Too Much on Their Plates: Child Anxiety and Overscheduling

Children who struggle with anxiety often find their symptoms increasing when they are overscheduled. Even in families where there is one stay-at-home parent over scheduling can be a problem. Parents want to provide as many opportunities for their children as possible, and often this can be overwhelming to the entire family. Overscheduled kids are more prone to irritability, tiredness and an inability to focus. Children with anxiety already struggle with feelings of fear and nervousness, and adding too many activities can make these symptoms much harder to deal with. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, children with anxiety disorders will worry excessively about family issues, grades, relationships with peers and performance in sports. Add to these worries a schedule that is out of control, and your child’s anxiety is certain to be increased. When scheduling activities for children focus on quality rather than quantity to help find balance.

Quality Activities vs. Quantity

Music lessons, dance class, sports, debate teams, community service, church activities and clubs all sound like great opportunities for growth for children. But choosing too many things at once is a recipe for disaster for both a healthy child and one who suffers from anxiety. Each activity sounds fun and exciting and may even be a way for parents to entertain children while they are at work. But children with anxiety naturally want to perform well at each thing they try and tend to be hard on themselves when there simply is not time to do their best. Children need time to rest, relax and recharge their batteries in order to function, and having each minute of each day programmed leaves no time for imaginative play or some simple day dreaming. This may seem like wasting time to adults who understand the need to squeeze value out of every minute. But for children who are still discovering who they are and what they want to be, downtime is essential.

So when it comes to activities, how does a parent of a child with anxiety choose? It all comes down to quality over quantity. It’s hard for children to understand that saying no to something is giving them an opportunity for something else. This is an important skill to learn at an early age. Saying no might seem negative, but really it is opening the door to fully focus on one or two things a child really loves. Scholastic ( recommends thinking in terms of your child’s grade in school for choosing activities:

  • Kindergarten. Keep your kindergartener’s after-school life simple and free. After he has adjusted to the new schedule, find one or maybe two extracurricular activities per week that involves his creative and/or physical side, such as an art, dance, or music program.
  • Ist Grade. Balance your 1st grader’s schedule with play dates, playground visits and one or two days of an after-school activity per week. Try noncompetitive sports or other physical activities since this is around the age when your child is starting to develop better motor skills. Make sure activities give her a chance to play and run.
  • 2nd Grade. Get your child involved in choosing extracurricular activities. Steer him towards activities that he likes and does not get to do at school, whether it’s sports such as swimming or skating, computers, or art or music lessons. Many kids start learning piano or violin around this age. Make sure your child has several days free a week for alone time, which is important for relaxation.
  • 3rd Grade. Your 3rd grader needs to move and socialize after school. Team sports are a great choice — now she’s old enough to remember and follow rules and can handle losing (though she’s still not ready for anything ultra-competitive).Other good choices are activities that use and develop fine motor skills, such as painting, sewing or learning to play an instrument.
  • 4th Grade. Try to get your 4th grader involved in one or two extracurricular activities that he is good at and loves doing. It will build confidence and help him manage stress, which is key at this age when cliques and social pressure in school are beginning to build. However, make sure he has adequate time to complete homework without having to stay up late. Set limits on seeing friends and activities if he is often crabby and irritable, if his grades drop, if he has trouble sleeping or complains of mysterious illnesses, or if he shows other signs of stress like overeating.
  • 5th Grade. Over-scheduling is a problem you and your child will probably face this year. Your 5th grader is full of energy and wants to spend all her time participating in activities and hanging out with friends. To guard against over scheduling, make sure she has two free afternoons a week. Also set time aside for family, so that both your and your child block out a once-a-week family time that you and your child remember that family is a priority.
  • Middle School. Try to steer your middle-school child toward activities that reinforce learning and get him away from the TV. To improve academic performance, encourage your preteen to spend time volunteering, to join school clubs like band, chess, or foreign language clubs, or to sign up for extracurricular activities with a leadership element, such as the school newspaper or student council. It will help him feel more connected to the school community while forging friendships based in common interests and experiences. Keep an eye out for signs that he is overextending himself with after-school commitments. He should be spending fewer than 20 hours a week participating in after-school activities.

If your child suffers from anxiety, adjust these suggestions to meet his or her individual needs. A child without anxiety issues may be able to handle extra activities one or two days a week, where as a child with anxiety may need to limit extras to just one day a week. You know your child best, so make decisions based on what best meets her needs. Also remember that family time should always be a priority. Choose activities that fit everyone’s schedule in the house so that parents and children are not coming home at the end of each day cranky and tired.

The Overscheduled Parent

Parents of kids who have anxiety issues often find themselves trying many different things to meet their child’s needs. This can lead to over scheduling for them as well. As parents, we want to do everything we possibly can to help our children be successful; even if it means running from work to school to activity after activity with no breaks in between. Parents who model this behavior in front of their children teach them that busyness is important no matter the cost. Overscheduled parents are often tired and too stressed between work and home responsibilities to listen to their children’s needs. Children with anxiety are hypersensitive to tension in others, and parents who are not able to decompress between obligations can actually worsen their child’s anxiety.

Psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, author of the book The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-parenting Trap, says, “Don’t underestimate the power of downtime. Boredom can be beneficial. It can stimulate kids to hear the soft murmurings of their inner voice, the one that makes them write this unusual story or draw that unique picture.” recommends thinking about these things to avoid over scheduling your family:

  • Don’t let coaches, neighbors or friends make you feel as though your child needs to be doing more. As Dr. Rosenfeld puts it, “Support a child’s right to be not a professional but a kid.”
  • It’s a matter of cutting back, not elimination. Choose one or two days a week during which nobody has to be shuttled to practice or lessons. You might be surprised by how much pressure is relieved.
  • Remember your fundamental job is to be a parent. It is not to create the next American Idol or sports superstar; it is to love and accept your child and give him the tools to find his own way through life.

The Benefits of Extra-Curricular Activities

Although too many activities can make kids’ schedules too busy, there are studies that show there are many benefits of being involved in extra-curricular activities. A 2006 study conducted by the Child Development Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics found that youth who take part in organized, extra-curricular activities are more likely to have higher test scores, finish school, do well in college, use less recreational drug and interact more with their parents. Other studies show that kids who are involved in after-school sports, community volunteerism and organized youth activities are less-likely to be involved in crime and more likely to make positive contributions to their community in adulthood. The key for children who suffer from anxiety, and all other children, is balance. Finding the right mix of enjoyable activities, unstructured play and downtime produces children who are well balanced, able to make good choices and set priorities.

Parenting is often about making tough choices. Knowing when to say no to your child about an activity is just as important as knowing when to say yes. The key to helping your child with anxiety is about finding balance for your entire family. Blocking out at least two afternoons a week plus one day of the weekend where no one has any commitments will go a long way in relieving stress in both parents and children. Anxiety in kids can be a vicious circle. By understanding that over scheduling can lead to or be the cause of your child’s anxiety will help you make better decisions for your children and for yourself.