September 4, 2017 5:00 pm
Updated: September 5, 2017 12:46 pm

Kids activities: When too many extracurriculars lead to anxiety

WATCH: Experts say creating a balanced schedule and being aware of when your children need a break are key.

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More than 70 per cent of parents polled in a recent Global News/Ipsos survey say it’s important to keep children as busy as possible with structured activities. At the same time, however, more than half of the same parents also said extracurricular activities can take up too much of children’s schedules.

The results likely reflect the conflict that many parents face when signing up for after-school activities. Two voices echo in our heads.

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READ MORE: The cheapest and most expensive kids activities in Canada: Ipsos poll

First, we hear the voice of Malcolm Gladwell, the bestselling author: “10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness.” Will we shortchange our kids – compromising their ability to become the next Wayne Gretzky or Yo-Yo Ma – if we don’t pack their schedule with as many activities as we can?

The second voice tells us that children need time to just play, a notion that’s backed up by an increasing amount of research and is making its way into popular culture.

READ MORE: Montreal psychologist suggests fighting anxiety in children with mindfulness

So how can parents tell how much is too much?

How to craft a balanced schedule

Start by making sure your children’s day includes enough time for the essentials, said Dr. Shimi Kang, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist and creator of Dolphin Kids, a children’s achievement program. You can do so by asking yourself the following questions:

1. Are they getting enough sleep?

“Studies show 40 per cent of children are sleep deprived simply because they are too busy,” said Kang. “That is absolutely unacceptable.”

Sleep deprivation in children can lead to a range of health and developmental consequences, she added. According to one study, teens who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to struggle with verbal creativity, problem-solving, and generally score lower on IQ tests.

Parents should ensure their children are getting an age-appropriate amount of sleep. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, that’s 10-13 hours for children ages 3 to 5; between 9 and 12 hours for kids up to age 12; and 8-10 hours until age 18.

WATCH: Healthy sleep habits to get the kids ready for back to school

2. Do they have some time to play every day?

Children need time to play every day, said Kang. Studies show unstructured play contributes to stress reduction while enhancing problem-solving and creative thinking, she noted.

For older kids, “play” may mean participating in a loosely-structured activity that allows for plenty of individual exploration and interaction with others.

This could be a dance class with instruction mixed with freestyling and lots of opportunity for team work, instead of a more demanding ballet class, said Kang.

Still, playtime should be about active play, not sitting in front of a screen, she added.

3. Is there time for everyone to sit down at the dinner table?

Too many families grab a quick bite in the car every evening as they’re rushing from, say, piano lessons to soccer practice. Siblings sometimes don’t see each other at dinner because of conflicting schedules. But sitting down for dinner together is hugely important for child development, said Kang.

Having family dinners at least four nights a week reinforces family bonds and fosters a sense of security, studies have shown.

Families who sit down together for dinner have a lower incidence of teen drug use, pregnancy and kids getting in trouble with the law, said Oren Amitay, a registered psychologist and lecturer at Ryerson University in Toronto.

WATCH: Encouraging family dinners

Use a 24-hour schedule to figure out how much time to devote to extracurriculars

Parents can use a 24-hour schedule in order to determine how much time to devote to after-school activities, said Kang.

“Shade out time for sleep, school, homework, dinner and playtime every day,” she said. Whatever is left, you can fill up with activities.

READ MORE: Helping kids deal with back-to-school anxiety

If the schedule doesn’t work for you, it probably doesn’t work for them, either

Shuttling your kids from activity to activity every afternoon might seem like your parental duty. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, likely so are they, said Amitay.

“Being busy isn’t necessarily bad, but kids pick up on the atmosphere around them,” he noted. “It’s the tension, the frustration, the panic in trying to arrange all these things.”

And it doesn’t take a tiger mom (or dad) to fall into the over-scheduling trap. Peer pressure is often what leads parents to over-commit, said Amitay.

READ MORE: Your anxiety about math could be bringing down your kids’ performance

Sometimes, it’s the age-old issue of keeping up with the Joneses: If other people’s kids have two extracurriculars every afternoon, your kid should have just as many or possibly more.

Sometimes it’s what Amitay calls “guilt-driven parenting.” If everyone else shuffles their kids to a seemingly unending list of afternoon appointments, you’d be lazy for doing anything less.

Both attitudes are made worse by social media and send off the wrong vibe, said Amitay.

Parents need to be self-aware and really question why they’re doing what they’re doing, he added. Is it because that’s what’s best for the children or because of a gut reaction from the latest Facebook or Instagram post?

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No, your children won’t fall behind because they didn’t sign up for enough extracurriculars

Of course, many parents’ gnawing fear is that they might be sabotaging their children’s future by holding back on after-school activities.

It doesn’t help that getting into a top U.S. university, an ambition harboured by many Canadian families, often required a “tick-the-box resume” jammed full of extracurriculars, said Kang.

But overscheduling can actually be counterproductive, harming children’s academic achievement and personal development, she warned.

Gladwell’s 10,000-hour quote has been grossly misunderstood, it seems. As the author himself has pointed out, without a certain amount of innate ability, countless hours of practice won’t lead to success.

But even those born with once-in-a-generation natural talent didn’t achieve greatness through 10,000 hours of extracurriculars, said Kang.

“Gretzky didn’t get 10,000 hours of structured hockey practice. Lots of it was free play.”

Children who have a particular aptitude for a certain activity need the freedom to explore it driven by their own passion, rather than a schedule, Kang added.

READ MORE: Mom’s back-to-school rant on buying school supplies goes viral

And too much stress and structured activity can lead to serious deficiencies.

Kids who didn’t spend enough time in open-ended, self-directed activities generally have less “executive functioning,” a set of skills that “help them in all kinds of ways throughout their daily lives, from flexibly switching between different activities rather than getting stuck on one thing, to stopping themselves from yelling when angry, to delaying gratification.

Executive functioning during childhood also predicts important outcomes, like academic performance, health, wealth and criminality, years and even decades later,” reads a 2014 study published in the Journal Frontiers of Psychology.

“I see this all the time in medical students,” said Kang.

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When to let your kid quit

Though scheduling too many after-school activities can be detrimental, so is leaving your children to fend for themselves every afternoon. “Some structure is good,” said Kang.

So when does a stomping “I don’t want to go!” signal that your child has too much on her or his plate?

Any parent may occasionally need to resort to a certain amount of cajoling to get the kids to wherever they need to be on time, said Amitay. And that’s OK.

Getting your kids to show up even when they don’t feel like it is a chance to teach persistence and accountability, he noted.

Extracurriculars are also an opportunity for them to pick up skills that will give them a leg up in life. They might hate their private language classes now, but they will thank you for them later, Amitay said.

The key is to avoid overdoing it. It’s fine to occasionally remind your offspring of how much you spent on fees and equipment for a sport they said they wanted to play. But bringing up money every time they drag their feet could lead to stress and anxiety, said Amitay.

And sometimes, your child just needs a break, he added. Distinguishing between tantrums and signs that your child is overwhelmed or genuinely miserable can be hard. But most of the time, parents who are “tuned in” will know.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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