As a culture, we love our on-the-go lifestyle. But overscheduling can take a health toll on kids. “Parents are sometimes under the impression that more is better,” says pediatrician Ellen Rome, MD, head of adolescent medicine at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital; they don’t immediately realize what health effects hyper-busyness can have on kids. Is your child’s schedule causing unhealthy side effects? Here are five signs your child may be overscheduled — along with solutions.
Sign #1: Mystery Symptoms
Have you noticed that your child or teen has recurring headaches or stomachaches — often related to school or extracurricular activities? It could be a sign of stress, says Margaret Richards, PhD, a pediatric behavioral health specialist with Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. “When the body releases stress hormones, it can increase pain messages the body is sending.” It’s not “in their head” — the pain is real, and it very well may be a sign of underlying stress or anxiety about the busyness of their lives.
Solution: Take Inventory
Step back and take inventory with your kid, Dr. Richards suggests. “First, listen to the language they use to describe different activities.” It may be that they no longer enjoy their once-favorite sport because they are putting so much pressure on themselves, but they don’t want to feel like they are disappointing you or the team (that’s especially true for high-achieving kids). Instill the importance of paying attention to signals they’re getting from their body. Try things like designating at least one evening and weekend afternoon as unscheduled time (for hanging out at home or with friends).
Sign #2: Unhealthy Sleep Patterns
“It’s a rare kid who needs less than seven hours of sleep,” Dr. Rome says. Most children and teens need between nine and 12 hours. The problems often start when kids go to bed later but still have to wake at the same time to get to school or early morning sports practices, Dr. Rome says. “Chronic tiredness impacts everything, like mood, home life, grades and performance in extracurricular things likes sports,” she says. Plus, kids do some of their best growing while sleeping, so skimping on sleep can spark a chain reaction of unhealthiness.
Solution: Reset the Pattern
One possibility is that your kid is going to bed too late because he is catching up on homework late into the night (and then may have trouble falling asleep because he is too wired). Another possibility is that he is having sleep disturbances, such asinsomnia or even nightmares (especially for young kids). Parents need to look at the logistical stuff: Does your child have enough time to get homework done (without compromising sleep)? If not, work with him to make some schedule changes. If it’s more of a sleep disturbance problem, it’s important to talk through things he’s stressed or worried about. It might be that once he vocalizes it (and you make a change together), it won’t trouble him as much.
Sign #3: Nose-Diving Grades
If your A/B student suddenly starts bringing home falling or failing grades (versus just struggling in one subject or with one teacher), there is probably something going on. It’s normal for students to struggle a bit as their schedules get busier, but figuring out the balance between schoolwork and extracurricular activities is super important (and a skill they’ll need even more as they get older), so don’t just slough it off as “to be expected.”
“Figure out the priorities with your child,” Dr. Richards says. Making schoolwork the number one priority means schoolwork comes first — and other activities come second. Parents and kids can both lose sight of this when things get hectic. “Evaluate each thing your child is involved in and figure out together how essential it is,” she suggests. Assign each activity some sort of rating, so the two of you can figure out together what might need to go.
Sign #4: Manic Moods
Hormones can certainly cause mood swings in teens. Still, you probably have a feel for what kind of mood swings are normal, and what seems out of the ordinary (especially for prepuberty-aged kids). “When your always-smiling child loses the laughter, something is going on,” Dr. Rome says. Irritability and withdrawal can be subtle signs of anxiety, or even depression. Notice these subtle changes — and step in before your child considers acting out with drugs, alcohol or other risky and unhealthy behavior.
Solution: Be an Investigator
You’ll have better luck if you work with your child to figure out what’s wrong (because she may not even realize it herself), rather than making unilateral decisions or punishing without trying to learn what’s really going on. Many things can cause anxiety for kids, such as fear of failure, feeling like they don’t have any control, and feeling overwhelmed. Step back from the busy schedule and have a heart-to-heart with your child, Dr. Rome says. You may be surprised by what they tell you!
Sign #5: Bad Eating Habits
“Denying the family dinner can have a profound impact,” Dr. Rome says. Families that eat together most of the time tend to eat healthier. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that teens who ate with families ate more fruits and vegetables (specifically dark green and orange veggies — two of the healthiest). Teens who ate more on the go tended to eat more fast food, including more saturated fat and sugary drinks. Constantly eating on the go as the family runs from one event to another can be a recipe for childhood obesity — and set up your child for a lifetime of poor eating habits.
Solution: More Family Meals
Slow down, and find a way to reinvent the family meal, Dr. Rome says, even if it’s unconventional — like packing a picnic dinner and eating together on a blanket before soccer practice. Eating together as a family doesn’t have to mean slaving away for hours in the kitchen, cooking only fresh and organic ingredients. Even simple, convenient meals together offer time for bonding and good conversations. Plus, when families sit down at the table together, they tend to eat slower and practice better portion control, without really even trying. “When you eat too fast, you often eat more than you need because it takes about half an hour for your hunger center to catch up and realize you’re full,” Dr. Rome says.
Raising Healthier Kids
Check out these resources for more information about how to raise healthier kids: