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Helping Your Under-Scheduled Child Participate

12/18/2013 01:19 pm ET | Updated Feb 17, 2014

As parents, we all have heard of the "over-scheduled child" who goes from one structured activity to the next, with no time to relax. While this can be problematic, as a child psychologist who specializes in working with anxious kids, I am more concerned about what I call the "under-scheduled child." This is the child who doesn't like sports, hates music lessons, would never join a club, and won't do anything after school. The child who through the years "tried" all these things, quit, and then refused to go back. This is also the child who doesn't like to get together with friends.

The under-scheduled child says, "I have friends." But the cell phone isn't used, except for games, and the invitations never come. Unfortunately, there is often one loyal "friend" in the under-scheduled child's life that is a constant companion and fun to play with: the computer or TV. The rise of technology has brought with it an epidemic of children school aged, and sadly, beyond, who spend most of their waking hours not face to face with peers but in front of a screen. Boys are often most attracted to video games and girls to reality shows and "social" media sites. Under-scheduled children come home from school and immediately turn on the screens, often pretty much until bedtime. They rush through homework and dinner to get back to their best electronic friends.

Identifying Children at Risk
Who are the children and young adults most at risk for this? Children who struggle with social difficulties, either because they have anxiety or are on the autism spectrum, or both.

How can being a "homebody" be a sign of anxiety or social difficulties? Avoidance and denial are the biggest defenses against anxiety. When a social situation is avoided, the comfort zone is not threatened. Anxiety comes when unpredictable social and performance expectations are presented.

Under-scheduled children often avoid experiences that promote the development of new skills, strengthening of peer relationships, and opportunities to get much-needed physical exercise. They are missing out on learning the importance of taking risks and experiencing success. Perhaps even more important, they are not learning something we all need to know: how to cope with the sting of failure. Often, it is this fear of failure that keeps them home in their comfort zone.

The under-scheduled child never says, "I don't want to do that because it scares me, it makes me nervous." Or, "I'm afraid I'll mess up, and other kids will laugh and make fun of me." Or, "If I invite someone over, I wouldn't know what to do with them, and what if they have a really bad time?" In this way, those uncomfortable feelings are avoided. When asked to play a sport, the response is often, "I tried that, I hate sports." Study music? "It's too hard; I'm no good at music." Join a club at school? "Why would I want to do that? It's stupid; nobody joins clubs." Get together with a friend after school? "I see my friends at school; that's enough for me. I just like to be home after school."

Working with Your Child
As parents, what can you do to break this unhealthy pattern? First, break through your own denial. A child who spends many waking hours in front of screens is not a healthy child, physically or mentally. If you aren't sure if this is a problem for your child, take this test. For one week, count the number of hours your child spends in front of screens. Then count the number of hours that include physical exercise, extracurricular activities, and socializing with peers outside of school. If those numbers make you squirm, you know something isn't right.

Yet you also know if you try to talk about this with your child, you are in for a battle. If you arbitrarily sign up your child for after-school activities and try to force your child to go, you are throwing your money away. Sooner, rather than later, you will hear, "I hate it, I don't want to go! PLEASE DON'T MAKE ME GO! The kids are mean, the coach hates me! You can't force me!" As soon as you say, "OK. you can stay home," calm returns, the battle is over, your "happy" child is back in front of a screen -- and the winner is: anxiety.

While it's easy to feel helpless, getting angry and frustrated doesn't work. Who wants that stress at home? But giving up and falling into denial and avoidance doesn't feel right either.

Taking It Step By Step
So, what should you do? Simply put, you must take charge and limit the screen time. But how can you make this work?

First, insist that your child gets involved in a non-screen activity with peers. Ideally, this should be a physical activity, because exercise is like medication for anxiety. However, any activity that promotes more face-to-face social time with peers is healthy. We would never allow a child to avoid learning to read because it is too hard. Likewise, the under-scheduled child should not be allowed to avoid social situations that are no less valuable for a successful future.

Second, think carefully about what that physical activity should be, making sure it is a good match and has the necessary supports for your child. Kids without anxiety can be thrown in the water with other kids to "sink or swim," and they are fine. On the other hand, anxious kids, when asked to sink or swim, will do neither; they will refuse to get in the water. An anxious child needs support, not unlike the child with a learning disability who needs tutoring. A good match is an activity that may need step-by-step preparation before it starts. It is also an activity that the child can expect to succeed at. So, if it is a sport, knowing how to play the game and practicing it beforehand is important. The point is that anxious kids are already stressed about being there; if they also have to worry about their skills, that can be overwhelming.

Third, offer incentives for keeping up with the activity, no quitting. Try to be as positive as possible, so when your child faces difficulty, quitting is not an option. Learning to stick through the difficulties allows for a successful experience. Quitting reinforces the "I can't do it" attitude that, in turn, reinforces the negative cycle of anxiety.

Fourth, encourage face-to-face contact with peers and carefully limit the use of screens. Use parental controls and become the parent who manages the screens. This is certainly a challenge, but it is an important new job of many parents today. Screen management is something most kids can't do themselves; they need Mom and Dad to be in control. You can and need to control this, and you can persevere!

Getting By with a Little Help from Our Friends
In the final analysis, think about this challenge as a question of balance. Your child may never -- and probably should never -- go to the extreme of the over-stimulated child. At the same time, our computers and TVs are not going away. The challenge is be patient, be determined, and be strategic: Take the necessary steps to get your child assimilated with at least one healthy activity and one or more real friends.

As for companions of the electronic kind, there's a place for them as well. It's a matter of common sense and moderation.

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