We can’t do it all and we’re harming our mental health trying to balance the demands of our busy lives.
Life can be busy and overwhelming for almost everyone in the family. Many parents and caretakers, whether single or in a partnership, find themselves juggling full-time work (or more!) outside the home, in addition to managing relationships, and taking care of their families. No wonder 1 in 4 Americans claim they are so stressed they can’t function.
Kids and teens aren’t immune to the stress of schedule overload. In addition to the demands of schoolwork, children and adolescents are busier than ever with after-school activities, sports, volunteering, and finding critical time to socialize with friends. Some kids may be driving the busy schedule for fear of being left out by their peers, while many teens feel pressured to stack their schedules to impress potential colleges. On top of that, many parents desire to keep kids productive and provide enriching experiences. While all parties may have good intentions, it leaves everyone’s calendar bursting at the seams.
Surveys Show Our Kids are Stressed
Finding the right balance between outside obligations and healthy family life is more important than ever. While there may be some benefits to keeping kids busy, the constantly hectic schedules can have serious mental health consequences for both parents and kids. Surveys in some towns in Southwestern CT show that 27.1% of youth in grades 7-12 reported feeling anxiety in the past year “almost always,” and 27.4% feel their anxiety makes their lives difficult “nearly all the time.” When asked what the source of this stress or worry is, most adolescents in grades 7-12 reported that it stems from academics and post-high school plans. Stress from peers is also a big concern for middle schoolers, while overloaded schedules cause additional worry for high school students. Youth across all grades frequently admit to feeling “a lot of stress” from measures of academic performance and parental expectations.
The Downside of Overscheduling
Overscheduling can lead to chronic stress, which can significantly impact mental health. Without proper work-life balance, parents and kids may experience burnout, exhaustion, and feeling disconnected from social and family life. Busyness can lead to feeling:
Overscheduling impacts not only mental health but self-esteem, especially for kids who may already be struggling with self-image. It can feel like a letdown when parents or kids cannot complete tasks or uphold obligations. There are other downsides to overscheduling the kids, too, including a lack of mastery and focus, the attributes most colleges look for in an applicant.
Recognizing Warning Signs
So what can you do to put the brakes on stress? Learning how to identify stress in both you and your kids is the first step. Stress can affect your body, mood, and behavior. In adults, it can have physical symptoms such as:
Increased irritability/anger or other mood changes
Lack of motivation and focus
You may also notice an increase in unhealthy habits, such as overeating, new or increased substance use, social withdrawal, or even angry outbursts.
For children and teens, look for specific signs of stress according to age. Kids who are stressed due to overscheduling might feel more tired, depressed, or anxious, complain of headaches and stomachaches, and fall behind in school, resulting in a drop in grades. Remember, every person, whether adult or child, is different and may experience stress differently.
How to Find Balance
Once you’ve identified the stress in your life, the next step is to start thinking about how you’ll handle your overloaded schedule to minimize stress. Finding that balance between work and home responsibilities is critical for parents and caregivers. Setting strict boundaries between work and home life is a great place to start. Find ways to make work less stressful with better time management and good communication with your boss and coworkers, which can help you set the strong boundaries you need. If you work from home, set defined rules with your household about your work hours, how you can be communicated with during that time, and what, if anything, you can realistically get done around the house during the work day. Working with your partner to coordinate household activities at home, especially those involving the kids, can help you manage your schedule.
Practical things you can do to ease the stress:
Have weekly meetings with your family to outline the plans for the week
Meal plan/prep for the week in advance
Reach out for extra support when needed (call a friend, neighbor, family member, or babysitter). Stay active with exercise, even if it’s something simple like a morning walk with the dog or an evening jog
Making time for hobbies and friends
treat your body well with healthy foods and good sleep
Some kids (and parents) can handle more activities and commitments than others. The golden rule for parents and kids is not to overcommit. Understanding your kids and their limits, whatever they may be, will help you guide their schedules better. Here are some helpful tips:
Consider self-directed activities for a structured block of time to give your kids space and grow their independence.
Keep a visible calendar for everyone in the family, and teach kids how long their activities take, so they can learn to help manage their own time.
Carve out scheduled family time, and remember the importance of downtime for everyone. Try to be flexible when you can, as much as you can. It’s okay to miss an activity from time to time and let your child or teen just enjoy the day. If you’re finding that you’re still overloaded, give yourself permission to drop an activity or two. Kids might resist giving something up, but if you involve them in the decision and explain what they will gain in return, which is less stress and more time for themselves, you may convince them to come around.
Practice healthy stress management techniques as a family, such as setting a weekly check-in meeting and consistently reminding your kids that you are there for them if they want to talk. Teens, especially, might try to pull away during stressful moments. Don’t let them. Experts say that when you are aware of your children’s needs, your kids “function better, feel better, think more positively, and are better able to adapt to difficult circumstances.”
Don’t forget, when you’re stressed and worried, your kids are likely to feel the same way. Practicing healthy habits to reduce the stress in your life will allow you to help your kids better manage their stress. This will go a long way in achieving a healthy family life balance.