Are your kids overscheduled?

Expert cautions against too many activities

WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich. – On this day, a tennis lesson for a visiting cousin is the only thing on 14 year-old Andrew Schulman's schedule.

But his mother, Susan Schulman, admits when it comes to balancing activities, it's a tough call.

"It's a constant struggle," Susan said. "And I think my peer group and I are always looking for the best opportunities for the kids. After school they should have a sport. They should have a music lesson. They should have a youth group to go to."

Andrew has decided to focus on the school tennis team this fall, but it hasn't always been that way.

"I've been doing piano lessons, martial arts, sports and different extracurriculars in school, at the same time," Andrew said. "That was just overwhelming because I would want to get home and have a break, but have to do my homework and, just time management is the biggest issue."

It was stressful for the whole family.

"It was every day," Susan said. "I'd be coming home from work and I'd be rushing and I'd be anxious to get to the next class on time, and to get home to shuttle the next kid to their extracurricular. It was really maddening."

It's a problem that concerns Dr. Kristine Roth, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Henry Ford Hospital. She frequently sees patients who are overscheduled and overwhelmed.

"If we continue to push these children, the burnout rate will, you know, go through the roof," Roth said. "You're gonna have a lot of people who as adolescents and adults absolutely don't know who they are because basically their time has always been scheduled for them."

Roth said a child's mood is usually the first red flag of overscheduling. They may be irritable, anxious or reluctant to go to activities. Feeling overly tired is another sign, since activities often affect homework and sleep.

"There's a lot of value in moderation, I believe," Roth said. "Trying to get your child to be the best at everything can ultimately make them miserable and not great in anything."

Andrew agrees overscheduling has a negative effect.

"It lowers my performance in school, and in the extracurriculars too. It's not good. It doesn't help with anything," Andrew said.

Roth also emphasized that it's important for children to participate in activities they enjoy, even if they aren't the best.

"I hear parents saying, all the time, saying, 'Well, you know, my son or my daughter really enjoys going to swimming, but isn't really that good.' That's okay. They enjoy going to swimming," Roth said.

When a child does excel, Roth cautioned, pushing too hard can backfire.

"I've seen children who were star athletes at a very young age (become) complete couch potatoes in high school because they are just done with it," Roth said. "And you have to wonder, 'Why are you so done with it?'  Probably because that wasn't that enjoyable for them."

Roth said it's also important for parents to keep an open mind when it comes to activities. Drawing, cooking or other hobbies can be just as fulfilling as formal lessons and often less stressful.

Sign up for ClickOnDetroit Email Newsletters (click here) for more stories like this.

Roth is also a mom. Her daughter, Alex, is in the third grade. She understands it can be hard to do less when others keep doing more.

"You definitely have that feeling of, 'Oh my gosh, am I setting her back?'" Roth said

But she stresses that all kids need downtime to relax and be creative.

The Schulmans have taken that idea a step further by making unscheduled time a priority for their whole family.

"What's worked for our family is to designate a day for the family and friends. Which means you can't get into a car. You can't get on your phone. You can't get in front of a TV," Susan said. "It works. We sleep. We eat. We play. We still feel busy, but it's not scheduled, and it's wonderful."

"It's refreshing, really. I think that's the best way to put it," Andrew said.

It makes the busy weeks a little easier to take.

"We crave it by the end of the week. When Friday rolls around, we really feel that 'TGIF,'" Susan said.