When enough is too much

Childhood burnout is incredibly common these days.

  • Monday, December 2, 2019 1:30am
  • Life

Dear Mr. Dad: We’re a pretty busy family. Our three kids are in lots of extracurricular activities (Scouts, music, sports, drama) and we also do a lot of things together as a family. Lately, the kids have seemed more run down than usual. I’m feeling a little guilty because I suspect that it’s because they’ve got so many things going on. How do you tell when your kids are doing too much?

A: Sounds to me like your kids’ lack of energy is the result of burnout, and I agree with you: The likely culprit is trying to cram too many activities into too little time. But don’t beat yourself up too badly. Childhood burnout is incredibly common these days, and with pressure coming in from all sides — friends, family, the community, schools, and the kids themselves — it’s hard to say who’s responsible.

Extracurricular activities are important. They give kids a chance to interact with their peers somewhere other than school. They can teach kids important life lessons, such as teamwork, self-confidence, and self-sufficiency, encourage them to develop skills and experience they’ll need later in life, and help them become well-rounded adults. That’s great — up to a point. And that point is when extracurriculars leave little or no time for children to just be children. Kids, like all of us, need time to do something other than work, time to think, and time to just hang out and do nothing.

The fallout from non-stop activities goes well beyond exhaustion. Overbooking can lead to anxiety, depression, a nagging feeling of never quite being good enough, and a complete rejection of any and all activities. Perhaps worst of all, experts are finding that the more time kids spend doing structured activities, the less they’re able to think creatively and imaginatively. In other words, too much structure can lead to rigid thinking.

Let’s get back to your question: How do you know if your children are too busy? Whether they’re involved in activities they picked, you picked, or a combination, here are some signs that your children could be in danger of burning out.

Frequent headaches. Occasional minor headaches are normal and shouldn’t cause alarm. But if they’re stronger than normal, last a long time, or happen a lot, it’s possible that the child isn’t getting enough sleep or that he’s feeling too much pressure to perform — either from you, his coaches, or his peers.

Stomach problems. Kids have been using stomachaches as a way to get out of doing things since chores were invented. But if they’re real, stomach aches could be a symptom of stress or anxiety. And even if they’re not real, they could be your child’s way of saying that he needs a break.

Temper, temper. Don’t chalk up irritability or short temper to “being a teen” or having an “off day.” Overreacting and snapping at people for no reason is another subconscious way of saying, “I need a break.”

— Grades drop. Most kids struggle with their grades at some point, but while school problems can be a sign that a child doesn’t understand the material, it’s also possible that he’s so tired that he can’t think straight.

The answer to the overscheduling problem is simple: Stop it. Go over your kids’ schedules and figure out which activities are most important to them (not to you). Then, together with them, look for ways to free up some time. And be careful that you don’t turn around and fill up those “empty” hours with new activities. Instead, unplug, unwind, and do nothing.

Talk to us

More in Life

J-Key is most known for his single "Crazy," whose accompany music video pays homage to the 1992 film "Juice" starring Tupac. (YouTube)
Music series promotes 7 local artists and nonprofits

Everett rapper J-Key will kick off HOMEBODIES 2, hosted by Everett Music Initiative’s Facebook page.

Joel Fry, top, and Ellora Torchia in "In the Earth." MUST CREDIT: Neon
Pandemic adds extra layer of menace to ‘In the Earth’

A naive scientist encounters pagan horror in the woods of England in this unnerving film.

Ask a pediatrician: Are infrared thermometers safe to use on children?

Some posts on social media warn about the possible dangers of non-contact infrared thermometers.

Health check: Why it’s important to ask an expert about nutrition

They call her “Dr. Quinn, Nutrition Woman” — even though she’s not a doctor — because of the Western TV show.

Pinto greens and beans, in this case, spinach, is a Hispanic take on a favorite Pittsburgh Italian dish. (Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette/TNS)
The classic Italian ‘beans and greens’ gets a Latin spin

A charred tomatillo salsa adds a bright and zesty finish to this traditional comfort food.

Ancient White Park cows belonging to Burt Degroot Wednesday afternoon on a pasture on Ebey Island April 1, 2020 (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Snohomish rancher raises an ancient breed of cattle

The distinctive British horned livestock have been around since the Middle Ages.

Public Health Essentials! (Snohomish Health District)
How employers can help defeat this pandemic through vaccination

Public Health Essentials! A blog by the Snohomish Health District.

According to Toyota, the 2021 Sienna minivan’s front design was inspired by the Shinkansen Japanese bullet train to impart a sleek, speedy and confident appearance. (Manufacturer photo)
2021 Toyota Sienna might be a game-changer for minivans

All new from the ground up, this fourth-generation version is styled to the nines. Seriously.

A pile of shoes by the front door can be annoying, but it is also evidence of loved ones living together under one roof. (Jennifer Bardsley)
Remembering to cherish the things a mom takes for granted

Here’s to the noise, the mess and the laughter that fills life between now and when the kids are grown.

Most Read