A 7-year-old girl sits in my office, playing with a squeeze ball we made together. She’s chatty and appears happy. From the outside looking in, you might wonder why she needs weekly therapy. She enjoys her time spent in my office because we play while we talk and she knows that I will listen.
At home, she’s a completely different kid. She acts out. She has angry outbursts. She takes her feelings out on her sisters. She’s not happy.
It takes her a few weeks to open up, but when she does it’s clear that this child is under stress. As it turns out, she fits in her therapy appointments in between math tutoring and violin lessons. Throughout the week she has multiple practices for two different soccer teams, dance class, church choir and art class.
She’s exhausted. She feels constant pressure to perform well in all of her activities and, as it turns out, those angry outbursts occur when she hits her limit—typically at the very end of the day.
Although this particular situation might sound extreme, it really only amounts to one after school activity each day, with the exception of her one very busy day.
Many kids fill their days with sports and activities, sometimes to the detriment of healthy sleep habits and free time. In fact, kids today are so overscheduled that childhood stress appears to be the new normal. We’ve become a society of over-doing, and with that comes over-parenting.
Long gone are the days of wandering the neighborhood in search of friends and time spent lost in self-discovery. Kids today are bombarded with adult-directed activities and their days are often planned from breakfast to bedtime.
When I help parents find a healthy balance within their families, common themes emerge. Many parents over-schedule and over-parent because they are afraid their kids won’t be able to keep up with other kids if they don’t.
They want their kids to succeed. They want to pave the way to a lifetime of happiness by guiding them through the learning process step-by-step. They solve problems for their kids so their kids won’t be stuck with feelings of frustration or discomfort.
The problem, of course, is that the more parents interfere with childhood, the less independent, successful, and happy kids actually are.
Here’s what happens when parents learn to take a step back:
That seemingly elusive passion that parents love to hunt down by way of extracurricular classes and sports is best found by giving kids time to play and fill their own time. When kids have time to make their own discoveries, engage in self-directed play, and cure their own bouts of boredom, they find their inner sparks. They figure out what they’re interested in and what they need to do to develop those interests.
A large barrier to empathy is living a scripted life. When kids lack time to develop their own relationships and work through conflict and obstacles independently, they lose out on opportunities to practice empathy. When parents jump in to solve problems and keep their kids busy to avoid boredom, kids lack the time and space to learn to work through their emotions.
Empathy develops when kids are allowed to feel their feelings, play with friends without adult direction, and spend time lost in play.
“I just want my child to be ” is a phrase uttered by many parents, and for good reason. Negative emotions feel scary and overwhelming, but positive ones feel calming. The thing is, no one is happy every minute of every day, and working through those pesky negative emotions is the best way to experience true happiness.
When parents step back from the need to micromanage and over-schedule, kids are able to bring all of their emotions to the surface and work through them. Childhood marks a crucial period of social-emotional development. We can’t skip over it in the name of creating super-
kids with bright futures. We have to slow down and let them grow and learn at their own pace.
Lack of is a common complaint among parents these days. With all of the talk about the importance of practicing gratitude, it can be anxiety-producing when kids seem to lack gratitude. Here’s the catch with gratitude: When kids are constantly put in the position of measuring up (earning high grades, winning trophies, being the best), gratitude gets pushed aside. To raise grateful kids, we need to learn how to slow down and feel grateful for what we already have.
I can’t tell you how many parents tell me that busy is better because kids don’t get into trouble when they’re busy. The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t account for the very human need to decompress, spend time alone, and simply slow down. What kids tell me is that they just want time to play.
We are living in a culture that runs on stress from the top down. It’s up to us to change it. We have to teach both how to cope with feelings of stress and what preventive measures they can take to avoid, or decrease, stress. This begins with slowing down, verbalizing feelings, and spending time together. There will be time to hone those natural soccer skills later; for now it’s best to dial back the pressure and focus on the importance of childhood.