Summer is supposed to be the best part of the year for a kid, right? Months of fun in the sun, backyard campouts, visits to the neighborhood pool, enjoying more downtime.
But for children who struggle without the structure of school, summer can be an anxious time.
Every season has its challenges, said Sasha Zagoloff, a clinical child psychologist with University of Minnesota Health in Minneapolis.
While anxiety usually peaks for kids in November, when the school year is fully underway, it can become a problem during summer, in part because parents don’t expect it.
We talked to Zagoloff about the difference between unstructured time and isolation, how to see summer from a kid’s perspective and the small tweaks parents can make to help ensure that Minnesota’s shortest season isn’t a source of anxiety.
Q: What’s behind kids’ summertime anxiety?
A: One big piece can be that the lack of structure leads to a lack of predictability, in terms of what each day is going to look like. For some kids, summer can be particularly hard because they don’t have as much social contact. A lot of parents tend to think in terms of going to camps or playing in the neighborhood, but not all children have access to that. Then, they spend a lot of time at home, playing video games, just pretty isolated.
With the lack of predictability and structure, sleep is something I see contributing to problems. Parents will get into the cycle of “Oh, we don’t have to be up early in the morning, so we can stay up later.” But that kind of disruption — at a biological, physiological level — can make some kids more vulnerable.
Q: What about the idea that kids today are too structured?
A: How much structure and free time is of benefit to any individual child is going to be a little different.
When I’m talking about structure, I mean things like what time are we getting up in the morning, roughly, what time are we going to bed? Are we going to be leaving the house? That’s very different from “We’re going to have a.m. camp and then we’re going to have p.m. camp and then on the weekends we’re going to do this.”
There is a middle zone, so to speak. Some kids may respond well to having an a.m. camp and a p.m. camp every single day of the week, but they still need some time to decompress and recharge their batteries.
Q: How do you know a kid is anxious?
A: Oftentimes with younger children, what we’re looking for is physical complaints. Headaches, stomachaches. Refusing to do things can also be a sign of anxiety. For teens, irritability often shows up in those children who are really, really scheduled and haven’t had a chance to relax and decompress.
Q: What else might add to the anxiety?
A: Kids might already be thinking about the next school year. There are some times when that’s particularly meaningful, like the transition to middle school or to high school. Or the transition to college when we’re talking about older adolescents.
But because adults think summer is this great break for kids, they might not understand that their kids are isolated or bored or worried.
Q: What’s the best way for parents to respond?
A: I often encourage parents to ask their kids, “How are you feeling?” and “What might be helpful right now?”
I find that adults in general and parents particularly feel like they should know more because they’re older and wiser or they feel a responsibility to fix the situation, so they skip asking the kid what they’re concerned about. If we can see it through their eyes, it allows us to soften, and validate their concerns.
That’s really where change can happen.
Q: How can parents talk about anxiety?
A: Try something like, “I can see that you’re having trouble getting dressed in the morning. I can see that you’re having trouble falling asleep at night. I’m wondering, have you noticed that, too? What do you think that’s about?”
Q: Do families need to make wholesale changes in their schedules?
A: Never underestimate the power of small tweaks. Oftentimes we’re working with busy families, so I recommend finding one time a week that the whole family can come together and do something, whether it’s a family meal or a movie night. That alone provides some structure and predictability, something to look forward to and an opportunity to check in. The benefit of that generalizes to the rest of the week. It’s not like every night there needs to be something.
Q: When is it time to get professional help?
A: Anytime concerns are getting in the way of functioning, it makes sense to be reaching out for additional help. That could be a kid who is isolating themselves from their friends and their family, or a kid who was previously engaged in an activity and now seems to still like that activity, but just isn’t engaging in it.
With kids we want to be aware that over time, interests change. It’s not necessarily a problem if a kid went to summer camp last year but doesn’t want to go this year. It can signal a problem if the kid seems to want to go, or says they want to go, but just can’t get on the bus.
Certainly, anytime there are lots of arguments, it can help to get an outsider’s perspective to figure out if there are anxiety issues or a perhaps a problem with the family interactions.