The back-to-school juggling act

After years of running her two kids through a long schedule of sports, homework and activities, Arlington Heights mom Jamie Bartosch heard a surprising question: Can we just do nothing today?

“That, to me, was a real wakeup call,” Bartosch says of JJ and Annie, who are starting seventh and ninth grades this fall. 

“I thought I was being a good mom by putting them in a lot of stuff and helping them to try things, but that was like, whoa, we have to bring this down a notch,” she says.

Bartosch’s family is not the only one racing around from activity to activity, a schedule that gets even busier as school starts and homework is thrown back into the mix. Juggling so many busy schedules can get stressful and exhausting, not just for the parents, but for the kids.

Michael J. Bradley, a clinical psychologist who has worked with teens for almost four decades and is the author of the new book, Crazy Stressed, Saving Today’s Overwhelmed Teens with Love, Laughter, and the Science of Resilience, says the stresses facing kids today are the worst he’s seen. In addition to school, sports, activities, family time and friends, Bradley says technology is pushing on students and stressing them out from all angles.

“The typical day for a teenager makes my head spin, I don’t know how they do it,” he says.And for many teens and young adults, the balancing act is getting more difficult to keep up, Bradley says, as record numbers of children are being diagnosed with anxiety and depression.“Our expectations have gotten way out of hand,” Bradley says. “We’ve raised the bar beyond what most of these kids can handle and it’s a recipe for disaster.”

The good news, though, is that parents have the power to change their kids’ schedules, set expectations from a young age and find time for fun.

Head off stress at an early age

While high school is typically the time that student stress can boil over, Bradley says it’s important to start preparing your child from birth to deal with stress. Two things parents can do from a young age are to build resilience and to let children make decisions on their own.

“We need to make sure our mission is not to control our kids, but to make sure they can control themselves,” he says. “They need to learn how to make decisions and handle the consequences of those decisions.”

That could mean missing a homework assignment or sporting activity because they weren’t ready and then handling the fallout on their own. Bradley says parents today have a difficult time letting their children fail at anything, but it can be an important lesson.

“Failure in the proper doses can be very strengthening,” he says.

Find what works for your family

When Christina Rogers is racing around taking Isabella, 10, and Michael and Magdalena, twin 7-year-olds, to three different sports leagues and endless club meetings—student council, book club, jump rope club—it can seem hectic, but there is a method to her madness. 

During the school year, the Tinley Park mom balances part-time work on top of the busy schedules of her three kids, but she does it with a set of ground rules that keep everyone on track.

Each kid is only allowed to play one sport per season. Every activity has to be written down on the big white board in the dining room command center. 

She’s also learned that it’s OK to say ‘no.’

“Don’t worry about what the friends or neighbors do, it’s not a competition,” Rogers says. “In order to keep your sanity, you have to put your foot down on the commitments.”

If you are busy scheduling your student in activity after activity, step back and make sure they are actually enjoying it.

Bradley suggests a few questions to ask about an overly busy kid: Is she smiling? Is she tired, but happy? Does she wake up saying she can’t wait to go to this activity? Or is her head down, shoulders hunched? Does she have the worried look of a Wall Street executive? Is she really having fun?

Schedule downtime

After Bartosch’s kids asked for a night off, she realized how important it was to plan to do nothing.

“It’s so important to give them a break. I think building in time to just chill at home is so important,” Barosch says. 

Make downtime a priority and don’t reschedule or cancel it any more than you would cancel an actual activity on the calendar.

“That’s my job as the scheduler to make sure everyone gets a night off built in each week.”

Stay organized

With two very busy daughters, including our cover girl, Jaylah, a son with special needs and a baby, Ericka Polanco-Webb of Willowbrook has her hands full. And juggling the schedules of the kids’ three schools, their in-school and after school activities, her son’s doctor appointments and all the things everyday life throws at you can be a real struggle, she admits.

“Having a plan has worked with the hustle and bustle,” she says. “… Every day I’m thinking what I can do to make this or that easier for them.”

Key is using a huge chalkboard to manage everyone’s schedules and the week’s meals. But she also holds a family meeting every Monday night to look over grades and talk in detail about each person’s schedule. They also talk about what worked the previous week and what can be improved the coming week.

Even the family dog is on a schedule.

Compete for happiness

Parents admit that pulling back on activities—even if it is best for your family—can be difficult in such a competitive environment.

“There’s so much pressure on kids nowadays to be the best,” Rogers says. “When we were kids we didn’t start organized sports until we were practically teenagers, now it’s like if you haven’t started baseball by age 5, you’re behind. It’s a bit much.”

Jaylah juggles four dance classes, track, basketball and school as well as carving out time for a social life. It can mean very early mornings and very late nights. “For her, it is all about time management,” Polanco-Webb says.

But when the schedules conflict and are impossible, she focuses on what the kids really love. For Jaylah, that’s dance. “We’ll always find a way to make it all work.”

As kids get closer to high school and college applications, many parents struggle with the idea of pushing their kid into every activity, AP class or sport in the hopes of helping them get ahead later in life. Bradley says we should worry more about happiness.

“It’s all about helping kids find out who they are: purpose and passion,” he says. 

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