Summer does not equate to relaxation and fun for everyone. Even though kids with anxiety may experience less overall stress during to the break from school, these months can pose some new challenges. I asked local clinical social worker, Rebecca Goldberg, to weigh in on some common areas of concern from children and parents regarding the summer break. She gave me some wonderful strategies that might help:
Boredom– Let it happen!
Summer is intended to be unstructured but not all kids do well with little to do. A common concern from both parents and kids is the need to be entertained or having a short attention span. Like any new skill, leisure skills need to be learned, expanded and practiced, especially for anxious kids. Kids are used to instant gratification and constant inbound stimulation in our digital world and school environments. Even though protesting (“I can’t do it!”) may occur, letting boredom happen is important. Boredom has been touted as an important skill in childhood that leads to expanded creativity, problem-solving skills and benefits to overall mental health as we age.
Try these ideas:
– Work with your child to create a leisure, quiet, solo activity list. This can include art projects (be specific, take the trip to a craft store and buy a few kits or find some projects online), listen to music, read, garden, color, draw, journal – to name a few. Put these items in a central location.
– Make a visual list and have it posted somewhere in the house where your child is most likely to engage in the activities. A common space in the house may be best.
– Have quiet time near one another. This allows for connection and closeness even if you aren’t engaging with one another directly. This also models these skills for your child and shows that you too make leisure a priority and can practice what you preach.
– Have your child practice solo skills for a few minutes a day and build up as they go; it can be a good practice for the whole family. Start with 5 minutes and stick with it; don’t save them no matter how much they complain!
– Praise your child for spending quiet time on their own. Notice if they seem calmer or accomplished and reflect on that specifically. Help kids see the merit in quieting their mind, disconnecting and trying new activities.
– Explain the why. Lots of kids do better knowing “the why” behind something. Let kids know how important it is to explore and come up with creative ways to spend their alone time. When kids don’t want to try it, frame it is as an “experiment” to see how it goes. This strategy can often feel less overwhelming to an anxious kid who thinks their whole world is now going to change.
Vacation– Always relaxing?
Not for everyone! Vacations involve leaving your job, house and other responsibilities which is bound to cause stress on parents. We all want to get the most out of our time away so it’s important to plan ahead and manage the stress proactively. Your children will absolutely feel your stress around getting out the door, unless you plan accordingly.
Try these ideas:
– Make sure you have enough time to plan, prepare and talk with your partner well in advance to make the transition out of town as smooth as possible. Let kids know what they will be responsible for, i.e. packing their own bag, preparing a car/plane/train activity bag, etc.
– Get acclimated to the vacation spot beforehand. If this is a new place you are vacationing to, do some online searches together as a family and look at photos, activities and start to generate ideas, and excitement, for the trip. Even if your child gets nervous about going, remind them that even though the travel time or leaving their friends may be hard, it will be worth the vacation experiences.
– Set expectations ahead of time. Allow everyone to have ideas about activities to do while away and write them ALL out, everyone’s ideas matter. Vote on these activities as a family and plan accordingly. Set up a calendar of the vacation so kids know what to expect and on what days; post this somewhere central like the kitchen.
– Not everyone vacations the same. If you are traveling with another family, be cognizant of the differences in what each family may need. Make sure you set time aside for your own family’s needs to be met. Additionally, some kids and their parents vacation differently! By allowing the needs of your children to be met, the vacation will ultimately will be more enjoyable for you too, so take that trip to the arcade, bowling alley or have a quiet board game day.
Camp & Sleepaway Camp– A big step for any child, let alone one with anxiety!
Whether it’s down the street or across the country, going to camp can be a hard thing to do for some kids. Once signed up and registered, kids often experience increase anxiety and may refuse to go. My typical response is “let’s try to find a way to work through it, even though it’s hard”. Establishing that even though camp may feel scary, it is not a reason not to go – just a reason to get more prepared.
Try these ideas:
– Amplify being brave. Focus on how this is scary AND your child can be brave. We want to teach children that we can do something, even when we think we can’t at first.
– Remind your child of other times they have been successful. Has your child been afraid of doing something before and then tried it, and it turned out fine? Remind them of that and be specific, “Remember when you did swim team for the first time and it was so scary and you thought everyone was going to be a better swimmer than you? Do you remember what happened? You were able to face your fear and now you love to swim. You would have really missed out on something awesome if you listened to your worry that time and let’s not let worry control us this time either.”
– Bring an item to camp that helps them remember you, home, or whatever helps them feel calm, safe and grounded. This can be something small like wearing a piece of jewelry of Mom’s, bringing an item from home (photos, small pocket item), a favorite fidget or squishy, etc. Sensory based items can also help with grounding a child when they become dysregulated with anxiety – try something soft (rabbits foot, etc.), something that smells good (essential oil cotton ball, wearing Mom’s perfume, etc.), or something special to eat for lunch. It’s always nice to get a note from a loved one in your lunch or in your camp backpack, too – it is the little things!
– Wear a watch or create a count down. Help kids know that even things that feel uncomfortable do come to an end.
– Reward your child for being brave. Give your child tons of positive feedback, make it bigger and use a reward after camp to help them stick with it, ice cream is a good one for the summer or a trip to the pool for a night swim.
– Make a backup plan. If camp is hard, let the child know you will be available to help them work through it. The camp can call you and you can talk with them but the goal is to stay at camp – do not swoop in to rescue your child and manage your own anxiety around your child’s distress. We only beat anxiety by facing it. Your child is in control, not their worries.
– Stick with it and don’t cave. It may be easier for both of you not to push through something like camp, which creates so much distress, but it is worth it. If you don’t do it now, it will keep happening. Don’t teach your child that when its hard, we stop or give up and that you also, don’t believe they can do it. It may take hours to get your kid out that door but stick with it. Take care of yourself in the process and if you need a break or the conversation is going nowhere, let your child know it’s time to pause and you will come back to this issue later.
– What are the mini steps? If your child is not able to make it through a full day at school, setting up the expectation for a full day camp can be a set up for failure. If this is new, try the mini steps to get there – having a parent stay there for the first hour (you can sit in the car if the camp does not allow parents to stay), staying for the morning, morning and lunch, and then working up to the full day.
– What are the stuck thoughts? Anxious kids have stuck thoughts that maintain the anxiety. “No one will play with me” or “There will be too many bugs” or “What if my parents don’t pick me up?” are all thoughts hear. Talk through these with your child and help them see that these stuck thoughts are worry talking to them and are not true. Counter these with evidence and work to reframe the thought to something more accurate and helpful. Make these visual and fun for your child – let’s be detectives to find the evidence, let’s be lawyers and argue our case, etc.:
- “No one will play with me.” “Even though meeting new people is hard, I can do my best to say ‘hi’ and make new friends. If I feel left out, I can ask a counselor for help joining in. I have been worried about making friends before but it took a few days and then I felt comfortable. I just need to give myself some time to adjust.”
- “There will be too many bugs. I will get stung.” “I might not like bugs but they are part of summer. I can wear bug spray, wave them away or ask to take a break inside if I feel overwhelmed. Even though I don’t like bugs, they are not putting me in danger. It is unlikely that I get stung because I have been outside thousands of times and I have not been stung most of those times [calculate the percentage if that’s helpful for your child]. If I get stung, there is a camp nurse that will help it feel better. Every time I have been hurt in the past, the pain does go away.”
- “What if my parents don’t pick me up?” “It’s unlikely that my parents won’t pick me up because they do for everything else. If for some reason they were running late, the camp staff could call them to make sure they were on the way. I won’t be left alone until they get there to pick me up. My parents are always thinking about me and would not leave me behind.”
Before you know it, it will be time to head back to school. For school transition anxiety, or starting a new school in the fall, give your child chances to visit the new school over the summer, play on the playground and set up playdates with classmates. If it helps for your child to have a walkthrough, call the administrators and set this up privately. Even though heading back to school is hard, remind your child what they can to reward themselves for being brave –special dinner or activity and getting to share about their first day with you.
Being anxious isn’t fun for anyone – children or parents, or siblings. If your child is not able to work through their challenges and find enjoyment in everyday life, it may be time to get some additional help. Especially if you work on this with your child and it affects your relationship negatively, it may be time to outsource this work. Anxiety is difficult and it is something that can be managed but does take work.
Rebecca Goldberg, LCSW, RPT is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Registered Play Therapist in private practice in McLean, VA. She specializes in working with children and adolescents who experience mental health issues and a large majority of her clients present with anxiety related issues. The above information is adapted from her years of clinical work, experience in the field of anxiety and from the many other qualified professionals, she has trained with. Feel free to contact Rebecca directly or see more about her work on her website: www.rebeccagoldberglcsw.com.
-Elizabeth Clark McKenzie, MS, CCC-SLP