How to Handle End of Summer Jitters
Summer vacation is winding down and school is fast approaching. In June, our children could barely wait to put away their backpacks away and spend their days free but now as summer months pass by and camps end, many kids are complaining of being bored and parents are noticing increased irritability. Kids and parents alike rely on structure to help guide the day and more importantly, manage mental health issues like depression and anxiety. As a Mom, I see my kids’ (and my own) anxiety rise when visions of relaxing unstructured summer days quickly morph into the reality of grumpy children kicking around the house saying, “I’m bored” or “Can I use the iPad?”. Many parents know that feeling and are left scrambling to squeeze their child into a last-minute camp or activity to fill the time. And as a clinical psychologist, I often see kids of all ages whose depression and anxiety peak into much more serious clinical presentations when the structure of the day is gone. Structure holds kids and allows them to feel safe, knowing what to expect throughout the day and the week. Although it is crucial for children to have unstructured, free time each day, it is important for there to be some routine and structure (however you define it) to help children manage their emotions. Parents and children should sit down and discuss end of summer plans, how much time is left until school, and how the family will spend time until that point. Kids need to know what to expect.
Things to consider:
- Know your child. Is your child someone who does better with structure or unstructured time?
- Create structure somewhere and communicate it. Children do better when they know what to expect and understand the overall plan.
- Structure doesn’t have to mean committing to camps or formal activities but it can include doing expectable activities like reading in the afternoon, attending regular events (story hour at the library on Wednesdays), and having regular days to play with friends.
- Although it is not vital, many children do best when they participate in some organized activity.
- Make sure your child is getting plenty of time to: eat, sleep, read, and play - with peers, with family, alone, and outside.
- Begin to lay the expectation that school is starting. It makes the transition smoother.
- Collaborate with friends and neighbors and each take half a day to host a structured activity.
Symptoms to look out for:
- Loneliness. Often, when children lose structure, they can become socially isolated and lonely, which can lead to poor mental health. Stay tuned in to whether your child is maintaining regular, healthy social contact with peers.
- Social comparison, also known as ‘F.O.M.O. (fear of missing out)’ Our children are constantly bombarded with regular images of their peers at various social events, leaving our children feeling excluded and sad. Help children manage these emotions by helping them understand their feelings, put the images in context, and respond in a healthy way.
- Increased anxiety. Many people (especially children) experience increased anxiety when structure is lost. Look for symptoms of irritability, excessive worry, preoccupation, trouble sleeping (sleeping), change in appetite (more or less), change in energy (more or less), trouble concentrating and physical symptoms (belly aches, headaches).
- Increased depression. Look for irritability, anger, feelings of hopelessness, apathy, sadness, social withdrawal, increased crying, changes in sleep/appetite/energy, and physical symptoms (i.e. somatic complaints).
- Increased screen time. Often children turn to the screen (television, computer, or video games) to help manage boredom. Although this moderate screen time is reasonable, excessive screen time can create other psychological and physical issues. See the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for suggestions (https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/american-academy-of-pediatrics-announces-new-recommendations-for-childrens-media-use.aspx).
- If you are concerned about your child, call your insurance company or search www.psychologytoday.com to see a list of local clinicians.