Initially, summer break is a welcome, well…”break.” However, once the novelty of an increased sense of freedom; sleeping in everyday; relief from school responsibilities, and stress related to grades and homework; less worry due to anticipating about peers, and wondering if we are accepted by classmates; the sense of liberation from anxiety about what the teacher or coach may say, or think, of us and our performance has worn off, the glamour and allure lose it’s shine–and, parents begin to notice a shift. After a period of rest, all humans become restless. Often, this is experienced in children (of all ages) in a variety of ways. Because children and adolescents are not yet able to thoroughly identify and articulate their emotional experiences, it can be challenging for parents to understand why their child might be stressed or unhappy during the summer–a time that many associate with no stress.
The freedom from structure and demands during the “dogs days of summer,” quickly morphs into crabby kids kicking around the house, complaining of being “bored” and often becoming more agitated with an increased use of technology for entertainment. Of course, not all kids follow this pattern and children vary in terms of when this shift occurs in the summer months. The children who do a bit better are children who are: active, creative and imaginative, follow a routine structure in their day–long after school is let out for the summer, have frequent and consistent social interactions, and who have some responsibility or sense of purpose.
Children and teens who have a predisposition to, or who already have a history of, depression or anxiety may be at a higher risk for increased symptoms during the summer break due to the lack of structure. Although free time during the day is important to the emotional health and development of a child or adolescent, it should be balanced (like most things) with routine and structure. Structure holds kids and allows them to feel safe and maintain a sense empowerment, knowing what to expect throughout the day and week. Children who experience their world as unpredictable often experience more anxiety, and feel they are “blowing in the wind.” They often feel powerless to predict and direct any part of their life. Nor do they sense what (and when) others are doing, or might be expecting of them.
The lack of structure during summer break may result in a sense of being at the mercy of other forces throughout the day which can lead to a decreased ability to manage emotions for children and teens (or humans of any age). This can easily become integrated into a child’s personality in which the child eventually adopts a perspective that they are powerless, or a victim of circumstances or others’ decisions and reactions. The risks of an overabundance of unstructured time now exponentially increase as a negative cycle of maladaptive emotional strategies. Such a cycle often results in the development of a sophisticated defense mechanism style in which children largely employ avoidant strategies in order to protect themselves from emotional distress or vulnerability. This avoidance may lead to isolation or ignoring any and all emotional information or related feedback, which can have a long term debilitating effect that creates and reinforces unhealthy habits, perpetuating the cycle.
Children may also feel anxious about the anticipation of the transition to summer. Often, children have more complex emotional responses as they experience internal conflict, and have a sense of being “weird’ or “a freak” because they may have parts of themselves that are anxious about the transition. Of course, children of all ages may perceive they are “the only one” who has this feeling as they observe their peers running into summer with joyous abandonment, throwing their backpacks to the side as they are released from the last day of school, singing, Alice Cooper’s classic, “School’s Out For Summer!” (Ok…maybe that last part isn’t the song for this generation…but, you get the point…)
So…now what? What is a parent to do?
Build Some Structure
Remember, children and teens feel a sense of relative safety when they know what to expect. Now, I don’t mean to schedule every time slot in their day, but it is key to have a few things planned that will help children better predict how the day, and week, will go, as well as maintaining a way to measure the time independently. Structure helps all of us, especially children, organize our internal worlds and better manage (and understand) internal emotional experiences. If there is too much freedom, we all feel chaotic and out of control which can lead to anxiety and a sense of helplessness. Below are things any parent can try at home:
-Create a calendar (that the child can understand and even help create) with all activities and plans on it
*This also helps children develop time management skills and feel productive as they build a sense of mastery, thereby developing healthy sense of self and confidence.
-Build daily routines and rituals children can follow in the morning or bedtime (i.e., wake up, 30’ reading, daily responsibilities, help with meals…)
-Create some consistency such as a family outing or activity once a week (or something the child might look forward to in order to give them the “light at the end of the tunnel”).
*Consistency is the key for parents here–do what you say you are going to do, and your children will follow suit. If parents are not consistent, children learn not to take their parents seriously, or to push back until their parents give in. It then becomes even more difficult for parents to manage as children continue to grow and develop.
Help Children Find A Sense of Belonging
School is a community that allows children to feel included and a sense of belonging. It provides human contact and connection critical to healthy development. Removing these connections can lead to isolation, loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
-Help children create a summer community, perhaps with neighbors, a group of friends, or a camp to promote a sense of belonging.
-Participate in small group activities.
-Plan family activities (both fun activities and chore related activities to promote cooperative effort and sense of accomplishment related to productive activities).
-Validate your child’s feelings if they are struggling. Reinforce that transitions take time and help to normalize that they are not “the only one!”
*Most importantly–parents can support children by listening and understanding their child’s experience. Resist the urge to fix everything and teach your children resilience.
Find Ways to Promote A Sense of Being Productive
We would be surprised to hear our children admit this one, but…responsibilities and chores (even assignments) give children a sense of purpose. The lack of structure during the summer can actually contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety since children are not experiencing a sense of purpose or meaning. Children, like adults, need to feel needed, valued, and that they are contributing to the group, and most importantly, that their role is important. This is necessary for children to develop a healthy sense of self, and to begin to believe in their abilities or perhaps even begin to imagine they they will one day be independent and self sufficient.
-Chores–yes…children NEED chores! They need to know they have an important role in the family and the functioning of the household. Their belonging contributes to the maintenance of the family.
*Be realistic and DO NOT expect children to be excited, or to admit that they benefit from chores!!!
-Don’t be afraid to let your children be bored. Often, boredom leads to creativity, imaginative play, and promotes self reliance. Children also need opportunities of being “bored” to realize a sense of resilience and accomplishment once they have created a new game or activity to keep themselves occupied.
-Help your child do charitable acts or volunteering. What better time to help out others less fortunate or the environment? This may foster your children’s sense of purpose and gratitude.
Balance Work And Play
Summertime (at least the fantasy of summer) is about being fun and partying. However, if it’s “party all the time,” then the fun party isn’t fun anymore! Again…too much of anything isn’t a good thing. Balancing work and play, structured and unstructured time, and time alone and in groups is the key to helping children (and all humans) sustain their mood and mental health throughout the summer!
What better way to prep our children for the inevitable return to school (yes, another transition) and optimize their ability to be successful in the coming school year!