Thoughts from a Family Therapist Maintaining Balance and Connection in a Busy Family
Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW
It always starts with the best of intentions. Your daughter says that she wants to play soccer, so you sign her up at 4 years old. Starting early, so she doesn’t get left behind. Soon, you sign her up for Girl Scouts – after all, it’s a wholesome activity that builds character, right? Next, you start her in with piano lessons – you want to make sure that she is well rounded.
As time goes by and her friends start different activities, you want to give her those same opportunities… so she joins a softball team. Then she wants to try basketball, so you let her do that too. Before long, you realize that if she is going to have any chance of playing soccer long term, she had better get on a select club team to be challenged and get good coaching. You soon realize that a club team is a big commitment – it is year round, they practice twice a week and have tournaments every weekend – but you think it is worth it because you want her to play in high school, at the very least. You do not mind letting her do just a few few clubs after school also, because you want to keep her occupied after school (we all know what happens to kids with too much free time!), and besides, it will look good on a college application.
One day you wake up and look at your calendar and feel paralyzed when you realize just how frenetic your child’s schedule is, even without considering the academic demands.
Today’s youth are stressed as never before. Academically, children have shorter summers, fewer free periods, face tougher grading standards, and are taking more college level classes in high school. Athletically, kids are encouraged to be on travel teams that run year round, they specialize at young ages, have games at 10 pm some nights, and the madness just goes on and on. Socially, there is pressure to be available at all times with up an expectation that children (ours and their friends) should always be responding to texts and participating on social media. It is very easy for both children and their caregivers to feel completely overwhelmed and out of balance.
We ask ourselves – how did we get here (cue David Byrne from Talking Heads in the Big Suit). There are a few societal reasons that have combined to create this insidious phenomenon. First, we have been inundated with the message that the world is a dangerous place for kids these days. This has inspired a knee jerk reaction to make sure children are involved in structured activities as much as possible, instead of just letting them have free time after school. While these fears are well founded in some areas, this has extended into many areas where crime is rare or nonexistent. In addition, we have also learned to be fearful that our children will miss out or be left behind. This fuels early, intense involvement in activities, as many parents fear that if they delay starting a sport or other activities that their child may never be able to compete.
On top of all of this, as we have heard over and over again that colleges are looking for “well rounded” applicants, we can fall into the trap of thinking the busier our children are, the better job we are doing as parents. Overall, there is just generally increased pressure on our children to achieve – from knowing their alphabet and colors before school, to being expected to be on select teams at a young age, to worrying about what colleges will accept them (far earlier than is necessary) – our youth are far too driven by building their list of achievements and their resume of activities.
No doubt, most parents just want what they think is best for their kids. Even when intentions are good, though, children can easily become overscheduled. The pressure to participate in a number of activities at the same time and all the time and to “keep up” can be physically and emotionally exhausting for both parents and children, and can leave everyone feeling disconnected.
Sooner or later, children who are too busy will start to show signs.
Every child is different, but overscheduled children often show one or more of these red flags:
- feeling tired, anxious, or depressed
- complaining of headaches and stomachaches, which may be due to stress, missed meals, or lack of sleep
- falling behind on their schoolwork, causing their grades to drop
- expressing a desire to drop out of previously enjoyed activities
- difficulty making, keeping, or enjoying the company of their friends
- reluctance or refusal to go to school or get out of bed
- self-harming behaviors or thoughts of suicide
It is important to pay attention, as the effects of being out of balance can be far reaching and impact the whole family. We are each more prone to both mental and physical illness when we are stressed and overwhelmed. Our cortisol levels increase – which physically shrinks the hippocampus, one of the memory centers of the brain. Cortisol affects our white blood cell functioning, and we end up sicker more often. Elevated cortisol also negatively impacts serotonin (a brain chemical that is a key to depression and anxiety). When we overschedule children, we end up with tired, irritable children who are not learning as easily and who are more and more dependent on us because they are not able to successfully manage their own lives independently.
Family life can also suffer – when one parent is driving to basketball practice and the other is carpooling to dance class, meals are missed. As a result, some families rarely eat dinner together, and they may not take the extra time to stay connected. Plus, the weekly grind of driving kids all over the place and getting to one class, game, or practice after another can be downright tiresome and stressful for parents. This can impact the connection between children and parents, and between parents as well. We can easily end up feeling very disconnected from one another and this can lead to poor communication, being out of touch with children, and marital struggles.
SIMPLE SUGGESTIONS TO MAINTAIN BALANCE:
- Agree on ground rules ahead of time. For example, plan on kids playing one sport per season or limit activities to two afternoons or evenings during the school week. This may make for some difficult choices, but this is one simple way to keep a balance.
- Know how much time is required before committing to an activity. For example, will there be time to practice between lessons? Does your child realize that soccer practice is twice a week, from right after school until dinnertime? Then there is the weekly game to consider, too. Is travel involved? Be very clear about expectations as you make decisions to join a new team or other activity.
- Keep a calendar to stay organized. Display it on the refrigerator or another prominent spot so that everyone can stay up-to-date. And if you find an empty space on the calendar, leave it alone!
- Create structured family time. If you’re eating fast food on the run every night, plan a few dinners when everyone can be home at the same time, even if it means eating a little later. Numerous studies have shown that families who eat dinner together report stronger relationships and better grades. According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Abuse at Columbia University, children and teens who eat dinner with their families at least five times a week have a much lower risk of substance abuse. .Schedule family fun time, too – whether it is playing a board game or going on bike ride or a walk or a hike. We can easily forget or underestimate the importance of family connection in protecting our children.
- Take charge of technology! Set up a central family charging station so that our children can turn in technology each night. This helps kids set a boundary with their peers – for example, no phones after 9 pm. In addition, it keeps children from being disturbed in the night, and also helps prevent them from making poor choices online late at night.
- Try to carpool with other parents to make life easier, and to free up more time for our other children, spouse, and/or ourselves. When you do end up driving, turn off the radio and use the time to TALK. Children frequently open up while you are driving and not looking at them… it can be a surprisingly good time to connect.
- Build in time to do things for yourself. It is important to make some time for ourselves – whether we make time to read, take a walk, chat with a friend, or whatever, we need to do this so we do not get too burned out.
- Help your children set priorities. If children start struggling academically, they may need to drop an activity or, consider avoiding some AP classes. But while school is a priority, remember to not let the focus be all about academic achievement. We need to have talks with our kids about finding a balance – let them make choices about where to put their energy. Let them know that taking care of themselves (having some free time, being involved in some other activities) is at least as important as making that 4.0 (or 4.0+) that they are striving for. So many young people are obsessed with having straight A’s that they start developing anxiety and perfectionist tendencies. Help your children see that having balance and stable mental health is important for the big picture of their lives, and that they are valued for who they are, not what they achieve. Assure them that their performance does not define them!
- Know when to say no. If your child is already doing a lot but really wants to take on another activity, discuss what other activity or activities need to be dropped to make room for the new one. And don’t be afraid to set boundaries to protect your family time! It is perfectly ok to say no to a practice or game when you want to protect your family time (i.e. traditional family activities around holiday times, weekends to lake, family gatherings, etc.). Let children see that it is acceptable (and desirable) to make family connection a priority!
Essentially, it comes down to realizing that it is our job, as parents, to protect our children and our families. We need to be brave enough to set boundaries, and take the lead on this. While this is a cultural struggle, it is up to us as individuals to start drawing the lines and take back our families. We can not expect change unless it begins at home. We need to give our children the message that they are not defined by their achievements, despite society is telling them that they very much are. And, while many of us are fearful that if we miss games or do not feed into the societal expectations that our children will pay the price, it can also – and with equal validity – be argued that the price our children pay is much greater if we do nothing and let those expectations be the only voice that our children hear, Our children need us, they need their families. Let us show them that we will make that the priority.
||Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW received her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She specializes in private therapy for individuals, couples, and families dealing with relationship/ interpersonal difficulties. She also provides mental health therapy for issues such as depression and anxiety. She has extensive experience in mental health treatment and is passionate about helping others create balance and happiness in their lives. In addition to her clinical therapy practice, Cari also authors articles and literature on a variety of relevant mental health topics – including relationships, marriage, interpersonal conflicts, and self-actualization. Cari lives with her husband and two daughters in the St. Louis area.
published September 19, 2017