How to Help Your "Overprogrammed" Kids Deal With the Stress and Pressure

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Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

As parents, it’s natural to want to expose our children to as many opportunities and interests as possible. But with every extra class or sports practice, the competing expectations of school and extracurriculars can result in a jam-packed schedule that leaves little space for downtime and self-care. 

When this happens, our children are at risk of becoming overprogrammed, which means that their busy schedules are too demanding for them. This can result in feelings of stress, anxiety and general feelings of overwhelm.

“While organized activities clearly developmentally benefit children, it’s sometimes less clear when a child is overscheduled to a point of it being detrimental,” says Amy Morse, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Orange County.

Here, we are taking a deeper look into the signs that your child could be overprogrammed and explore how you can help your child balance their schedule to ensure that it supports their development.

What Does Overprogrammed Mean?

Whether it’s chess, track, or learning a new language, having active interests outside of school has been shown to enrich your children's lives. What’s more, studies indicate that participating in organized activities during adolescence reduces the chance of them engaging in risky behavior.

However, scheduling too many extracurricular activities can also have a detrimental effect on a child’s wellbeing. Overprogramming or overscheduling are terms to describe when the pressure of managing competing responsibilities results in stress and anxiety. An overprogrammed child may begin to have strong reactions to an activity they previously enjoyed. This could show up as them taking it too seriously or even not wanting to go at all.

Aliza Pressman, PhD

It's really not about what you're scheduling, it's about taking into account your child's temperament and how they're responding to all of the scheduling.

— Aliza Pressman, PhD

The point at which a child becomes overprogrammed differs from child to child. While some kids might feel energized by a busy schedule, others might feel depleted by taking a couple of extra classes a week. So it’s important to pay close attention to your child’s response to their commitments and focus less on how many commitments they have.

“Keep in mind your child's temperament because overscheduling is going to mean something different for different kids and different families,” urges Aliza Pressman, PhD, a professor of pediatrics and psychologist at Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital in New York City. "It's really not about what you're scheduling, it's about taking into account your child's temperament and how they're responding to all of the scheduling."

As such, it’s important to stay vigilant to the signs that your child could be feeling the pressure of their busy schedule.  

Signs Your Child Is Overprogrammed

Some of the early signals that a child's schedule is impacting their wellbeing include a reluctance to participate, regularly missing mealtimes with family, disrupted sleep, and falling behind at school. When this overprogramming happens, a child may find it hard to function under the weight of their competing commitments.

“Some signs that a child is too busy are changes in mood or less motivation to engage in previously enjoyable activities,” says Dr. Morse. “Kids may also experience physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches. Other children may feel restless or distracted when they are overwhelmed. They might also feel tired or depressed, as well as miss meals or sleep. Their academic performance might also slip."

Stress is a common byproduct of an overprogrammed child, regardless of their age. While stress for a pre-schooler might result in acting out, you might notice your teenager becoming snappier or more agitated than usual. 

Dr. Pressman

It doesn't really affect [younger and older children] in different ways, it just manifests in different ways. But all of it is a reaction to too much stress.

— Dr. Pressman

“For 3-year-olds, too many activities—including scheduled playdates—is going to lead to tantrums,” explains Dr. Pressman. “Whereas in a teenager, it might lead to being even more short-tempered than usual, poor coping skills, feeling a sense that they can't manage everything, and disconnecting from things that they enjoy. It doesn't really affect [younger and older children] in different ways, it just manifests in different ways. But all of it is a reaction to too much stress.”

If you suspect that your child's schedule is causing them stress or anxiety, it could be time to explore where this pressure to perform is coming from.

Why Are Kids Overprogrammed?

There are several reasons why kids can become overprogrammed, ranging from college application prep, their temperament and tolerance of a busy schedule, and their own motivational drivers.

“Children of all ages may exhibit signs of overscheduling," says Dr. Morse. "In teens, however, the risk of being overscheduled might accelerate due to a more rigorous college admissions process. More often teens are encouraged to have multiple extracurricular activities under their belt as they prepare for college applications.”

However, parents may also inadvertently play a part in piling on the pressure for our children to participate in as much as possible, born out of a natural desire for them to achieve. Competition among peers–for both parents and kids–can see schedules becoming increasingly busy, and along with it comes a high expectation to perform.  

“Of course, we all have desires for what opportunities our children can have,” says Suniya Luthar, PhD, a professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College and Chief Research Officer at Authentic Connections, an organization focused on fostering school-based resilience and community change. “And if there are five different extracurriculars or even academic, advanced placement courses, you want your child to have access to that. But at what point does it become not worth it? And the answer to that is when the child starts getting worn out.”

While teenagers without enough scheduled activities are at higher risk of engaging in risky behavior, children under too much pressure to juggle competing commitments can easily become overprogrammed. So, when it comes to setting a schedule, it’s important to find the right balance for your child.

How Can I Help My Child Balance Their Schedule?

A schedule that consists of consistently rushing home to complete homework and grab a quick dinner before heading back out for an activity can, understandably, leave some children feeling overwhelmed. Play close to attention to how they are functioning. Are they getting enough sleep? Are they keeping up at school? What about their downtime

“When it comes to setting a schedule, start backward,” advises Dr. Pressman. Think about what your non-negotiables are, such as getting a good night’s sleep, keeping on top of homework, and having unstructured time to relax. Once you have allocated time for those, see if there is enough time left over to schedule an activity. 

“Make sure your child has adequate sleep time, mealtimes, and downtime—and downtime [that] is not staring at your screen,” says Dr. Pressman. “Downtime is talking to your family, hanging out with your friends.” Unstructured downtime is crucial for children of all ages in order to recharge, while younger children learn through unstructured play.

Dr. Pressman

Make sure your child has adequate sleep time, mealtimes, and downtime—and downtime [that] is not staring at your screen.

If your child’s schedule has a habit of spiraling out of control, consider setting ground rules ahead of every school term. This could be playing one sport per season (and try a clinic first before committing to the whole season) or limiting activities to two afternoons or evenings through the week. Every family’s schedule will vary, so set limitations that work for you and your child.

“Families can also map out the time commitments so everyone has a sense of what is involved,” advises Dr. Morse. “For example, consider whether there is time to practice an instrument between lessons when factoring in other commitments. Ask a child if they understand that soccer practice might be right after school and until dinner time. How will that impact their homework or downtime?”

Dr. Luthar advises parents have regular honest, open conversations with their child about how they are feeling and allowing them to communicate their needs. Ultimately, when it comes to your child’s schedule, try to be flexible. “If kids need some downtime, get comfortable with allowing them to miss a few sessions a season, if needed,” says Dr. Morse. “A lesson in commitment and follow-through will not be compromised by taking a breather now and then."

A Word From Verywell

As parents, we all want our kids to develop passions and carve out their own interests. And, if balanced according to their needs and interests, extracurricular activities can be a great way to achieve this.

However, too many scheduled activities can leave some children feeling overprogrammed. This can lead to kids feeling stressed and anxious. The point at which this can happen depends largely on their temperament, so pay attention to how your child is feeling and adjust their schedule if necessary.

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