Summer is finally here, and kids (and parents) are more than ready for a chance to relax, unwind, and enjoy a much-needed respite from the demands of school. However, for many families, this also means contending with the potential for increased boredom and stress due to being out of the usual routine and navigating significantly more unstructured time. Additionally, saying goodbye to their teachers and classmates can trigger feelings of sadness or anxiety for kids heading into their vacation. These factors create the potential for more irritability and challenging behaviors during the long summer days. Luckily, however, parents can help their kids transition smoothly into the summer by being mindful of these factors, and by helping kids strike a balance between routine and the downtime they crave.
- Focus on routine – Keeping a daily routine as much as possible during breaks creates a sense of stability and security. Families may benefit from creating a weekly visual calendar of the activities planned, including free time specifically built into the routine and indicated on the schedule, so that kids know what to expect. This will help reduce feelings of anxiety and related challenging behaviors. Aim for kids to get to bed and wake up at a consistent time, even while traveling, which will also reduce crankiness and make it easier for them to transition back to the school routine after summer ends.
- Create balance – Kids benefit from regular, structured activities during the summer, to help create a predictable routine as well as to keep their minds and bodies active. Some kids may do best participating in a specialized camp, while others may respond best to more informal options like community center activities or nature walks with parents. At the same time, it is also important to make sure your child is not overscheduled. Specifically building downtime into their daily routine offers a chance to unwind and recharge. Some kids may do better when this downtime occurs in the morning, to help them ease into the day, while others may prefer downtime later in the day once they have exerted more energy.
- Provide choices – In addition to keeping a semi-regular daily schedule, allow kids to be specifically in charge of scheduling some free-time activities that they enjoy each day, even if that means simply reading a book or playing Legos. Allowing your child to feel as though they have some say in their schedule can also help reduce challenging behaviors.
- Include friends – Although family time tends to be the focus during summer, it is important not to neglect friendships. Many kids miss their classmates over the summer and feel anxious about not seeing friends they have made at school. Scheduling playdates or encouraging kids to arrange their own get-togethers with peers (depending on their age) allows kids to maintain these relationships during the break. For kids who struggle with social skills, summer break can also provide a great opportunity to practice these skills and potentially make new friends; it may be perfect timing to enroll in a camp where your child has the opportunity meet kids with similar interests, or even join a more structured social-skills group for the summer.
- Looking ahead – Especially toward the end of summer vacation, kids may be struck by feelings of nervousness around transitioning to a new grade, teacher, and group of classmates. Parents can be mindful of any signs that kids are feeling worried about the upcoming school year, and let them know that it’s OK to feel nervous about these unknown factors. It may be helpful to remind them of other situations where they were nervous about starting something new, and to remind them how they handled it.
Although it may take some extra planning and preparation, working to strike a balance between routine and relaxation may be the ticket to a summer that is truly restorative and sets kids up for a successful school year ahead.
Kati Ann Leonberger, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist