Bad behaviour or stressed-out kids?
“As parents, we tend to unwittingly overload our kids with activities. We just want them to have the best. But this non-stop routine can sometimes actually be unhealthy, so let’s rethink how we can find time for downtime”
You love your kids. You want them to have the best. It’s hard to say no to music lessons, sports sign-ups, playdates, birthday parties, trips to the museum/art gallery/cultural centre etc, especially when we’re told of all the brain-boosting effects these activities have. We live in a world of opportunities and we want to do all we can to develop our child’s full potential. But did you know that participating in all these extra activities has been correlated with symptoms of stres in our kids? (Melman, Little and Angelesque, 2007)
Signs of stress in children, which can indicate you might need to start scheduling downtime, include:
- You’ve noticed your child has difficulty making friends
- They don’t sleep or eat well
- They struggle to concentrate
- Your child regularly has big meltdowns over minor frustrations/ disappointments
- Your child has started being more clingy
- Your child complains of stomach aches, feeling unwell or is crying more easily than before.
If you notice your child in the signs above and know that you often feel time-pressured, rushing from one activity to the next, then try implementing some of the strategies below.
Easy ways to increase downtime
Limit the total number of activities your child/ren can do per week.
Your individual lifestyle will dictate this, but remember the more activities, the higher the risk of creating anxiety in your child (Melman, Little and Angelesque, 2007). Consider hidden costs in activities like long drive times or weekend commitments when choosing which activities are most valuable to your child. Never force a child to do an activity they really don’t like because it’s ‘good for them’- provide an alternate activity that promotes the same benefits.
Aim to create a break of thirty minutes a day to play with your child, doing whatever they want to do. If you can’t make 30 minutes every day, start with 30 minutes on the weekend, and 5-10 minutes during weekdays. Let your child choose the game and lead the play. This fosters a sense of control over their life and builds self-esteem (Ginsburg, 2007).
Plan regular ‘boredom’ time.
This is time in the daily schedule when kids are not given any direction regarding how to use their time. Refuse to be available to entertain them during this time. It may be painful at first, but your child will quickly figure out what to do with this time if you stay firm.
Set up a daily mindfulness break (try an app like Smiling Mind which has a dedicated kids program) in your family. Mindfulness teaches kids to lower their stress levels through activities like ‘belly breathing’ and safe space visualisations. These activities can help limit meltdowns, which are caused by an overload of stress in children (Rempel, K. 2012).
Talk to your children about how they’re feeling.
Start conversations about what activities/people/situations they like and don’t like. Rushing from activity to activity robs us of the chance to connect with our child because the focus is on the activity, rather than building the connection between the two of you.
It’s through conversations that focus on what is happening in the child’s life, and how they feel about it, that can help you catch and resolve problems that could be causing them stress early.
Talking to your child in this way also helps them to build emotional intelligence, which is defined by having the ability and words to recognise how you, and others around you, are feeling, and why those feelings might be there. As you teach your child this, you can also teach them what to do when they feel that way, guiding them to better solutions than letting it all build up and then exploding in a tantrum. Emotional intelligence helps your child build social connections and promotes wellbeing. (Grewal, Brackett and Salovey, 2006).
The benefits of scheduling downtime are well worth it. Once the FOMO about not participating in everything on offer settles down, you’ll see the benefits of unstructured play in your child, which can include
- Enhanced creativity
- Greater decision making and problem-solving skills
- Increased ability to cope with, and resolve fears
- Better conflict resolution skills
- Increased ability to relate to other people and build strong bonds with both other children and adults
- Higher self-confidence and independence in your child
- Better readiness to learn at school
All of these benefits add up to a resilient child who is able to persevere in the face of difficulty and connect with and relate to a wide range of people. Not bad for a free activity where you don’t have to leave the house!
Lana Hall is a therapist at Sage and Sound in Brisbane.