With school on break, along with all the homework, tests and early start times that come with it, parents often assume that young people’s stress and anxiety will take a pause as well. However, that’s not always the case, especially as the novelty of summer dwindles. Without the daily structure of school and extracurricular activities, kids may struggle with boredom or restlessness. “Summer for many of us can feel like this nebulous thing because it is just this endless free time. Additionally, the pressure to make the most of the summer break and fear of missing out on experiences can contribute to feelings of anxiety. That ambiguity spikes a lot of fear and concern,” said Miriam Stevenson, who is an executive director at Care Solace, a company that helps schools connect families with mental health services. Previously she worked as the director of student services for health and wellness in the Palo Alto Unified School District.
Stevenson said that while Care Solace receives fewer summertime referrals, it’s not because there is less need. It’s because students aren’t at school with extra adult eyes and ears to check in on them. “There’s one less node in our safety net,” she said. When schools succeed at creating a sense of belonging, they can be a comforting routine for students or a safe place where they feel socially connected. Stevenson offered advice for parents looking to support their kids’ mental health over the summer and equip them with the tools to embrace joy, conquer challenges and flourish.
More free time doesn’t have to mean more screen time
With more free time on their hands, it’s easy for kids to get sucked into endless hours of screen usage, especially because kids are also using their devices to connect with friends that they’re no longer seeing at school everyday. An advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General recently warned that “frequent social media use can contribute to poor mental health.” One study cited in the advisory found that adolescents who spent over three hours per day on social media were twice as likely to have negative mental health outcomes, such as depression and anxiety symptoms. “Not all young people are good at setting their own boundaries and they might need you to be the bad guy,” said Stevenson.
The first thing parents can do to limit screen time is to lead by example with their own devices. “They’re going to do what we do, not what we tell them to do,” added Stevenson. By modeling moderation and offering alternatives that get kids moving and exploring, parents can make a well-rounded summer seem more attainable. Summer is an opportunity to be present with one another as a family, said Stevenson. “Have technology-free times together or meals together — moments where there isn’t a screen that’s interfering with your ability to connect,” she suggested.
Additionally, parents can give their children a screen time budget. “They get to decide how they want to use the amount of screen time that they have,” said Stevenson. “That gives them some autonomy and choice.”
The power of a summer schedule
Maintaining a routine during the summer can be a powerful tool for supporting children’s mental health, and parents can play a crucial role in establishing and reinforcing this structure. Stevenson encouraged parents to proactively determine a schedule with kids, including bedtimes and wake-up times. “There’s great freedom in the summer to allow us to go to our natural circadian rhythms. And unfortunately, as lovely as that might be, it’s going to make waking up early harder when they come back [to school],” said Stevenson.
Consistent sleep patterns can improve sleep health, which is closely linked to children’s mental health and wellbeing. “If you don’t have morning routines or evening routines as a family, the summer is a good time to experiment,” Stevenson said. Creating a daily schedule that includes dedicated time for physical activity, reading, hobbies and socializing can provide a sense of stability and purpose.
“Just because school’s out doesn’t mean learning stops. In fact, it’s the best time to learn because you have the sole choice over what you get to be curious, pursue or inquire about,” she added. Outside of the hustle and bustle of the school year, parents can encourage kids to think about how they’re contributing to their community, which can look like setting the table each night, visiting older relatives or volunteering locally.
Open communication can help parents recognize warning signs
It can be difficult to identify signs that a kid is struggling with mental health, especially if they are older. Although resources with lists of warning signs exist, they can often read like teenagers being teenagers, Stevenson said. “They’re emotional. They’re volatile. They’re withdrawn. They like to sleep all day.” Instead of scrutinizing every potential symptom, Stevenson suggested parents keep an eye on significant changes in behavior, mood, eating and sleep habits. “Trust that you know your kid,” she said. “You know what their baseline is.” Additionally, parents can establish a daily check-in with their child, such as a text asking how they’re doing or a designated time in the evening to share highs and lows from the day.
If parents notice warning signs of poor mental health, open and honest communication is vital. Engaging in supportive conversations with their child, expressing concern and actively listening without judgment can create a safe space for them to share their feelings. “Listen and stay in that moment and just let them express themselves. Show them that you can hold very difficult feelings,” said Stevenson. If parents feel out of their depth, they can seek professional help from a pediatrician, therapist or counselor. “Summer can present a lot of great opportunities for intensive mental health support or starting with a therapist,” she added.
Knowledge is power when it comes to school-year fear
At the beginning of the summer, going back to school may be the farthest thing from kids’ minds. But as the school start date gets closer, parents might start to see anxiety levels rise, said Stevenson. “Anytime you’re going to have a transition or there’s an unknown, there’s going to be an increase in worry. And if you’re already predisposed or struggling with anxiety, it’s going to exacerbate the challenges that you’re facing,” she said.
Parents can work with kids to find out as much information about the next school year as possible in order to dispel any fear of the future. This is especially helpful when kids are starting at a new school either because of a grade change or a recent move. Parents may encourage students to visit school and see where their classes will be or talk to their friends to see if they will be in the same classes. “As much information as they can have about what their day is going to look like and who they’re going to be with is really helpful,” said Stevenson. Additionally, parents can identify any orientation programs that the school may provide.
Kids’ mental health needs persist past the end of the school year and through the summer. Embracing this opportunity to reset and focus on mental well-being can set the stage for a fulfilling summer experience and confident start to the new school year.