Kids get a lot out of extracurricular activities. Lessons, classes, sports, and other such activities are great ways for kids to hone talents and develop new skills, as well as build friendships and feel more connected to their community. But if your child’s after-school activities and homework load leave little time to relax and unwind, it’s time to restore some balance to your family’s busy schedule.

A Balanced Week

How busy is too busy? Every child and every family is different, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a psychologist and author of What About Me? 12 Ways To Get Your Parents’ Attention (Without Hitting Your Sister). For young kids, going to school for 6 hours, doing what they’re told, and controlling their impulses all day takes a lot out of them. A longer day can be overwhelming, but it depends on the child and the activity. Older kids can handle more, but once activities ramp up the balanced day can become a distant memory. “It may be more realistic to create a balanced week because some days are just busy,” Kennedy-Moore says.

Robin Zorn, a school counselor at Mason Elementary in Duluth, Ga., recommends streamlining kids’ involvement. Consider choosing activities close to home even if it means a less select program, or have siblings participate in the same activity, such as back-to-back violin lessons with the same teacher. Also try to organize a neighborhood carpool, or limit your kids to one sport per season. When one child is busy, take time to connect with your other kids, Zorn says.

Kennedy-Moore agrees that streamlining is important for family sanity. “Most kids want to do activities,” she says, “so it’s up to the adults to consider how it all fits into the family as a whole.” She cautions parents to remember that kids don’t have to be jacks-of-all-trades, nor are you depriving them by limiting or modifying activities.

Time To Unwind

Having some downtime on school nights benefits students, too. Parents can help by allowing kids some unstructured time, helping them map out when to do homework, setting limits on technology use, and enforcing a regular bedtime.

Unstructured play. Ensuring unstructured time for play or hanging out with friends offers kids learning opportunities and time to pursue their own interests that adult-led activities don’t, Kennedy-Moore says. Kids also have time to build and deepen friendships, work out conflicts, and practice perspective-taking.

Unrushed homework and adequate sleep. On busy nights, relaxed sessions of homework may be difficult, but kids can learn to look at the week as a whole and plan to do more homework on free evenings, Zorn says. Help kids learn to plan ahead so they aren’t rushing or staying up late. They need time for plenty of sleep. Elementary students do best on 10 to 11 hours per night, and teens need at least 9 hours. That means no late-night texting.

Limits on technology. A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that just one-third of families have rules for media usage. It also found that when families do have rules—any rules—their children consume nearly 3 hours less media per day than kids with no rules. Usage among tweens and young teenagers (ages 11-14) jumps substantially, just as they’re making the transition to middle school’s more complicated schedules.

Kennedy-Moore recommends no electronic games on school nights. “It’s easier to enforce, and prevents endless negotiations,” she says. If you allow electronics, a good rule of thumb to remember is that kids young enough for a bedtime should have a bedtime for their technology as well. Collect gadgets in the evening and store them in a central location.

Time To Connect

What often goes by the wayside with busy student schedules is the parent-child connection, but regular togetherness is important for the well-being of a family. “The idea that a parent is available to kids is very comforting to them,” Kennedy-Moore says.

Over time, busy schedules take a toll. The litmus test is the household atmosphere. If it’s typically tense and frantic, something has to give. Dinner together isn’t always realistic, she says, so consider other possibilities, such as breakfast time or Sunday pancakes. If kids are home for dinner, however, make sure they join you at the table. It’s important for families to have connecting rituals and time to talk and listen.

“Kids need time with their parents,” Kennedy-Moore says. “Parents are their key source of support even into the teen years, and when a child is busy, you don’t get that time together. Hanging out is when the conversations happen.”


When To Rethink the Family Schedule

Feeling stretched too thin? Watch for these signs in your family:

  • Listen to what your child says when you pick him up from his activity. Is he upbeat or worried about getting homework done?
  • Note shifts in attitude. Has the once-pleasurable activity become work?
  • Watch for increased anxiety, irritability, dips in grades, behavior problems, headaches or stomachaches, and even deliberate dawdling.
  • Remember what’s right for one child might not be for a sibling. Some children feel more easily overwhelmed.
  • Pay attention to how invested you are in your child’s activity. Are you living vicariously through your child, or did she choose the activity out of her own interest?
  • Monitor yourself. Are you irritable and snappy because you’re so busy? If so, your child likely feels the same.