Let it slow! As Christmas approaches, Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg urges parents to stop over-scheduling their children

  • Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg urges parents to re-consider the scale of their children's extra-curricular activities

  • Children are often 'over-scheduled' and need R&R - not ricocheting from one club to another

  • Those children directed by adults 'never learn to direct themselves'

Dr Van Zwanenberg, clinical director of Priory's Wellbeing Clinics, and medical director of Priory's Woodbourne Hospital, is calling on parents to 'schedule unscheduled time' for their children and make a New Year's resolution to cut back on their children's extra-curricular activities.

During the countdown to Christmas many families are feeling the strain of back-to-back classes, sports fixtures, endless concerts and club events, with little time for downtime or spontaneous family fun.

Dr van Zwanenberg said she was not advocating undirected hours of unfulfilling TV-watching and phone-talking.

But she said; "Whatever the time of year, it is so important that young people have time to relax and to be allowed to act their age - as well as get an adequate number of hours' restorative sleep. One of the most crucial points in determining the balance of activities versus unstructured time is to work out how much time there is for quality family time - and what better time than the Christmas break than to implement a new 'regime of relaxation'.

"Sport and clubs are beneficial in many ways but should not take precedence over other important aspects of young people's development - and that includes relaxing with your family and learning how to embrace boredom.

"Downtime is when a child's imagination really takes grip, and when they learn to structure their own time and take charge themselves. Children who are directed by adults every moment of their lives never learn to direct themselves."

She added: "Many older children and teens are already faced with the prospect of returning to mock exams at the start of a new term and whilst revision and preparation is important over the holidays, many can end up feeling over-stretched and stressed, especially if they are also involved in an unmanageable amount of extra-curricular activities during term time.

"I have seen some young people who are talented academically and at extra-curricular activities become very anxious due to the pressure to succeed in so many different aspects of life. They are literally exhausted trying to fit everything in. This can then impact on family dynamics as they become irritable and harder to communicate with."

She said that allowing children to be bored was essential for their cognitive and social development, especially in areas of imagination and self-sufficiency.

Whilst many children will be receiving new tablets, smartphones and games consoles this Christmas, parents shouldn't be afraid to limit their use in favour of re-learning how to simply 'amuse themselves', and spending time chatting to an older relative or guest.

Her comments follow recent research by top doctors in the United States who said children under five should spend no more than an hour a day in front of television or computer screens - and infants under two should not view them at all.

In a stark message about the growing risks of digital technology, the US doctors halved their previous recommended limit of two hours a day of screen time for children aged over two after reviewing new evidence.

The professional organisation for paediatricians in the US said children's health and development were increasingly being put at risk by the proliferation of screens in people's homes.

It said: "Multiple developmental and health concerns continue to exist for young children using all forms of digital media to excess."

So, to help families get the best out of the Christmas break - and that enforced break from the term-time routine - Dr Van Zwanenberg suggests some pragmatic tips for parents and carers to help keep children's commitments in check:

  • Walk and talk - the Christmas holidays is a great excuse to get out and enjoy the fresh air, without the distraction of the TV or tablet. Use the time to chat openly; laugh and maybe broach sensitive subjects that have been off limits during term-time (parents might be surprised at what teenagers suddenly decide to share)

  • Get board, not bored! - from Scrabble to Snap to Uno, Pointless to Pictionary, board games are back and can be a great bonding experience for all members of the family, whatever their age, interests (and inhibitions), playing as equals

  • Tear up the timetable - use the festive fortnight to take a break from all regular commitments, clubs and sporting fixtures. The rest will benefit both body and mind. And consider whether you really want to return to all these activities in 2017

  • Switch off social media and socialise with your nearest and dearest - Shut the door on the rest of the world and focus on family

  • And finally, make 2017 the year for re-dressing the balance and making some serious but sensible choices about prioritising time and not allowing the endless expectations placed on young people today to succeed, and result in stress and poor self-esteem.

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