An 8-year-old girl sits on my couch, squeezing a stress ball and staring out the window. She’s feeling anxious. I am a psychotherapist, and I talk her through a deep breathing exercise to help her feel less anxious, but she can’t stop thinking about her worries. She tells me that she has 18 days left of school, and that it’s not nearly enough.
With the end of the school year approaching, it’s natural to think that she might be relieved. She made it through another year. For this child, however, it’s the opposite. She does enjoy some parts of the summer: She likes swimming, has fun with her family and doesn’t miss homework. But with both of her parents working for most of the summer, she has to enroll in several week-long day camps. This means constant transitions and new rules. Long weekends away with family and friends disrupt sleep routines.
We think of the summer months as carefree and relaxing, but many kids actually experience an uptick in anxiety during the break. Anxious kids rely on carefully crafted routines, and too little structure or shifting routines can feel overwhelming.
There are several factors that can negatively affect anxious kids during the summer.
New, and not necessarily improved, daily routines. Kids with anxiety thrive in familiar settings with a fair amount of structure because they like to know what to expect. The trouble with summer is that routines generally change. Whether a child is enrolled in day camps, overnight camps, or even staying home, the rules and expectations change. The lack of predictability and structure can trigger worry and be overwhelming. It can also result in meltdowns.
Overscheduling. Parents may see the break as an opportunity to help their kids step outside their comfort zones by loading them up with shiny new experiences. “Many parents view the summer months as a time for children to ‘catch up,’ improve or gain an edge, and enroll them in numerous classes or activities, leaving little or no time for kids to relax and rejuvenate,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of “Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day.” “Piling on and filling time only adds to their stress and anxiety that, ideally, summer break is theoretically designed to reduce.”
Changes in eating habits. Summer is often treated as a time for bending the rules and enjoying ice cream cones, Popsicles and other sugary sweets. Although a little bit of indulgence is always fun, too much of a good thing (or straying too far from the healthy balance you work all year to promote) can affect how kids feel both physically and emotionally.
Changes in sleep habits. It’s common for kids to have periods where they don’t sleep well, but patterns of poor or inconsistent sleep can negatively affect their mental health. Sleep and anxiety have a fairly complicated relationship. Research shows that sleep problems predict escalating anxiety symptoms, and that anxious kids have difficulty falling and staying asleep.
“It can be so easy to let bedtimes slide in the summer, especially when it’s light so much later,” says Carla Naumburg, author of “How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids.” “But getting your kids to sleep at a reasonable hour is incredibly important.”
Too much screen time. Believe me, I understand. You’re tired of hearing about the screens. You might also be tired of hearing your kids ask for just a few more minutes of screen time on a rainy (or even perfectly sunny) summer day. Many kids enjoy technology and use screens to connect with their friends or fill their downtime.
A recent study found an association, though, between more screen use and a small increased risk of anxiety and depression. Although it might be tempting to focus on the words “small increased risk” or state that more research is needed (it is), it’s also important to note that any risk is too much when it comes to our kids’ mental health.
Travel worries. Family travel can be a lot of fun and create lifetime memories, but it can also feel overwhelming. From flight anxiety to travel delays to sleeping in strange places and dealing with change, travel isn’t always easy for little worriers.
How to help kids cope
Although there’s no easy fix, parents can take steps to help prepare anxious children for the changes that occur during the summer.
Get back to basics. Balanced nutrition (including occasional s’mores), plenty of water and exercise, a consistent sleep routine and regular periods of downtime and unstructured play are essential for helping your anxious child thrive during the summer.
Trust your gut. You don’t have to accept every pool party invitation or force a sleepover. Take the opportunity to tune in to your child’s needs and focus on creating a relaxing summer.
Maintain the usual sleep routine. Although the sun sets a little later during the summer, your child still needs the same amount of sleep. Consider white noise, relaxing music, blackout shades, or even a weighted blanket to help ease your child into sleep.
And although a couple of late nights won’t pose too much of a problem, don’t make a habit of it. Preserving the sleep routine that your child relies on during the school year can prevent him or her from losing sleep or getting caught in a pattern of constant adjustments.
Set healthy boundaries. Screens are alluring, and they certainly feel like a lifesaver during long flights or car rides, but the key to teaching moderation is to practice it.
“Any sort of screen time can be anxiety-producing,” Naumburg says, “but especially time spent on social media, or watching scary shows or movies. And remember, shows that we may perceive as relatively benign may still be upsetting for some children.” The same goes for video games. What might seem innocent and fun in the moment can trigger big worries for young children after the fact.
It’s fine to use limits built into your devices (or an app such as Bark) to shut down screens after a certain amount of time, but be sure to talk to your kids about the expectations and boundaries.
Spend time together. Day trips and travel are fun, but you don’t need to spend a lot of money to create lasting summer memories with your kids. More often than not, kids tell me they just want to spend time with their parents. They don’t really worry about how that time is spent.
“Doing fun things together — be it a hike or a trip or backyard picnics or even cooking together on a regular basis — is more important for your children’s mental health than sports camps or summer academics to get ahead for the next school year,” Newman says. “You will build bonds and memories that will last a lifetime.”
Plan for travel. It might be easier for you to do the packing, but asking your child to help gives him some control. Anxious kids tend to prefer to bring certain comfort items and clothing when they leave home, so ask your child for input. It also helps to discuss the details of the trip, including any layovers or pit stops, and what to expect if you do experience travel delays or other problems.
Slow down. Although many kids need day camps during working hours, there’s no need to overload them with extra activities and new experiences. Look for local camps that focus on outdoor play and include downtime. These programs tend to have predictable routines and regular breaks from the action.
Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator, and the author of the new book “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls.” You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, Practical Parenting.
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