School vacation and summer time are here! Our children could barely wait to put away their backpacks and spend their days free. Although this might be true for many, kids and parents 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.
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 school day is gone. Structure holds kids and allows them to feel safe, knowing what to expect throughout the day and the week. It also allows for daily social interaction for children that might not have that access at home. 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 the summer plans, whether it is camp every day or multiple weeks off in a row, 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? How do they respond during school year vacations and summers past? Think ahead about summer plans based on who they are.
- 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 organized 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.
Symptoms to look out for:
- Loneliness. Often, when children lose the structure of school, 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. , orFear 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, change in appetite (more or less), change in energy (more or less), trouble concentrating, and physical symptoms (belly aches, headaches, etc.).
- 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 child’s pediatrician or search www.psychologytoday.com to see a list of local clinicians.