Life as a parent can seem an endless circuit of school drop-offs and pick-ups, music and dance lessons, sports practices and homework. If this describes your child's daily routine, you're not alone.
The overscheduled child is increasingly common, says Barbara LeBlanc, licensed clinical social worker and director of the Parenting Center at Children's Hospital (938 Calhoun St., 504-896-9891; www.chnola.org/parentingcenter), as are attendant emotional disorders.
"We've seen an increase in anxiety, even in young ages," LeBlanc says, adding that it is more common in middle- and high school-aged kids. National statistics support LeBlanc's experience — a 2010 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports nearly 32 percent of U.S. adolescents have an anxiety disorder, and experts believe it's an underdiagnosed condition.
"Well-meaning parents want to give their children the opportunity to develop different skills, often in structured after-school time," LeBlanc says. "This interferes with a child's time to process daily experiences and the time to 'play out' those experiences. Children communicate and process through play. They 'play out' anxiety."
However, play is difficult to come by. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted its School Health Policies and Practices Study in 2006 and found that nationally, 57.1 percent of elementary school districts required a regularly scheduled recess for all students. The same CDC study was conducted again in 2012, and showed the number of districts that required elementary schools to provide physical activity breaks to all students dipping to less than 12.5 percent. Recess provides unstructured free play, which researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine say enhances self-regulation, empathy and group management skills. Some kids thrive with heavily structured schedules, but LeBlanc agrees that open-ended play is essential to children's well-being.
"Allowing time for lack of structure (is important)," she says. "Kids need to spend time with themselves and attend to their own emotions in order to develop emotional literacy."
Parents should promote free play at home because it teaches children to solve problems, work with others and learn to be on their own in the absence of a playmate. It's OK to let kids just "be" after school, rather than rushing them off to the next structured activity.
LeBlanc says kids of all ages face pressure to be involved in various activities as they build their academic resumes, and parents face pressure to offer their children opportunities to learn new skills and be exposed to different hobbies. But too many extracurricular activities can be overwhelming.
"For preschoolers, just getting through the structured day ... is enough," she says. "When kids are older developmentally and have increased energy and have these skills mastered, then think about those extracurricular skills."
Think about your child's schedule as a 24-hour period. Consider how many hours kids spend sleeping, how many hours are spent at school, at meals and in commute, and count how many hours are left. Then consider how much of that time can be devoted to an extracurricular activity after accounting for family time, which LeBlanc and other child care professionals say is important. An analysis of the 2002 Panel Survey of Income Dynamics Child Development Supplement published in Journal of Marriage and Family found that as the amount of time parents spent with adolescent children between ages 12 and 18 increased, behavioral problems, substance abuse and delinquent behaviors decreased.
LeBlanc suggests setting aside at least an hour a day — during meals or even the morning commute — for parents to connect with their kids.
"Be present, conscious and aware and not just rushing through life," LeBlanc says. "It's important to protect that family time. ... Slow down and really work on relationships in the family, and work on ways to decrease anxiety and increase enjoyment."
After adding a club or sport to the schedule, LeBlanc says parents should expect a transitional period while kids get used to new obligations — at least two to three weeks. Check in at least weekly to see how they're managing. Watch for changes in interactions with other family members or with friends, in their grades and in sleep habits.
"The most powerful parenting tool is the relationship — being able to have empathy with your kids," she says. "Listen more than you talk and pay attention."
If you notice a slip in any of these areas, LeBlanc suggests re-evaluating the activity in a discussion that includes the child. When a child feels involved in the decision-making process, she's more likely to accept the outcome, even if you have to play the bad guy.