How busy is too busy?

Setting the right pace for your family

How busy is too busy?
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Basic needs

Warning signs your child is over-scheduled

What's just right for you?

Navigating that first month back

Winnipeg Health Region
Published Thursday September 16, 2010

Summer's over, September is here, and the busy season is about to begin.

For many families with school aged children, that means getting the kids back into a routine and scheduling their extra curricular activities: swimming on Monday evenings, music lessons on Friday afternoon with basketball practice twice a week in between. And that doesn't take into account time for homework and other family activities.

Inevitably the question arises: How much is too much? Is it possible to over-schedule our kids?

The answer is yes. Darlene Girard, Team Manager for Healthy Parenting and Early Childhood Development with the Winnipeg Health Region, says the desire to expose your child to a variety of experiences may be a good intention, but over-scheduling can create a cranky, anxious, moody child with a hair trigger temper.

The inclination with younger children is to try to expose them to as many activities as possible to give them an opportunity to find - and master, over time - the skill, sport or creative element they're good at. Figuring out if it's judo or charcoal sketching or hockey can be an exhausting and expensive prospect. There are, after all, only 24 hours in a day.

When your schedule is full and you're rushing about and wishing you had more time, you feel stressed and overwhelmed. So can your kids. Up until about the age of seven or eight, play is the primary way your child learns. That's why unscheduled time is so important. Unorganized play and free time gives children the space to learn at their own pace while having fun.

"With younger kids in primary school, parents are responsible for scheduling and sometimes over-scheduling of activities You want to give your kids access to develop their talents and promote their physical, social, spiritual and emotional well-being," says Girard. "It can be hard to have balance but both kids and parents need unscheduled time when they can recharge in a way that best suits them."

Unscheduled time may create the opportunity to develop family rituals that can comfort and build your family. A shared meal, reading a book together, going for a walk or a bike ride, or simply talking (and listening) to each other can be important touchstones in our busy lives.

Personality impacts unscheduled free time and how to fill it but everyone needs it to some degree. Unscheduled time offers the chance to recharge or relax in the midst of a busy schedule. For some parents and kids, recharging is a solitary effort where they need quiet time to read, surf the internet or think. For others, time with friends or exercising help them unwind.

There is a way to find the pace that works for you somewhat sanely according to Girard. It starts with slowing down a smidge, if only to perform an honest assessment of the current situation. "Parents need to think about what they're scheduling," she says of the extra curricular activities that can consume a typical family's week. "Ask yourself if you can do it physically, mentally and financially. If you can, great. If you can't be a healthy, happy parent while supporting your child's growth and well-being, then it's time to step back and reconsider"

If you have younger children, you have the responsibility of managing their time as well as yours. You determine when they sleep, eat and do their homework. You also register them for activities, are responsible for where they are, who they're playing with and when they're playing with them, says Girard.

Adolescents have different things to consider with respect to time management. Around the age of twelve, kids' peers become important and they separate more from parents.

Kids have more independence and therefore are starting to take more responsibility for managing their time and schedules. This is a good time to engage your kids in what they can do to help make the family schedule run smoothly.

"Ask your kids what they have happening that week and how they're going to get it all done. If homework is a constant but it's unpredictable, it's Grampa's birthday on Tuesday, there's practice on Wednesday and a big game Thursday, when do you get that big project done that's due on Friday?" she says. "This can help them build some kind of organization in their lives."

With scheduling, explains Girard, you have to have someone show you how to do it or live in an environment where people are scheduled. That way they can learn how to make time for everything important, including incorporating self care rituals, unscheduled time to unwind and seeing their friends. You can help your kids learn how to schedule their time, prioritize and make that work.

"Some families just go with the flow and make it happen and it's not stressful for them. If it works and everything happens the way it needs to, that's good," says Girard. "For some families, having routines makes things less stressful, more predictable and it works having a strategy."

Basic needs

It's not rocket science but there are certain things that just help your kids function better. Certain things need to be non-negotiable when it comes to your child's health and well-being:

  • Make sure they're getting between eight and ten hours of sleep a night. Yes, your teenager too. Their bodies reset and restore and sleep deprivation can make them really cranky without the chance to play catch-up during a busy week. Shut eye is essential.
  • Eating regularly. If your child hasn't eaten all day, it can affect their mood, performance and overall health.
  • Eating healthy. Some days it's easier than others. But at least try to cover most of the food groups, encourage fruits and vegetables and limit junk food and soda pop (or buy healthier alternatives).
  • Daily physical activity. They need it to stay healthy and it can be a great stress reliever. Click here for tips on how to encourage your kids to get moving.
  • Be aware of who your child is. Are they an introvert who needs time to recharge with a book? Do they need to go running after a long, busy day? Either way, pay attention and respect and support what your child needs.
  • Homework is a constant, regardless of your child's age. From practicing reading and working with numbers to writing papers and doing science projects, there is always something your child needs to do. Talk about when you expect them to tackle homework. Before dinner? After dinner but before an activity? When you get home from the activity you're involved in?
  • Be realistic. There are basically six hours between 4:00 pm and 10:00 pm. What's realistically possible to accomplish in six hours needs to be given some thought given making and eating a meal, getting homework done and having some unorganized activity can take half of that time.

Warning signs your child is over-scheduled

Your child may be in need of some free time if they're . . .

  • tired, anxious or depressed
  • showing mood dysfunction - irritability, unhappiness and they're just not themselves
  • less able to regulate their emotions (i.e. going from zero to 60 in seconds)
  • more prone to impulsive behaviours and show poor impulse control
  • having trouble playing attention, transitioning or retaining information
  • falling behind in school or their grades are dropping
  • having frequent headaches, stomach aches or other physical symptoms
  • engaged in increased conflict with their siblings, parents or their friends

"Kids live and learn at their own pace and balance is key. Parents generally want what is best for their kids so the over-scheduling comes from a good place. They want to give their children plenty of opportunities to develop competence, autonomy and connectedness or a sense of belonging," Girard says. "There is nothing "wrong"with being busy. It is only "wrong" when it becomes a problem for a child or a family."  

If your child is overscheduled, it's time to create a slower schedule with more space for free time.

If you have concerns about your child and are worried that he or she is stressed or having difficulty coping, it may be time to speak with someone about your concerns or ask for help. The Winnipeg Health Region's centralized intake for the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Program may be able to offer some supportive insight. You can reach them at: 958-9660.

What's just right for you?

"It's about being family centred, finding balance in life and meeting kids' needs for development during critical periods," says Girard.

It's easy to feel you should sign your child up for just one more activity. Or look at the activities your neighbour's kids are engaged in and feel like you should keep up. Here are factors to consider when deciding how much is just right for your family:

  • What's right for your child's personality? An acting class could either be a great way to encourage your child to communicate more confidently . . . or it could be upsetting. Only you and your child know what the right answer is to that question.
  • What does your child want? You may have enjoyed hockey but your child may prefer soccer. Ask the question and listen to the answer.
  • What can reasonably be done? You may want to involve your kids in sports, music and community but you could be overwhelming them. And yourself.
  • Is it working? Some kids - and parents - thrive on a high level of activity and a hectic pace. Others find it stressful and overwhelming. It needs to work for both the parent and the child - and ultimately the family.
  • Do we have the time, money and interest? Time isn't the only resource to consider.
  • Does this fit with our family values?

"Every family is different," says Girard, noting there is no one right answer. "Does the parent have capacity? Parents, take care of your own needs as well. If you're a stressed out parent, how do you take care of your kids when you're running on empty?"

Navigating that first month back

Recognize that first couple of weeks back is going to be a little harried, says Girard. "Schedules are different that first month while everyone adjusts."

How can you manage?

  • Plan ahead. Chop up vegetables, fruits and cheese so you can grab healthy food on the go.
  • Update your family calendar and make sure it's located in a place where everyone can see it. Make sure everyone knows what's going on.
  • Talk to your kids. Make sure they know what their responsibilities are. Tell them Thursday they need to plan to make a sandwich or start supper so you can be out of the house by 6:00 pm.
  • Engage your kids in age appropriate tasks. Have them toss a prepared dish in the oven or make a salad.
  • Schedule as much as you can. When you're introducing a new routine, things may need to be more structured to keep you on track.
  • Work with schools, sports teams and other organizations that make demands of your child, school or family. If it's not reasonable to attend that many practices given all your family has going on, ask if it's possible for your child to attend fewer.

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