Are You in a Modern Day Busy Trap with your Children?


A common call that I receive as a therapist is from parents with children who are acting out either through tantrums, defiance, or paralyzed from worry and anxiety. Typically there will be a quality of immediacy to the call and often something becomes blatantly obvious in the equation of the struggle. Let’s see if you can notice it in the following example:

Parent: We need to get in right away but can only do every other Mon at 3:15 or the opposite Wed at 4:25 because she’s in soccer, piano, karate, jump rope, chess club, and dance and then we have homework club and nightly homework because she’s in all AP classes and needs help with that.

WHOA! WAIT A SECOND! HOLD UP! Did you just list 500 after school activities and performance demands? If I only had one hour of free time a week I think I would have a tantrum, get defiant or start to have paralyzing worry and anxiety too. What’s worse is the parents are not having a good time driving the child around, spending all the money for the classes, and keeping up on making sure they are doing all the work load either. Everyone in this scenario is stressed out. It’s a modern day dilemma I believe most of us struggle with: a busy trap! If it’s hard to find an hour in a week for support for immediate and ongoing stress, this might be a major indicator you and your child are over-scheduled.

What is really startling to me is how many parents, really well-meaning, intelligent and loving people cannot see this trap at all. I believe part of the inability to notice the trap is that being busy has become an integral part of our culture and lifestyle. It is also something I believe is unhealthy for all of us. I usually get one of several responses when I address this up front with a gentle, “Do you think that possibly your child is overextended in activities?”  Below I have outlined the responses I hear most often with some of my thoughts as well as questions for parents that I hope are helpful to explore. As you read through them, have compassion for yourself because as I said…this situation is VERY common in our American culture.  

1.       My child WANTS to be in all of these activities 

Sure your child does! And you love them and want to provide, that is a great intention. And they want to eat all the Halloween candy in a few days, but you probably don’t let them do that. As parents it is up to you to watch stress levels and create boundaries, teaching your child to say no is an extremely valuable lesson. There will be time in life to take up dance maybe next summer or school year, focus on karate only for now. It’s also a good lesson in pacing life and learning how to focus on one thing at a time and learning patience.  Also, your children watch you closely and pick up on habits and coping skills, modeling pacing and saying no for yourself is just as important as setting boundaries for them. I like to remind parents often, oxygen mask on you first: if you are stressed your kids are probably picking up on that. Slowing down and caring for yourself is critical in parenting. Some good questions to ask yourself are: What is your relationship to saying no and pacing yourself? What example are you giving to child on scheduling activities and doing things in your own life? Also, do you tend to take everything on at once and expect yourself to be good at them all? How do you cope with that?

2.       We are prepping for a good high school and college; they need the activities on their resume.
I hear this most often from parents with middle school kids, but even from those with grade school children. While I do understand that if you are shooting for elite schools down the road this is a factor I urge you to slow down. I urge you to teach your child to slow down. If we are always pushing toward a performance goal that can create all kinds of unhealthy patterns like feeling you are only worthy if you are achieving instead of feeling worthy just as you are. It can teach kids that they need to be busy all of the time which takes away time for recharging and rejuvenating, getting bored and then creative and imaginative with that boredom, and just being a kid and enjoying the moment. Childhood goes so fast, why are we rushing into college in the second grade? Also, where is the time for your relationship with yourself and loved ones? 

So many times I ask parents when they spend time with their kids and it’s in the car going to and from activities. This is not quality bonding time, if you are so scheduled it is hard to find time to play together or talk this is also an indicator you are over-scheduled.  

Good questions for you are: What is my relationship to self-worth? Do I need to show achievement in order to feel good about myself? What priority do I put on time for myself and relationships? 

3.       I didn’t get this as a child, I want them to have as many opportunities as possible. 

I have so much compassion for this one. Of course you want your children to have more and better, that is another loving intention. I bet you are already providing way more emotionally and logistically for them because you are sensitive to it. This can be a tricky one as I see so many parents living through or for their children. Neither are very healthy or fair for your kiddo. They need room to have their own unique experience of childhood. This will include being able to participate in some things and not in others. They will learn how to accept that, they need to learn to accept that because you cannot do EVERYTHING in life.  Some good questions to ask are: Do I want this for them because I wanted it, or because they want it? Do I feel like I need to give this to be a good parent, and why? What do I provide as a parent in our relationship without activities, bells and whistles?

4.       But all his friends are in them too, he doesn’t want to be left out. 

This one is interesting for me because I talk with so many parents privately. Here is a secret: most of you are miserable carting your kids to all these activities but some of you are doing it because you think you have to in order to keep up with everyone else. Somebody has to break the cycle here and do what’s best for you and your family and not what you think you are supposed to do. Should-ing is never helpful, especially when it comes from comparison. Here is a good question: Am I doing this because I think it is right or good for my child and family, or because I think I should due to societal expectations? 

5.       I believe these are necessary for her growth and well-being.

With schools no longer providing as much physical activity and arts programs I do really understand this one. Don’t get me wrong, I am an advocate for extra-curricular activities as they can provide so much richness in experience and socio-emotional learning. However, do you know what is really not good for well-being? STRESS. If you are in so many activities that it is creating stress for your family it is counter-productive. There is also a lot to be said for free-time and just being a kid, having to figure out what to do with space. In fact, if we need science to back this one there are ample studies on the need for children to process through play and imagination, which takes free-time. It also creates many resiliencies like having to be resourceful, learn patience, delay gratification, increase tolerance of frustration and more. These are also all valuable to a child’s well-being.

Instead of teaching your child to adjust and cope to a world that is over-scheduled and overwhelming for her, maybe it’s about teaching your child boundaries, healthy pacing of activities and stress, and good self-care through cultivating free-time. Ultimately these internal resources will be more valuable for her in life as she approaches any activity.

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