Under Pressure: Child Burnout

Our kids can only handle so much.

As parents, we want to give as many opportunities as possible to succeed. We place them in structured activities, enroll them in after school classes and extracurriculars, and take them to new places to gain new experiences. Despite our good intentions, we can go overboard and it’s only a matter of time until our kids finally reach a breaking point.

Similar to adults having burnout, child burnout is the product of continuous, unmanaged stress. They may be overscheduled with too many activities and not enough rest in between. Or they just might be overloaded from people, directions, and physical exertion. Burnout affects their ability to process and reflect on their day, that then snowballs into anxiety and overwhelm. Their motivation and interest in even their favorite things can drop.

Keep in mind, we’re not just talking about kids sports. Kids in the younger age range (3-8 years old) have lots of non-competitive activities that are mentally and physically draining: learning to swim, music lessons, traveling, being around too many people day to day, to name a few. Also, the younger your child is, the less bandwidth they have for tolerating stress.

If you look at it closely, this sounds similar to sensory overload. A kid can no longer handle the stresses of their environment and their body responds, either with a meltdown or a shutdown. Interestingly enough, a 2021 study found an association between sensory sensitivity and burnout. In other words, it’s a sign to take a step back and reassess.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Burnout can take on many faces and it can be tricky to determine what our kids ACTUALLY need, especially if they can’t figure out what they’re feeling or what’s causing it. For example, preschool children can show burnout by becoming clingier to their parents, reverting to old self-soothing behaviors (thumb-sucking or a security lovey), having sleep difficulties, or having bathroom accidents. So don’t jump to conclusions about regression. It may just be burnout…

Other common signs for this early school age group include:

  • Stress. Older kids can sense when they are feeling the pressure, but younger ones don’t know how to express that with their words just yet. They may be clingier than usual, have difficulty regulating their emotions, fidget or have restless movements like nail biting, bouncing their knee or leg, negatively label themselves (“I can’t do anything right”, “I’ll never be good at it.”), or forgetting things like leaving their stuff at school. You may also see anxiety, change in eating habits, or grades dropping.
  • Sleep issues. Kids need time to recharge their bodies as well as organize information from the day, all happening during a good night’s sleep. Without it, it affects our arousal level and the ability to self-regulate. There’s no way your child can operate at their optimum level with a full day of school followed by baseball practice if they didn’t sleep well the night before. Don’t be fooled; even children who seem hyper (jumping, screaming, running, etc) may really be exhausted and using all their energy to stay awake and focused. You may also see irritability, inattention, tiredness, sickness, or time management issues.
  • Pushing boundaries. If children don’t enjoy or feel successful in the activity they are doing, they will show it. This happened with my son when he played soccer for one season. He didn’t listen to his coaches, preferring to roll on the field or pick flowers rather than chase the ball. Sure, he did participate occasionally, but only on his terms. Turns out he did enjoy soccer, but only for the social aspect of making friends. He didn’t like the chaos of actually playing. You may also see avoidant behavior (excuses, purposely being late, pretending to be sick) or poor overall performance
  • Emotionally dysregulated. If your kid is frequently crying before going to piano lessons, maybe they need a temporary break. Re-evaluate the situation with your child. Is it the piano lesson, the teacher, the time of day, etc? They may really like playing piano, but the time frame right after school may be too much for them. Maybe it’s the pressure of being the best and if that homework piece isn’t perfect before the next lesson, they may be too embarrassed to play it for their teacher. You may also see mood swings (from easily angered to depressed).

**Keep in mind that pressure to not make mistakes can be an internal pressure. Kids can know and internalize if they didn’t do as well as their peers, or if things didn’t look like they expected. You don’t have to be Tiger Mom to have a perfectionist kid.

  • Lack of interest. Things that your kid looked forward to, like baseball practice or dance class, has suddenly stopped. One reason might be because they don’t see any progress from all the hard work they may have put into it, making them question their abilities and confidence. Another reason could be a teammate or coach. Or maybe something bigger happened earlier in the day. You may also see procrastination, apathy, no motivation to try or improve, or a sudden interest to try another activity or sport.

What Can We Do?

Communication is Key. If you see that your child is struggling to get through their schedule, talk to them about it. Kids aren’t great at articulating what they need or want, they just know that they aren’t fine. You might have to pepper a few questions before getting into the real issue, but it may also help them reflect and figure out what they enjoy doing, what they don’t, and where they may need additional support. Additionally, you may not like that they chose to continue martial arts over dance, but remember that it’s your kid’s life, not yours.

The Power of 3. If your child is interested in trying multiple activities, limit them to only three. That can be scouts, baseball, and chess club. If they want to add swim class because their friend is in it, one of those activities must drop. Make sure to weigh the benefits and what works best for the rest of the family. You may only want to keep this to only two activities, or even one activity per season depending on your kid’s age and the family schedule. (See Childish Reads: The Family Firm).

Give it a Break. Time can contribute to burnout. If everything feels like the White Rabbit being late for a very important date (wake up, morning routine, get in the car, go to school, learn stuff, get picked up, go home, change into a leotard, back in the car, go to gymnastics, back in the car, do homework, eat, bed routine, lights out), then yeah, that’s an overload in itself. And if that’s how everyday looks, your child’s brain is working overtime to just process everything it experienced (from sensory to cognitive information). Find space in their day to take a break. That means moments of downtime where they are not rushed or are obligated to do anything. Also try not to ask them lots of questions or present lots of choices during the downtime. They need to save that cognitive energy for what’s coming next.

Be their Biggest Cheerleader. Our kids can self-doubt, especially with all the hard work and practice they put towards school or a skill. Help them learn how to shut off their inner critic by focusing on the present, acknowledging their current feelings and concerns, reminding them how much they’ve improved since when they started, and that you are proud of them for putting in the effort.

Failure is an Option. Allow your kids to become comfortable with missing the mark. Kids this age are just learning the ins and outs of extracurriculars. Competition really doesn’t come into play until the next age group. So use this time to help build work ethic, love of the game (or activity) and having fun.

Predictability is your Friend. After a long day of learning and activities, predictability and routines can be comforting to your child because they won’t have to use additional brain power. No use of brain power also allows for stress reduction. So nice and easy evening/bedtime routines are the perfect wind down.

Remember that children are children first. That means that one of their main occupations is to play and have fun. Don’t let them lose sight of that.

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