By Darlene Sweetland and Ron Stolberg
Parents feel pressure to provide their children with every advantage to get ahead. From choosing the perfect preschool to finding the best enrichment activities, parents often fear their children will be behind if they miss an opportunity for advancement. This is the pressure trap. Most parents know when their kids’ schedules are too full, but there is a lot of pressure parents feel to make sure their children don’t miss out. In addition, when parents see the abundance of social media posts that show what it seems like “all of the other kids” are doing, it is a strong pull. The pressure trap can lead to kids who do not have enough unstructured or down time.
As psychologists we see two consequences to this. First, we see kids who are overwhelmed and stressed out with all of their commitments. What begins as, “I just want my children to be happy” and “I want them to develop their own interests,” turns into “They need to play on the competitive sports team” and “They need to add more extracurricular activities for their college application.” The second pattern we see: kids who do not know how to manage unstructured time. When adults structure their schedule, children have no need to make decisions about how to plan their day, solve a problem, manage their time, and prioritize activities. When children have to figure out what to do with unstructured time they learn tolerance, problem-solving, and how to adapt to unexpected changes in plans.
5 tips to avoid the pressure trap
1. Listen to your kids If you are hearing your children say things such as “I’m tired,” “I don’t want to go,” or “I’m burned out” there is a chance they are overscheduled.
2. Provide electronics-free unstructured time Make sure there are at least two periods of time per week that your child is not in a scheduled activity. This time is free choice, without electronics. It can be done alone or with other kids. This may be difficult for some kids, but don’t give in. If they say they are bored, it means they need more practice.
3. Don’t say “Yes” to everything Resist the pressure to enroll your child in everything. Prioritize your child’s favorite things and family commitments, then add activities only as free time allows.
4. Avoid the impulsive “Yes” Don’t make long-term scheduling commitments when talking with a group of other parents. All activities sound great. Go home, carefully look at a calendar, and then make the decision.
5. Find your child’s passion Because there are many choices out there, focus on activities that your child is passionate about. When considering new activities, make sure they fall during a time in the year when your child still has down-time.
As psychologists, we have never worked with a young adult who struggled because he or she didn’t play enough sports or learn enough musical pieces. However, we have worked with many who never learned how to tolerate unexpected challenges or communicate with people they disagree with, and many who never developed the confidence to solve problems on their own.col
Dr. Sweetland and Dr. Stolberg are married, child and family psychologists,
and are raising two children of their own.