Extracurricular Activities: How Much is Too Much?

Getting your kids involved in extracurriculars can be enriching, but sometimes taking on too much can make them stressed or unhappy. Read on for tips to finding a healthy balance.

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It’s natural to want your children to get along with their peers, to perform well in school, and to excel in the arts, science, or sports. As a caring parent, you want the best for your children.

Because today’s school and work environments can be competitive, it’s reasonable to think that getting your children involved in extracurricular activities could help them to keep pace with their peers, and prepare them to succeed in adult work and social worlds.

Are You Pushing Your Kids Too Hard?

Even with school budget cuts, there is a wide range of extracurricular activities in which children, including pre-kindergarteners, can participate: summer camp, soccer, music, modeling, acting, computer programming, and dance, to name a few options. If you’re not careful, you can push your children to take on too many activities and cause them to feel out of balance.

In an article for Everyday Health, Family physician Dr. George Shannon observes that “There’s definitely less informal play these days.” Pushing your kids to get involved in extracurricular activities too soon or to take on too much could have negative consequences. Overcommitted children feel heightened levels of stress, become overly impatient, and feel constant pressure to outperform their last achievement.

According to Dr. Shannon, children respond to pressure differently from adults. He says:  “When our plates are too full, we might be short-tempered; we feel rushed. I’ve seen some kids who are tremendous over-achievers. Some kids can handle it and others can’t.”

It helps to remember that your children are also trying to make friends and fit in at school and in the community. That alone can prove stressful for some children.

Children who take on too much, too soon can become anxious, fatigued (the type of fatigue that goes on for hours or days), easily irritated and depressed.

It’s not uncommon for parents to schedule an appointment with a pediatrician or family physician after a child starts to complain of headaches, stomach pain or insomnia related to this stress. After giving a child a physical examination, some doctors recommend that the child be taken to a psychologist. Why? Stressful schedules can cause children to experience adult-like anxiety and depression symptoms.

Many parents believe that keeping children busy demonstrates care; in an interview with Psychology Today, Dr. Alvin Rosenfield shares that, “Overscheduling our children is not only a widespread phenomenon, it’s how we parent today.” As if being busy is not enough, Dr. Rosenfield states, “Children are under pressure to achieve, to be competitive. I know sixth-graders who are already working on their résumés so they’ll have an edge when they apply for college.”

When this happens, children don’t have enough time to relax, have fun, and play with siblings and friends without feeling like they have to perform or achieve a set goal. Packed schedules can make children feel as if they are constantly being rushed and watched.

The Benefits to Being Involved

Yet, all is not lost when children get involved in outside activities. For starters, by attending summer camp, joining a kids’ sports league, or participating in a science club, children often make new friends. They also have the opportunity to learn new skills, strengthen their social communication, and build their self-confidence. Activities such as sports leagues or science or arts clubs also give children opportunities to learn about different cultures.

Because some colleges review students’ community activities, teens can boost their chances of getting accepted by a respectable college or university through engagement with extracurriculars. Improved health, a more robust metabolism, the ability to follow directions, an appreciation for teamwork, and increased problem solving skills are other advantages gained from participating in outside activities.

The Road to a Healthy Balance

One way to make sure that your children are not taking on too many extracurricular activities is to wait for them to approach you and ask for permission to take on more. Together, you can evaluate whether this might become too overwhelming.

Once your children take on additional activities, avoid putting pressure on them to outperform other kids. For example, you could cheer your daughter on as she plays softball without shouting at her to “hit the ball so hard that the pitcher regrets throwing you the ball.”

Other steps you could take to reduce the negative impacts of getting your children involved in extracurricular activities too soon (or too often) require that you and your children work together. These steps include:

  • Enrolling your children in age-appropriate activities (organized school activities generally have minimum participation ages)
  • Scheduling your children for a full physical examination before they start engaging in sports
  • Volunteering at school events. This can help you and your child make connections with other community members on a more sporadic basis.
  • Monitoring your children’s grades (a drop in grades could signal that your children are feeling too much pressure)
  • Choosing activities that require members to meet a few times a month rather than several times a week
  • Spending the same amount of time having fun and reviewing homework as you do attending the outside activities in which your children are participating
  • Considering extracurriculars that can help your children build the skills that will aid them in the short and long-terms
  • Asking your children why they want to get involved in certain activities, and frequently asking your children if they still want to continue doing those activities, especially as they take on advanced school courses or additional responsibilities
  • Listening to what your children are asking for, and avoiding putting pressure on them to take on activities if they really don’t want to
  • Steering clear of comparing yourself or your children to other parents or kids

It’s a good idea to limit the number of activities that your children participate in one to two activities at a time. Also, make sure that adults working with your children are licensed, certified and safe. This applies to facilities that your children frequent as well; You want to ensure that the facilities are secure, clean, and built to support all children.

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