Sometimes doing nothing is the answer to doing too much.

As a pediatrician and teen health specialist who works with kids around the world, one of the issues that worries me is the number of young people who tell me that they are feeling stressed. In fact, kids as young as 9-10 years of age said they felt anxious and overwhelmed. This is a growing global epidemic that we as adults must respond to. Surprisingly, boredom may be part of the answer.

According to the kids I work with, the most common reasons for stress are pressure from parents, peers, preparing for tests and completing homework.  Many also mention going from one activity to another without downtime and trying to stay organized. Their sentiments resonate with a recent National Public Radio article entitled the “Perils of pushing kids too hard and how parents can learn to back off”. It is not uncommon for kids to juggle extra-curricular activities like language classes and sports, with extra-tutoring sessions or after-school jobs, and homework. There are clear benefits to having kids participate in extracurricular activities. They provide academic and social opportunities, help develop confidence and discipline, and in some cases help keep kids busy and off screens (I admit I am guilty, here)!

However, there can be downsides to scheduling close to kids’ every waking hour as being involved in too many structured activities can cause huge amounts of stress. Pressure to perform, especially at young ages, may decrease the pleasure children receive from participation over time. Overreliance on tutoring can place the focus on attaining academic achievements rather than developing important life skills. Overscheduling may also lead to chronic sleep deficits which have serious implications for mood, focus, and health.  

The following is a question I often ask parents (and kids): is life’s success based on having a teen enter the most elite school or university with the most distinguished CV? Or is it based on kids having balance and the ability to handle life’s challenges? Given the increase in young people reporting anxiety and depression, particularly at high school and university levels, I would argue that attaining balance and encouraging resilience is far more important.

In a recent New York Times editorial entitled “Let children get bored again”, Pamela Paul states that the prevailing sentiment among many parents is that, “every spare moment should be optimized, maximized and driven towards a goal’. This is a mistaken notion, she says, arguing that instead boredom should teach kids that life isn’t a parade. Boredom can help foster creativity and self-sufficiency.

In a recent US-based study, researchers found that regardless of class, income, race, parents who felt their kids were bored after school believed they should be enrolled in afterschool activities.  I often remind parents to recall how they spent their own childhoods. I also ask how much non-digital, unstructured free time their kids now have.

Growing up in the East Coast, my sister and I had very little by way of regular structured activities, particularly over the summer. We roamed the neighborhood and played with whoever was free. We took frequent trips to the local library for armfuls of books, and yes, we were bored often! Of course, this was prior to the advent of iPads, smart phones and social media. The concept of unstructured, non-digital free time can be tricky especially as kids get older and discover the lure of electronic devices.

Parents often ask me how I strike this balance. I confess I don’t have the perfect answer at home where Fortnite and YouTube are big attractions. However, I marvel at what my preteens are capable of when bored. For example, one of my boys spent hours creating the most intricate mystery “escape room” when he had a few hours of parent-encouraged “non-digital’ free time on a recent weekend. Bottom line, children and teens are increasingly saying they feel stressed and need time to chill. Parents, educators, adults need to help them to create balance and think of alternatives for allowing them to unwind. Here are a few thoughts to help:

1. Each kid has a different threshold for balancing – One child may enjoy taking part in a variety of activities on a regular basis. But another may best enjoy a time of rest and rebooting with a less packed schedule. Be aware of the threshold and focus on quality not quantity.

2. Re-evaluate activities periodically- Some activities may be helpful for kids to develop a hobby or sense of discipline. Others may become a source of constant frustration and resentment. Let older kids and teens have a say in the choice of their activities. Take time to re-evaluate as to whether the activity is enjoyable and of importance. The key is moderation and realistic expectations.

3. Be aware of signs of stress – Signs that kids may be stressed vary by age. Grade-school kids may develop sleep problems or eating issues. Teens may show changes in sleeping or eating, avoidance of activities, a change in grades, or even experimentation with drugs or alcohol. Kids of all ages may develop emotional issues such as irritability, anxiety and depression. 

4. Be a good role model – Children watch parents in all areas of life, including their health habits and ways of handling time. Teaching kids to have downtime and ways to unwind such as doing yoga, reading, running, spending time with friends, is most effective when we as adults can model it.

5. It takes a village – As a pediatrician currently based in Amsterdam, Netherlands, I have learned a lot from the Dutch. Most of our local schools are ½ days on Wednesdays to allow kids to relax or play sports. Fridays in all Dutch schools start one hour late, so kids can sleep in! I have also worked with schools that actively encourage parents to limit younger kids from participating in several activities a week and have discussions with older ones on creating realistic schedules and expectations. My experience is that kids do better when the school and the community are aware of the importance of balance.

So, start chatting with your kids about whether they feel overscheduled and start taking time to explore ways to relax, recharge and be creative!