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How after-school activities can damage your child

Childhood is not a race

Working with children takes every ounce of energy I have and then some and possibly a glass of red at the end of the day. Their enthusiasm never ceases to bring me right into their moment, of course it helps that my career is centred around children and their behaviour. After 20 years I still have nothing that concrete to give you, no magic answers. I see patterns, I see uniqueness and I see endless possibilities with each an every child. It all takes time, patience, tears, laughter and at times a hell of a lot of support. Sometimes the answer is simple, sometimes it is not so simple but we get there with lots of thinking outside the box.

So after 20 years one pattern I have really noticed and saddens me to say is on the rise is that children as young as four are showing signs of stress. Stress that is debilitating in exactly the same way it is with us grown-ups. The stress the children are demonstrating is showing up in their behaviour. Presenting itself in different ways in their behaviour from being exhausted at school, over emotional, meltdowns and general ‘misbehaviour’. Now still taking into account a child’s individuality in that one child may cope really well with four  after school activities a week, not all will, this is not the so-called ‘norm’. In saying that the new ‘norm’ that I am seeing at work daily is that activities after school are increasing for each individual child. Some children are not coping with so much on their plate. I am loathed to subject children to labels, I see the child, their diagnosis gives me some ideas of how to assist them. For me to announce that children are stressed is a big deal. Children should not be portraying levels of stress due to over commitment.

“I’d like to make an appointment for you to see my 6-year-old daughter” “Sure I can come next Wednesday at 4pm” “Oh we can’t do Wednesday she’s swimming, Thursday she does gymnastics, Monday she has keyboard and dance and on Tuesdays and Saturdays she does netball” I feel the exhaustion for the child and the parent that is ferrying this child around. Observing children is a major part of what I do, I watch them at school and at their after school activities. The tears and the meltdowns in some activities demonstrates that the child is not that keen on said activity  whether it’s tiredness, lack of interest or they simply do not enjoy it. Some lessons may run smoothly with them actively participating but by observing their general demeanour you can see that their mind is somewhere else.

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I am all for children have interests, fun, competitions, learning through play but not at the level where it becomes detrimental to the child. The irony of getting your child up a 5.30am for a relaxing and mindful yoga lesson 5 times a week before school to have them dozing at their desk by 10am is some what losing the point of the mindful yoga class.

It is almost at the point where it sounds at times like a bragging right my son does this, that, this and that and something else and he is positively thriving. I beg to differ at how much the child is actually thriving and pessimistically from experience await the six-year-old to reach burn out. It concerns me too how the parents are feeling and coping with all this manic driving around after school.

Children need stimulating; their imaginations, curiosity and creativity are such a major part of them understanding the world around them and most are quite capable of doing this when given half the chance, it is ok to have moments of nothingness. Nothing planned, nothing structured. When assessing a child an area I look at is the amount of time the parents get one to one with the child. Now I am not looking for large blocks of quality time basically anything from 10 minutes of one to one time a day is fantastic. Spending time at said after school activities I do not include as one to one time as the child is actively involved in the activity. “I spend 8 hours a week driving and watching them participate, therefore I spend a lot of time with them” is not the same as 10 minutes of down time with a child, even your chats in the car are not 100% quality time to its full extent as you are driving.

If you can picture how well a child keeps it together at school for over six hours in a structured environment which I find incredible plus the amount of homework (another blog post next week) they will also need unstructured time to just be. To just be a child.

From my Facebook wall: "From the age of six I did choir outside school with a million performances etc.. music, swimming, netball and athletics. By high school I had 1 extra curriculum commitment everyday plus sport. Everyone wondered why my grades were dropping. I struggled with the added pressure of doing well at school. I had no time for friends at all."

From a teacher: “As a teacher I see the stress commitments creates on the student.”

As with everything in life and child behaviour I do take into account the uniqueness of each child and yes some children do cope phenomenally well with their outside school activities and have no issues at all, unfortunately this does not apply to every child. Stepping back and observing a family that had called regarding their daughters; identical twin sisters that were both doing exactly the same amount of after school activities, one was great with it, no issues at all. The other was struggling and also fearful that she was not keeping up with her sister. Because one friend participates in five activities and is OK does not necessarily mean your child will be OK. With the families and children I work with when the concerns are behavioural sometimes scaling back on the after/before school activities makes a big difference.

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I also take into account after spending time with the child and bonding whether the child is actually afraid to say “I don’t want to do this anymore”. We all having dreams for our children, we all want the best, we want them to have opportunities to flourish but it is crucial to remember the child too, their dreams are not our dreams and not every waking moment has to be filled with something for them to do.

Similar yet unique

So, what are the signs they are doing too much?

Chat with their teacher to see if are they managing in class

Over tired yet having difficulty getting to sleep

Increase in meltdowns, tantrums at home, school or at the actual activity

Increase in crying

Reoccurring "tummy aches and headache”

Getting sick quite often or feeling under the weather

Not seeing friends outside school for catch-ups

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Not wanting to practice said activity at home

Increase in arguments (especially the day prior or the actual day of the activity)

Struggling to complete homework tasks due to lack of time

Too tired in the morning

Sleeping in the car on the way to the activity

Their grades are dropping

They look anxious, stressed and worried

You are stressed, anxious and worried.

Not being able to have family dinners due to said amount of activities

Each child is unique, some will cope well and others not so well it’s ok to scale back.

How many activities does your child do? How many activities did you do?

Me under my rock. My children are my rock.

Nathalie Brown is a  Melbourne-based childhood behavioural consultant. Through her company Easy Peasy Kids she offers advice, support, information and guidance to parents and schools. Easy Peasy Kids also works with professional experts to ensure you and your child can work towards a happy, healthy and loving realtionship. Their team includes paediatricians, natuopaths, osteopaths, speech therapists, counsellors, homeopaths, lactation consultants, paediatric chiropractors, nutricionists, kinesiologists and art therapists.

Contact Nathalie and her team here and ask about her upcoming workshops.

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