Are a Thing of the Past
“Families have priorities, and some of those might be mealtimes with the family,” says Block. If your kids are dropping out of mealtimes for choir practice or dance rehearsal, then it’s time to re-assess priorities. Think back to the past week or two. How many meals did your child eat on the go or in the car? If it’s more than a few, it may be time to sit down and redo your child’s schedule.
9. Your Child Is Suddenly Needy
If a child starts to look to you to tell him what to do at every turn, this might be a sign he’s overscheduled. “I can often tell if a child is overscheduled by the way he behaves in a social setting,” says Sheela Raja, clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “When there is not a set agenda, is the child able to use his own imagination? Does the child continually look to adults for what to do next? This is a red flag that a child needs some unstructured or downtime. It’s actually very important for their cognitive and social development,” she says.
10. You Yourself Are Tired
One of the easiest ways to tell that your child is too busy? “You as the parent feel stressed,” says Cronin. Hallowell agrees: “You’re tired of schlepping them around, you dread all the activities—you’re tired yourself,” he says. “If you as the parent feel this way, chances are that your child does too.”
If your kid exhibits several of these signs, take some time to reassess his or her schedule. The good news is, the solution is simple. “As far as life’s problems go, this one is extremely solvable,” says Hallowell. “You can do something about it, and you have more control than you think you do. Just start by eliminating one activity per week.”
You’ll probably be grateful for the break yourself.
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