Wahoo summer time is here! School is out, the temperatures are rising and the days of sleeping in and less stress (supposedly) are here.
Children and teens often look forward to the summer as it means a break from the normal routine of school.However, sometimes the lack of structure over summer break can actually make mental health challenges worse. It’s important to find a balance of leisure time and structured time for your child and to recognize the warning signs that they might need more support from you or from a therapist.
Not every teen looks forward to summer. My work as a therapist in local high schools has taught me that not all students await the summer with excitement and joy. Many middle and high school students actually report higher levels of depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation in the weeks right before school is out and over the summer. Why is this?
Summer has a reputation for being a time where young people get to hang out with friends, do more fun things and feel happier. When this expectation is not met, they can end up feeling worse off. Underlying mental health challenges, social media, innate sensitivity, self-esteem and even socioeconomic status all play into this.
Take the example of a student I worked with in the past. *names and identifying information have been changed to protect anonymity.
Sarah, a 15 year old high school student sees all her friends posting on snapchat and instagram the fun times they are having. Her friends are going on fun vacations with their family, meeting up with peers at the local pool, going to the mall and having sleepovers. Sarah lives on the other side of town, she cant easily get to her friends' houses or join for impromptu meetups. Sarah is used to seeing her friends every day at school but finds herself feeling more isolated over the summer. Her parents work a lot and cant drive her places or take her on vacations. Sarah is usually pretty involved at school but with the break from academic clubs and school organized sports she doesn't have much to fill her long days with. So Sarah spends most of her summer alone in her room with only the company of netflix. Sarah has a good relationship with her mother but often gets into arguments/disagreements with her father. Since she is home more often, she has more opportunity to have conflicts with her father, and less opportunity to have a break/leave the house. Sarah feels self conscious about her body and isn't comfortable wearing a swimsuit, so she declines invites to the pool. She worries about all the things she is missing out on and how connected and happy all of her peers seem to be. She lacks a sense of purpose and connection which during the school year were important protective factors for managing her anxiety and depression.
Many teens can relate to some part of Sarah’s experience.
So what can you do?
As a parent you can support your child by trying to find things for them to do, keeping the structure and predictability that is present during the school year.
Ask any teen with depression or anxiety and they will tell you that they typically feel worse when they spend the day alone and not doing anything. Avoidance and isolation are often symptoms of depression or anxiety that need to be challenged, so finding ways for them to engage socially can be helpful. School provides a basic level of social interaction, without it some children will miss opportunities to engage and practice/utilize social skills. Creating opportunity for connection can be helpful for your child whether they are suffering from anxiety/depression or not.
Daily physical activity is sometimes harder to accomplish when not in school. Physical education classes motivate many students to be active. Over the summer, without required physical activity, and with the increased heat, many people are less active. Studies show the positive benefits of regular exercise on mental health. Exercise helps with sleep, lowers stress, increases both serotonin and norepinephrine (which improve mood) and can help with self esteem and body positivity. Encourage your child to have daily exercise whether its a walk/jog around the neighborhood, playing sports, going for a swim or even joining a gym. You may even consider joining them yourself.
A daily schedule of tasks and responsibilities can make a difference and avoid children sitting around for days on end with no activities. Give your teen chores to do, possibly even more responsibilities than they had during the school year since they have more free time. Take them along to run errands like grocery shopping and set the expectation that they will help with household duties. Take the opportunity to focus on things that they might not have had extra time for during the school year. Perhaps starting research on colleges, practicing for their learners permit/ drivers exam, taking up a hobby they have always had interest in or simply spending more quality family time ect.
Continuing existing commitments if possible can help keep consistency and connection. If your teen is part of a church group, sports team or other activity outside of school, attempting to keep them involved is important.
Downtime is still needed. We all need time to decompress and recharge.Familiarize yourself with your child's preferred version of downtime and make efforts to help them make time for it. Would they rather sit in the backyard with a good book or work on an art project with a friend? Does listening to music on their headphones or going on a walk with the dog bring them more peace? The key is finding balance and not having too much free time.
Summer camps, tutoring, sports and playdates are all great ideas to increase social connection. One thing parents don't often think of though is mental health support over the summer. In fact, some parents feel the summer is a good time to take off of therapy. Sometimes due to scheduling, this needs to happen but I have noticed that especially for teens, the summer can actually be a more stressful time and having the consistency of therapy can be very important.
Students are usually connected to one or more trusted adults at school; a teacher, guidance counselor or administrator. Over the summer they lose contact with these adults and it can be helpful to have a relationship with a therapist over the summer to bridge the gap. Teens in particular will benefit from a supportive relationship with an adult outside of their family members.
Sarah was in weekly therapy with Audina and was able to have a safe and supportive place to process the feelings that came up for her over the summer. She was validated, listening to and encouraged. Audrina provided psycho-education to Sarah about the ways that isolation can impact her mood. Audrina helped her come up with a list of activities to do over the summer, a daily schedule and self-care checklist to help keep her accountable. Audrina helped her talk about the conflicts with her father and brought her father for a family session to address some of their communication skills and help them set goals for their relationship. Therapy with Audrina Smith helped Sarah find ways to be more engaged and balanced and enjoy her summer.
If you or someone you know is in need of mental health counseling please feel free to reach out to Audrina Smith about a free phone consultation. Audrina specializes in working with teens, adults and families who are highly sensitive, anxious and going through tough transitions. Audrina’s practice is in Alameda California. More information can be found on her website at https://www.therapywithaudrinasmith.com/