Warning signs of burnout: Are your kids doing too much?

Sep 28, 2007 at 9:29 p.m. ET

In today's world kids are often overbooked — sports, school activities, after-school jobs. When is it too much? Learn about the warning signs of stress and burnout, and when to let your child throw in the towel and quit.

Overscheduled kid

Stacy DeBroff, author of Sign Me Up! The Parents' Complete Guide to Sports, Activities, Music Lessons, Dance Classes, and Other Extracurriculars, explains.

Just like when your computer gets overloaded, and a message flashes across your screen to let you know — warning signs of stress also let you know when your child has overloaded.

Warning signs of stressed out kids

Parents need to be on the lookout for symptoms such as:

  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Combativeness
  • Feelings of dejection
  • Apathy
  • Fatigue
  • Inability to concentrate or sleep often emanates from overscheduling and relentlessly intense weekly schedules, pressure to excel or a combination of both

Other signs of stress include:

  • Uncharacteristic tantrums
  • Headaches and stomachaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stress or depression
  • Being lethargic or unmotivated
  • Falling behind in schoolwork, being exhausted or withdrawn all the time, refusing to go to practice, intense anxiety before competitions or performances, irritability, misbehavior, moodiness and aggressiveness

If your child dreads going to an activity or practice, this should raise an immediate red flag.

Talk with your child about how she's doing. Does she wish she had more time hanging out around the house? More spontaneous play dates like bringing a friend home from school? Time to be alone? Sleeping in? Playing with kids next door? Curling up with a book and reading during the day for pleasure? Ask open-ended questions to allow her to vent.

How to respond when a child wants to quit

When is it okay for your child to stop participating in an activity or sport? How do you respond when your child announces, "I quit!" two practices into a sport? What do you do when your child declares, "I hate flute and I'm never going back!" Of course, this is often the same activity she begged you to sign her up for in the first place.

You will likely find yourself wondering more than once during the course of your child's growth years how you should handle your child's announcement that she's had enough.

Sometimes it's worth waiting to see if the complaining is just the result of a bad day or a bad mood. If your child goes to an activity complaining but consistently comes out smiling and talking about what fun she had, everything's fine. But if not, listen to your child and take her complaints seriously.

Ask your child why she wants to quit and what prompted her decision. Just give her time to vent and then go from there. Look for a practical solution.

Evaluate whether there are intermediate steps to quitting. Could your child miss one of the two practices a week and still play on the team? Could she switch from an elite team to a recreational one that places less time demands or pressure on her?

Don't bribe

Never use bribes, rewards or the threat of punishment in order to get your child to continue an activity. The minute you find yourself tempted to do so, it's likely that you are bringing your own strong feelings about the activity into the mix. The point of activities should be fun, learning and skill-building. Using rewards to keep her going undermines the character building and internal motivation that activities can ignite.

Your child's desire to quit can become emotional for you as well given all the time, money, and emotional investment you make in her activities. After spending thousands of dollars on lessons, elite teams, travel, specialty camps and tournaments, it is easy to want to see a return on your investment. This could result from either your child achieving a certain level of success or happiness from the pursuit. Blowing off flute or ballet after years of lessons no longer becomes a casual decision.

Sometimes you can address your child's frustration and quickly resolve it, while at other points moving on to something else makes the most sense. At other times, you may want your child to stick out the activity either because she made a commitment or you consider it to be essential.

Your difficult job is to help your child ascertain when quitting makes sense, as it raises important issues including burnout, overload, commitment, perseverance and getting enough physical exercise.

Encouraging your child to wait and see

Many kids go through periods when they question their commitment to an activity. Your job is to help your child ascertain if something is a phase that will pass or an irresolvable issue.

Do you pull your child out of an activity the minute she expresses dissatisfaction? Reach an agreement with your child that she must do her best for a specific amount of time. Talk with your child about giving new activities a fair chance.

Set a "wait and see" time period for the rest of the season or the remaining prepaid lessons. After that point, she can decide whether she still wants to quit or wants to stick with it. This extra time may enable her to enjoy the activity, or at the very least be able to make a more informed decision about quitting.

Quitting teaches your child instant gratification as opposed to working hard at something that has a deeper, lasting satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. It also promotes a philosophy of simply jumping from one thing to the next the minute something doesn't make her feel good. You don't want your child to make giving up a repeated pattern that carries over to other areas or into her adult life.

While you should take her feelings seriously, make it a basic family rule that your child should "stick it out" unless her physical or emotional well-being is at stake. Your child must then put thought into the sign-up process, understanding that she must honor her commitments, especially to a team who is depending on her.

Up next: More about overscheduled kids

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