By Wendy Rice, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist
Ahhhh…the last day of school! What a magical thing that is.
I have memories of streamers flowing out of school bus windows, and throwing overflowing notebooks into the trashcan. When you are little, summer seems like an endless open opportunity for fun, play, and relaxation.
I distinctly remember the day in middle school when I figured out that summer was only eight weeks long. I was shocked. It had always seemed to take up at least 50% of my year.
Now, as a parent, I have the joy of watching my children experience the building excitement of the last day of school. It’s exciting for me as well. No more rushing to the school bus, no more packing lunches, helping with homework, signing up to volunteer for endless school activities. A break from all the structure!
But then again, I don’t love structure. For many parents, children, and teens, summer poses a very specific dilemma: “How in the world do we all stay entertained and happy without all the structure?”
This is a question that is often brought up in my sessions with clients. Children and teenagers who are struggling with depression and anxiety are often hugely relieved that they no longer have to face daunting days of school, peers, and rigorous work. Too much down time, however, can be the worst enemy for these individuals.
Having full days of unstructured time often leads to hours of TV, computer time, being alone in a bedroom, and erratic sleeping and eating schedules. This type of behavior is very likely to exacerbate and even create symptoms of depression and anxiety. Even for healthy kids, weeks on end just hanging around the house usually leads to boredom and conflict for both kids and parents after not too long.
Then there is the opposite approach that we often see in our affluent Tampa suburbs. “Let’s schedule the heck out of these kids!”
Parents have been frantically signing their kids up for camps, retreats, volunteering, and sports lessons for the last few months in an effort to fill the lull of summer months. Commonly, camps are a weeklong and last the length of a school day. I have many friends who have their children signed up for something every single week of the summer. This solves the problem of too much down time, but perhaps it’s overkill.
When kids are overscheduled in the summer, running out of the home every morning, does it even feel like summer? Is there a sacrifice of self directed activity or family time? (Let me please note that I do not want to be insensitive to families who have two working parents and may not have any other option than to keep their children fully scheduled during the summer. As with anything, each individual family will find a way to maintain a balance that works for them.)
It is my opinion that, as in most situations, BALANCE, is the key to a happy and healthy summer. Finding a balance of:
1) Family based activities
2) Structured out of the home activities
3) Down time/ time for kids to be with their friends.
What this might look like is signing your child up for four weeklong camps as opposed to eight. Or, signing them up instead for a one or two hour lesson that then allows the rest of the day to be unstructured.
Planning ample family vacations, outings, game nights, or even just making an effort towards family dinners. Balance may look like having your teenager work a summer job that allows him/her ample time outside of work for family and friends. Volunteering, summer theatre, work, camps, sports tournaments, music lessons…. do it all…just don’t OVER do it.
I often suggest to my clients and their parents that at the beginning of any transition it is a good idea to have a family meeting and talk about everyone’s expectations. Parents can introduce the idea of balance and plan ahead for their children and teens to find middle road between things that will get them up and out of the house, and things that will help them relax.
You may want to bring up sleep schedules (especially for teenagers) and brainstorm fun ideas that you can do as a family. We want everyone coming back to the new school year feeling refreshed and that they’ve had a “break” from the rat race of the school year!
And, if you’re looking for a way to help the kids stay focused and ready for the new school year, contact us for more information on Cognitive Training. These techniques enable children and adults of all ages to think more effectively, focus better and remember more.