How Do You Know When Extracurriculars Are Too Much?

Take your child’s emotional temperature

Is there a child in this country who doesn’t have a host of extracurricular activities on his or her schedule? After-school programs, soccer practice, violin lessons, chess club, gymnastics, play rehearsals, or some combination thereof—our kids often have more complex itineraries than corporate CEOs!

For many children, these activities are a great way to get exercise, make new friends, expand their horizons, and yes, become “well-rounded,” that catchphrase that colleges and parents esteem. Organized and active kids may not have a problem fitting everything into their day (and night). But for other children, trying to juggle all the extracurriculars with school and homework while still getting enough sleep is just too much. They may feel overwhelmed, under pressure, or incompetent if they can’t do it all. That’s why it’s important to keep taking your kid’s emotional temperature.

Ideally, this starts at the beginning of the school year, before you and your child sign up for all those activities. You know your child better than anyone—maybe better than he knows himself! So take an assessment: “What is his personality? What are her passions? How does he handle stress? How hard or easy is schoolwork for her?” This should help determine which activities, and how many, are appropriate this year.

During the school year, keep checking in with your child

to see how they’re handling their various commitments. This may be as easy as asking, “How did practice go today?” If you get the answer you’re looking for, count your blessings! Other kids are less forthcoming, as parents of teenagers can attest. (“How was school today?” “Fine.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.”)

Look for signs of moodiness, irritability, or temper flare-ups that may indicate they’re feeling stretched too thin. Younger children may complain of stomachaches or headaches, or display regressive behavior. Older kids may appear more anxious, or exhibit more sensitivity to minor issues.

The most important thing you can do is to be available. Don’t pursue them with yet more interrogation. Find opportunities to have casual conversation during car rides, or while preparing dinner. Sometimes it helps not to look at them! Just let conversation evolve, and listen with empathy. Validate their feelings. When your kids feel they can trust you not to judge them, they’ll be more willing to open up to you in the future.

If it looks like your child is stressed out by too many activities, or an activity that is making them miserable, be realistic. It’s okay to drop an activity—really! I know we all want to teach our children about upholding commitments, and we want them to excel. But is the sport or the instrument or the club taking a toll on your child? Are they having a hard time getting their homework done? Are they depressed or anxious? Drop it! Trust me, their well-being is more important.

And now I’m going to say something that sounds completely contradictory: I want you to schedule one more thing into your day! Make time for flextime. This is what I call that precious period of time when kids can do nothing (note that “nothing” ≠ screen time!), and when you can simply be together as a family. This may mean banning phones from the table—you too, Mom and Dad!—so you can enjoy dinner conversation that gives each member of the family a chance to talk about their day. Or it may mean reading aloud to your kids at night; I know plenty of people who continue to do this when their kids are 7, 8, and 9 years old and it is a cherished family tradition. If you can dedicate time to truly connect with your kids for 30 minutes each day, your children will thrive emotionally.

Meanwhile, remember to take your kids’ emotional temperature. Keep an eye on it. And if something is out of whack, it’s time to talk!