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?
Below are things any parent can try at home:
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!