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FAMILY OVERLOAD!

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by Susan Newman, PhD

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From early morning to late evening, most families buzz with non-stop activity that shifts into overdrive during the school year. Once school gets underway, and before extracurricular sign-up sheets abound, the impulse to engage your children in multiple endeavors becomes hard to resist.

Why hyper-scheduled children?
Children want to do what their friends do and parents worry that someone else’s child may be getting an edge by engaging in a particular activity. Parenting has become its own competitive sport, with laudatory bumper stickers, test scores and college decisions as trophies. Kids soon learn that they are valued for what they do, instead of the kind of people they are. Resist the temptation to encourage multiple activities because you think your child will benefit from a crammed schedule, or because neighbors and friends brag about their own or their children’s respective craziness.

With the increasingly competitive college application process, you and/or your child may wrongly assume that more in the way of activities is better. A packed resume is not an advantage in the college admissions game. Colleges often limit the amount of space designated for extracurricular activities, and many college admissions counselors are advising prospective students to devote themselves fully to pursuits they genuinely love.

Fallout from over-scheduling
When you say “yes” to over-scheduling, you also say “no” to your family. Overburdened families are more prone to arguing than their less-frenetic counterparts and are less likely to spend time together. Twenty years ago, parents worked about nine fewer hours per week than those raising their families today.

With some 41 million children participating in organized competitive sports, between practices, travel and games, schoolwork and homework, and other commitments such as lessons in music or the arts, only moments remain for hanging out with family. And those occasions are often spent with parents and children entertaining themselves electronically and individually.

While there are many pluses to enjoyable sports and assorted lessons, piling on commitments has an opposite, even negative effect on family connections and on children’s health. In an analysis of five decades’ worth of research, Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, found that today’s children and college-age students are overburdened to a degree once seen in child psychiatric patients in the 1950s. According to a survey by Liberty Mutual and Students Against Destructive Decisions, 43 percent of 13- to 14-year-olds feel stressed every single day; between the ages of 15 to 17, this number grows to 59 percent. And, sleeplessness — usually blamed on late-night video game playing and online chatting — is more likely to be caused by stress. A Sleep in America poll reports that as many as two-thirds of children experience one or more sleep problems at least a few nights a week.

10 pointers to stop the frenzy:
Extracurricular activity participation is voluntary, and thus completely in your (and your child’s) control. Here are a few tips to counter the pressure and fight the urge to over-schedule your children:

—Embrace unstructured play time because it helps children develop creatively and to learn how to fill time on their own.

—Fit in as many family dinners as possible especially during the school year. It’s one of the rare times you are most likely to discover problems your child might be having at school or with friends.

—Learn to say NO when your child begs and whines to add another activity to his already crowded schedule.

—Examine the request together. Just like saying “no” to commitment excess, good decision-making is a learned skill. Before your child signs up yet again, help her to figure out how many meetings or practices there will be per month, if there will be dues, competitions, fundraising.

—Consider your family size and ages of your other children. Is dragging along your baby or toddler doable without adding to your own stress and anxiety?

—Be a good stress example. Children learn how to manage stress by watching their parents. If you find yourself reeling with stress, screaming at life’s frustrations instead of finding a resolution, you can’t expect your children to understand the proper way to react when they are overloaded and exhausted.

—Accept the fact that children get over disappointment far faster than adults. It’s safe to presume that your child will not be on a therapist’s couch 20 years from now blaming you for the lessons you denied or the team you didn’t let her join. She’ll find something far more significant.

—Being less overwhelmed reduces the chances that you will lose your temper with your children and making both you and them miserable.

—Forget keeping up with the Joneses.

—Reserve time to build family ties and events that become important memories and critical touching points in later years.

For more on how to reduce overload by saying NO to your children, friends, family and at work, see: www.thebookofno.com.

SUSAN NEWMAN, Ph.D., teaches at Rutgers. She is a social psychologist and author of 13 parenting and relationship books including, ‘The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It — and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever’ (McGraw-Hill); ‘Parenting an Only Child, The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only’ (Broadway/Doubleday); ‘Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day’ (Random House/Crown); ‘Little Things Mean A Lot: Creating Happy Memories with Your Grandchildren’ (Random House/Crown); among others. Visit: www.susannewmanphd.com.


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