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How to Get Through A Long Summer with Your Anxious Child

By: Christina Gentile

So, you’ve read posts and talked to friends who are counting the days until school is done.  The stress of virtual learning, the support required, the technical problems… most parents are ready to leave that all behind and forge ahead into summer fun.  And maybe that describes you.  But maybe you’re a parent who is also feeling some degree of dread as you think about 8, 9, 10 weeks of unscheduled time.  Maybe you’re a parent who breaks out into a sweat thinking about the hours and hours, stretching out into the hot weeks ahead, just waiting to be filled with activities.  Maybe while your friends are sharing photos of their families at the beach, you’re lamenting how your kiddo refuses to let his feet touch the sand because they’ll get too dirty.        

If you’re also trying to balance a job on top of entertaining and keeping your child or children safe, it becomes that much harder.  And - here’s the kicker - if your child has anxiety, then you know that your summer will very likely look different from those of your fellow parents.  To be sure, some anxious kids do better in the summer - especially if school is a trigger for them.  For older children with school phobia, their worries about school may be relieved and behaviors can disappear during the summer.  However, for a lot of kids with anxious tendencies, unscheduled time can be very challenging.  The school connections and support that they have during the school year are gone.  The predictable routine is gone.  The rhythm of the school day is gone.  And this change can lead to kids becoming depressed, aggressive, and obsessive during the summer.  

If you’re feeling alone in your summer-is-coming-panic, I promise, you’re not.  At the very least, there are two of us, because I’m right there with you.  In an attempt to quell my own concerns, I’ve put together some thoughts on how to get through school breaks and summer vacation while managing your child’s anxiety.  

Channel your Inner Hugh Grant From About A Boy

I find the key is to think of a day as units of time, each unit consisting of no more than thirty minutes. Full hours can be a little bit intimidating and most activities take about half an hour. Taking a bath: one unit, watching countdown: one unit, web-based research: two units, exercising: three units, having my hair carefully disheveled: four units. 

-Hugh Grant, “About a Boy” 

Take Hugh’s advice - “one day at a time” may not cut it during the summer. You may need to go beyond that to one hour at a time.  Consider chunking your child’s day into 2 hour, 1 hour, or even 30 minute blocks of time.  Mentally this is less overwhelming for both of you, and can make the day feel more manageable.  This fits nicely with the next recommendation… 

Don’t Be Afraid of the Schedule

While some of your parenting friends are celebrating the joys of getting away from the schedule and just letting their kids “play,” you may be fantasizing about creating a google doc laying out a schedule. Try it!  It’s all about balance - no one is saying to wake your child up at 7am to run laps. Creating a schedule can be a joint effort with older kids. You can drill down to 30 minute blocks (see above), or you can have broader blocks (for example - 2 hours of “free time,” 2 hours of non-screen activities, 1 hour of Mom’s choice).  For younger kids, visual schedules can be helpful.  It can be helpful to give your child the opportunity to check or cross off activities as they are completed.  You may also want to consider having two schedules: a more detailed daily one, and in addition, a more general monthly schedule that shows any major deviations such as trips or special events so that your child knows about those well in advance.  Previewing the schedule with your child, or having them explain it to you, can make unexpected detours less of a surprise.  

Give Your Child a Sense of Purpose

Some kids do great with aimlessness and filling their own time.  For many anxious kids, though, open-ended, unscheduled time can increase and amplify their anxiety.  Distraction can be a powerful tool to help to manage anxiety.  Regardless of the type of activity your child is interested in, giving kids a “job” or something with purpose can help to manage overwhelming feelings.  It can also reinforce their own sense of competence and self-efficacy.  For some, this might be volunteer work; for others, it could be building something that can be used around the house, or working with animals.  Remember that while it’s important for kids to have choices, too many choices can be utterly overwhelming for kids with anxiety.  You may need to limit ideas to two or three options.  

Incorporate a Range of Sensory Activities 

Often when we think about sensory activities, we’re used to hearing about younger children.  But tweens and teens also benefit a balance of activities that incorporate their sensory needs.  Just like when they were newborns, our children had a schedule that included playtime and rest time, all kids do well with some quiet time and active time.  A Bubble bath can be great for downtime after a nerf battle.  Drawing along with a YouTube video can be a calming transition after lunch.  Pairing a more physical activity with quieter activity is something that you’ve probably been doing intuitively for years! 

As always, if your child sees a therapist, it’s incredibly important to maintain this during the summer vacation.  We’d love to hear your suggestions on how you manage your child’s anxiety during the summer.

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