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Tweens and Teens

Avoiding the Over-Programming Dilemma

Teaching Teens the Importance of Free Time

August 01, 2009
The summer days go quickly. Suddenly it's "scheduling time" again, and we find ourselves trying to figure out how all of our kids' upcoming activities can fit into a week: "If the piano lesson is on Tuesday night, then you can take the Monday/Wednesday swim team class; but if the math tutor can only come on Thursday, we'll have to switch dance to Friday at 6 p.m. which means you'll have to take the Saturday morning computer skills session and you won't be able to keep your babysitting job with the Mueller's."

Hobbies and extracurricular interests can be wonderful for tweens and teens. These activities provide the learning experiences they crave and help them grow both intellectually and socially. Mastering new skills gives them a sense of purpose and builds self-esteem. Trying out new projects and pastimes, finding out what they are good at, discovering their likes and dislikes, and meeting and interacting with others, help kids shape their identities and grow beyond their own families.

But where is the line between taking advantage of these opportunities and being overscheduled? Is it possible to give kids too many chances to learn and grow? Are they susceptible to the same feelings of stress that adults feel when they have too much to do and not enough time in which to do it? On the other hand, if they have too much free time, might they feel unproductive and bored? Or, worse yet, get into "trouble?" (We've been told what idle hands can lead to.)

Young teens are especially vulnerable to over-scheduling. Because of the demands of homework and school activities (band, chorus, athletic teams, etc) kids may already be very busy before adding on additional after-school interests. And since their enthusiasm for exploring their expanding world can exceed their ability to set limits for themselves, they can easily feel overwhelmed.

Sometimes parents contribute to this problem as well. In an effort to keep their kids occupied with productive activities or offer their kids options that weren't available when they were young, it's easy to go overboard. The result can be too much pressure and not enough down time. Adolescents have a growing capacity for self-discovery. But they also need some quiet time in order to discover that they can be comfortable with solitude and with themselves. This allows them to develop the kind of self-confidence that can help them steer clear of seeking quick fixes in more dangerous ways. When they know how to live without being constantly entertained or rushing from one activity to the next, they have more confidence in their ability to tolerate unfilled time.

Down time helps to promote self-awareness and growth. The early 17th century poet, George Herbert, wrote, "By all means, take some time to be alone . . . and see what thy soul doth wear." Time alone gives kids a chance to let their minds wander, to feel their feelings, and to reconnect with themselves. During unstructured time there is room for daydreaming, creativity and spontaneous growth. Half an hour with "nothing to do" pushes a child to look inside for inspiration and direction, allowing him to discover and become his authentic self. (That's half an hour spent in quiet, not staring at the TV.)

When helping your child lay out their schedule for this school year, try to plan in some quiet, unstructured time. Keep these guidelines in mind:

Activities should be balanced with breaks and free time. Kids shouldn't move from school to sports to homework without a pause. Help them to take breaks in between activities, or purposely plan one free day each week to give them a chance to relax and recharge.

The signs of over programming can be subtle. A child may appear anxious or agitated, overwhelmed or on-edge. He may have trouble concentrating or staying awake in school. He may begin to withdraw or grow more quiet than usual, missing activities because he "doesn't feel good." (Stomachaches and headaches are common complaints of overscheduled children.) His energy level may appear lower than usual, and it may be harder to get him to complete his regular tasks.

Involve your child in the scheduling and decision-making process. Make observations and suggestions but let her make the final choice about which sport or skill to try next, whenever possible. Help her to learn about the realistic limits of time, finances and energy. If she wants to participate in five activities but you can only afford three, help her to prioritize. Help her to make activity choices that create balance between physical and cognitive skills, relational and individual talents.

Modeling healthy behavior is one of the most effective ways to teach it. When you create and sustain your own balanced spaces between work, laundry and the PTO, you and your children can reap the benefits of the physical and emotional peace that comes from simply "being."

The capacity to be alone is a mark of emotional health and inner security. When kids know that they can tolerate some empty time and space in their lives, they don't need to run from it. Without this kind of security they are more likely to feel the need to "fill in at any cost," which can push them toward substance abuse or unhealthy relationships just to keep from being alone.

Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 25 and 29. She can be reached at 847-782-1722.

Lisa M. Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois, and the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 24.
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