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Sunday, March 26, 2023

Summertime Parenting: Steps You Can Take Now to Prepare for What’s Next

Summertime Parenting: Steps You Can Take Now to Prepare for What’s Next

Ah, summer! Time for sunburns and bike rides, fireflies and driving around with the windows down. We live for summer’s easy routine and break from the grind, and even if we’re still working (because of course we are, if we have children, we’re always working) it seems different somehow— the light is softer, the days are longer.

Of course, as a parent of six, if I slip off my rose colored glasses for a sec I can remember some summer pitfalls too— bedtimes that fall by the wayside, grumpy, overtired kids, the relentless need to entertain said kids and drive them to playdates, and parks, and pools, and camps that they complain about going to even though you’ve spent what amounts to a semester’s college tuition on them.

And in the midst of all this, in the back of our minds, (or at least in the back of my mind, which is a neurotic mind indeed) is the anticipation of summer’s end, or rather school’s beginning, and all that that entails— the shopping, the organizing, the child wrangling— the latter being, in my house at least, the most difficult piece of all. Getting a youngster to switch gears from fun! to ugh! is no easy task, particularly if you’re dealing with someone who struggles in school, who has social anxiety, or general anxiety, depression, ADHD, or any of the other all too common challenges of young people today.

Over the years, however, as a result of not only raising my own children but from working as a mental health professional with countless others, I’ve discovered strategies that help. Following are some simple common sense ways to take advantage of summer days while considering how best to handle things by the time they’re winding down.

Capitalize on communication.

As a kid myself I remember feeling like summer was going to go forever and that was just fine with me. I hated school and lived for times that I didn’t have to bother with it. While I was in school, I was generally so upset about one thing or another that I shut down emotionally and it was almost impossible for my parents to communicate with me— but during the summer that shifted.

If you are a parent to a kid like this, recognize that summer offers you a time to talk with your child in ways you probably can’t during the school year. Because they are more relaxed and have some distance from school stuff, they are more likely to be vulnerable and self reflective.

Try asking things like:

“Now that you have some down time, what do you think the hardest thing about school was last year? The work itself? Teachers? Friend drama?”

“Is there anything you actually miss about school?”

“If you could have done something different last school year, what would that be?”

“What do you think might make next school year feel better to you?”

You’ll be surprised by the treasure trove of information you might find in these simple conversations. Remember, focus on listening and reflecting feelings and keep the problem solving to a minimum. Kids— well all of us really!— mostly want to be heard, not fixed.

Keep up (some) routines.

While the essence of summer is a loosening of our reins, we need to keep some semblance of order for our kids. They thrive on consistency and structure (despite what they might tell you) and the summer months don’t change that. Be intentional about what you let fall to the wayside and what you insist on keeping.

Two good things to sustain are bedtimes and family meals. By maintaining a good bedtime routine you’ll save yourself endless agony when school restarts. Trying to get a kid to go to bed the night before the first day of school when they’ve been up until midnight all summer is a losing battle. Another option is to let bedtimes run later in summer (but still consistent) and then a week or so before school begins make the time earlier by half an hour every two or three days.

Family meals are the cornerstone of a healthy home, and while there are certainly times that they’re not possible, making sure you all sit down together more often than not is important. And it doesn’t need to be dinnertime, any time is great! Having a family breakfast on the weekend, or going out to lunch are nice ways to keep everyone connected.

Help kids reframe.

Promote the viewpoint that summers are not a given but a reward for a school year full of challenges and hard work. This simple reframe not only validates the work your kids did, but helps them enjoy their time off more. Even if their school year wasn’t academically successful, try to articulate something they did succeed at— whether it was adapting to online school, dealing with bullying or drama, or just showing up every day when things got tough. Then, when it’s time to get back to school you can remind them of what a good job they did last year, and how much they can look forward to the rewards of next summer.

Checking in.

As the end of summer approaches, find a time to check in about the earlier conversations you (hopefully) had when your child’s guard was down about their experience of the last school year. If, over the course of those talks (of which there should ideally be a few) you were able to get a better sense of what your kid’s specific problem areas were, this is the time to troubleshoot. You can say, “You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said before about x,y, and z, and I was wondering if we could try to come up with some ways to make that better for you next year.”

As I said before, some of the most common issues I see in kids now are depression, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, performance anxiety, ADHD, and family dynamics (they might have a sibling who is bullying them, divorced parents, a chronically ill family member or host of other issues that impact them). Sometimes it’s hard for parents to recognize the depth of these challenges because we are too close to them, because we are in some measure of denial, or because our kids don’t let us see them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. If you suspect there is a bigger underlying problem for your kid beyond “school sucks” or the classic teen attitude, summer is a good time to explore how to get them the help they really need.

Which leads me to….

Finding support systems.

There are so many specific therapies and modalities for kids these days, it’s really wonderful— but also a bit daunting. A great way to educate yourself about what’s available is to schedule a consultation for yourself with a therapist who has a broad range of knowledge about different treatment styles and can help you nail down the better options for your child. Any therapist who is worth their salt will be happy to devote an hour of time to a discussion like this. And it’s important to do this with an actual mental health professional— most often primary care physicians are not current on all the choices that are out there today. For example, there are art and movement therapies, sound therapy, equine therapy (which I would have loved as a kid), cognitive behavioral, dialectical, and play therapy just to name a few.

One thing I know for sure is that the fit between client and therapist/modality is paramount to the success in treatment, so being willing to “interview” therapists and leave a therapeutic arrangement if it doesn’t seem helpful is key. Letting our kids in on this makes sense too, and often makes them more willing to undertake treatment.

But support systems aren’t just about finding a great therapist, they’re about helping our kids think about ways they can interact with people who will like and accept them for who they are. This can mean anything from planning to try a different club or activity at school, finding volunteer work that feels meaningful to them, or making sure they get to spend time with a relative that loves them. Again, summer gives us space to think about how to create more of what our kids need in their lives and the time to help us enact it.

At the end of the day, I’ve come to think of summer as a reward and a reset. We can help our kids to see it that way too by maximizing communication when their defenses are down, by keeping up enough routines so they feel safe, by helping them reframe summer as something to be worked toward and enjoyed as a natural consequence of that work, by checking in with them about their evolving feelings as the months slip by, and by optimizing support systems, so that when the school year gears up once again they feel empowered and understood.

If we manage to do these things— which (admittedly) seems like a lot all smashed into one paragraph, but is totally manageable when broken down into bite-sized pieces, we, and our kids, will have a wonderful break. Just don’t forget to get a bunch of ice cream cones in the middle of all this serious parenting!

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