Striking a Balance: Overscheduled vs. Too Much Free Time for Kids with ADHD

Childhood today is very different from childhood 30 years ago, when time outside of school was spent playing in the neighborhood, often unsupervised and undirected by adults. Today kids and teens typically attend a host of extracurricular activities after school, with little free time in-between. Do a quick search online for “overscheduled kids” and you’ll find hundreds of articles warning parents about the perils of enrolling kids in too many extracurricular activities. These articles typically highlight the negative effect that too little free time can have on creativity, imaginative play, and social development. What these articles rarely discuss, however, is the reality faced by many parents who frequently work during the after school hours and need these activities to keep their children and teens safe and occupied. Parents of children and teens with ADHD face another reality as well: unstructured and unsupervised downtime often quickly leads to impulsive and sometimes unsafe behavior as well as sibling arguments. As a result, unstructured time often ends with a punishment for bad behavior, or is simply replaced by screen time in an effort to keep the peace at home.

When you look closely at the research you’ll find that involvement in extracurricular activities actually comes with many positive benefits, even at an early age. A recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that when infants (9-18 months) who were overly motived by food were enrolled in music classes with their parents, they began to find more pleasure and motivation in activities other than eating.1 The researchers propose that this may help prevent obesity later in life. For adolescents, most research studies have found that participation in after school activities is associated with improved well-being and school engagement. Even with the positive study findings, when it comes to the number of activities kids participate in, there does seem to be a tipping point. Enroll them in too many extracurricular activities, especially those that are performance or achievement-based, and kids and teens can end up stressed and anxious. How many activities are too many? That really depends on the child. Some kids with ADHD need more downtime in order to recharge. Others thrive on back-to-back activities each day. But even for kids who thrive on a busy schedule, some free time is important for their development. Like participation in extracurricular activities, research shows that free time and free play come with many benefits. Kids and teens do in fact need this time to help develop their creativity and imagination, as well as the ability to think for themselves without been told what to do by adults. However, they likely do not need large daily swaths of free time to reap these benefits. As parents of kids with ADHD the trick is finding enriching, motivating afterschool activities, and balancing these activities with at least a few weekly opportunities for safe and enjoyable unstructured time.

What are some signs that your child or teen’s extracurricular activities or schedule may not be meeting their needs?

  • Your child asks to skip activities, or regularly complains of headaches or stomach aches when it’s time to attend.
  • Your child seems less motivated at school, during afterschool activities, or at home.
  • Your child’s grades are falling and they don’t have time to get the extra academic support that they need.
  • Your child is regularly going to bed late in an effort to fit in school, extracurricular activities, and homework.
  • Your child’s activities are all performance or achievement-based, leaving little time to explore new activities without the pressure of having to meet the expectations of adults.
  • Your child is showing symptoms of unhealthy levels of stress (see my previous post for more details on signs of stress in teens with ADHD).

If your child or teen is displaying one or more of these signs, it may be time to take a step back and reconsider their schedule and activities. Talk with your child or teen about how they are feeling about their extracurricular activities. Are there activities that they enjoy more than others? Do they think that they need more downtime? Kids and teens will often have difficulty noticing when they are overscheduled and may be reluctant to cut back on their activities. As a parent you have an opportunity to help them problem solve, streamline their schedule, and build in necessary downtime (I’ll talk about strategies for creating manageable downtime for kids with ADHD in my next post). With your help your child will reap more joy and enrichment from their activities, and will build motivation and academic skills along the way.


1 Kong, K. L., Eiden, R. D., Feda, D. M., Stier, C. L., Fletcher, K. D., Woodworth, E. M., … Epstein, L. H. (2016). Reducing relative food reinforcement in infants by an enriched music experience. Obesity, 24(4), 917–923.

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