July 7, 2014

Helping ease summertime anxiety

How can having no school, going to bed when they want and sleeping in be causing kids anxiety? It might seem counter-intuitive, but it's true.

And if your kids are showing signs of being restless, irritable and maybe even reluctant to go do things , chances are they may be feeling anxious. Kids need a framework for their day. If there's ambiguity — too much unstructured time or unpredictability — there's increased anxiety.

Put into perspective — kids go from the highly structured five days a week, nearly every hour of the day of knowing exactly where they'll be and what they'll be doing. Summer arrives and suddenly the day is wide open. And while parents may think that's a good thing — to take a break from the rigid structure of the school year — kids will start to become agitated and restless because they need something to grab onto in order to organize their day.

To start providing some framework,  stick to the basics — keep bed time and meal times the same. And while sleeping-in may seem like a great thing, limit it to an hour or hour and a half max. Any longer and it can offset the sleep cycle.

A family calendar

Sometimes kids attend camp during the summer, and through camp kids will get the routine they need coupled with activities that help keep them engaged physically and mentally. But, for kids who might be at home with a parent, grandparent or nanny during the summer, it can be easy to fall out of any kind of routine.

Develop a weekly calendar that's easy to see, like on the front of the refrigerator. It isn't meant to schedule the kids as much as during the school year, but rather, provide a basic layout of what the week will look like.

To create the calendar, split each day into morning and afternoon. Then assign activities to days based on four categories:

  • Physical exercise: Bike riding, swimming, etc.

  • Brain exercise: Reading, workbooks, things that use academic pieces

  • Social Interaction: Time with family and friends, playdates, etc.

  • Playtime: Unstructured creative, relaxing and fun time

An example of a week might be Tuesday and Friday mornings are brain exercise time. Monday, Wednesday, Friday afternoons are physical exercise time. Thursday morning is social playdate time.

You can always add more time to each category, too, like having additional playdates, or spending more time reading. Having items written down helps ensure stuff gets done, and reminds kids that they have a mix of activities, just like a school day has different classes mixed in with recess and lunch.

Providing structure and variety helps kids know what to expect while still allowing for a fun and relaxed day. There is still room for the staying in PJs, or watching cartoons. Just set expectations like, "Everyone dressed by 8:30 a.m.," or "Cartoons from 7:30-8 a.m."

Most parents are aware of how reading, spelling and even math skills decline over the summer if kids don't actively use those skills. The calendar can help ensure that time is being spent on those activities, instead of being put off to another week. Find ways to make it fun like math puzzles or reading new books, and talk with your kids about what they're learning to show them you're interested and value the time too.

And, keep in mind the calendar is meant to be very flexible. If kids get an invitation to go to the waterpark on a library day, that's okay. Or, perhaps they have summer camp on a particular week. The schedule is really the default schedule — it is what happens when there is nothing else going on.

Create a menu of activity ideas

Once you've created a calendar, the next step is to develop a menu of activities that fit within the categories. It's like when you go to a restaurant. You know you're hungry and so you look at the menu and choose an option that sounds the most appealing. It's the same concept — create a menu of activities that fit within each of the categories, then when a particular category is scheduled on the calendar, you can look at the list and choose an item. With a variety of ideas, it enables kids to mix it up from day to day. And, when kids come to you saying, "I'm bored," you can point them to the list.

Family responsibilities

On the calendar, it is also good to identify time spent for family responsibilities (or chores depending on the terminology you prefer). Again, it can be flexible. But giving kids tasks like picking up their room or helping with the dishes gives kids the message that they have responsibilities and that their contributions are important to the family. Accomplishing the tasks also helps with their self-confidence and creates a feeling that they have done something important and valued.

Warning signs

All kids will have anxiety from time to time, but when should you start to wonder if there's more concern? Irritability and avoidance are common signs of anxiety. You avoid the things that make you anxious and consequently, you won't want to participate in activities or try new things. That might mean not wanting to go on play dates or joining kids in new activities, and instead, spending more time alone at home playing games on the computer.

Speaking of screen time

Video games, television, even texting can be addictive. And it can be hard for kids to turn it off. Without structure and limits, kids could easily go six hours or even more playing video games. But balance is critical. It's not that kids can't have any screen time, but it definitely needs to be limited. Playing video games all day can lead to your child's thinking becoming more narrow and rigid instead of flexible and creative.

Think about it in terms of physical exercise — you don't just exercise your upper body to stay healthy and fit. Instead, you do exercises that work all parts of the body. The brain is the same way. You need to have a variety of activities — math, spelling, social interactions, and new experiences etc. — to give your brain a good work out to optimize both mental and physical health.

Having basic consistency and structure to each day gives kids a sense of security and stability, even though you may hear them complain from time to time that it's boring. In other words, you know you're doing a good job when kids say, "We do the same thing all the time."