This article is part one of a two-part series discussing strategies to help children manage their anxieties. Please note, this post was originally published in June 2016.
Helping our Children Face their Anxieties
Part One: Summer Transitions
Once spring break is over, the count-down begins. The end of another school year is near and with that, some kid’s anxieties get kicked into over-drive. At first, this seems counter-intuitive. A spike in anxiety as the school year draws to a close? How could that be? Summer should be full of fun days of sun, swimming, camps, and frolicking in the great outdoors. However, if you take a moment to extrapolate a little, it makes perfect sense. School ends and all of a sudden the routine changes, the known structure that dictated how time is spent is gone.
Children are caught in a whirlwind of transition. They are at once excited about all the summer activities, nervous about the upcoming school year/ grade level change, and sad to be leaving their classmates and the known routines of their current teacher and his or her classroom. Predictability is often what reassures children. They know the expectations and rhythm of the day. The end of the school year signifies the end of their ability to anticipate what the day will bring and that is completely unsettling for them. Additionally, with the change of spring into summer, our days are longer and therefore our children’s sleep is a little more evasive. It all adds up.
Children are caught in a whirlwind of transition.
To help alleviate some of this end of the year “pressure build-up”, take some time to talk to talk to your kids about their summer expectations—any hopes, but also any anxieties. Worries are normal and a part of what it is to be out in the world, but if worries get cultivated, they can turn into larger anxieties. In regards to summer, so much time can be spent stressing about upcoming activities/ events, cramming in more and more on the schedule, that you miss the point of it all; which is to have fun and use the shift in focus to decompress.
Children need this down time more than ever with increasing academic demands during the school year. Summer should act as a counter point to help them process the school year they have just finished and rest themselves for the upcoming school year. Talking with your children will help them process what might be very abstract for them, emotionally speaking; Therefore making it difficult for them to unburden themselves on their own.
Consider some strategies to lessen these short term anxieties. First, look at what your children are offering to you. Are they specifically worried about one camp, seeing a certain friend, or are they incessantly asking over and over what is happening during the different weeks to come (like mine)?
Next, try to address their worries individually. If they are worried about a new camp, perhaps you can visit that camp’s site or find a friend who has previously attended to share their experiences. If they are concerned that they won’t see that special friend they have grown so used to seeing everyday at school, make some pre-arranged playdates.
Children need down time more than ever with increasing academic demands during the school year.
If you have the generalized worriers, like at my house, make up a master calendar that clearly shows which camp is happening when, along with any vacation time off. You can draw pictures with the words for pre-readers and place this calendar in their room, so they have easy access. This can be a tool you refer to if you get the repeated questions about what is happening and when.
The calendar concretizes the weeks ahead and helps prepare them for the upcoming events that you and your children highlighted/ illustrated together. Talk about the upcoming events in the positive. Have your children tell you about what they are most excited about. Once you glean that information, you can remind them what they were looking forward to if they start to nervously spin out or perseverate around a particular event.
Talk about upcoming events in the positive.
For those with children that attend summer camps, there are many small camp-specific challenges that your kids may face. There will be new kids to meet, new adults to navigate and new environments for each different week of camp they attend. Talk with your kids about each specific camp as it comes up in the calendar you have put together. If the camp has a particular theme, talk about what activities the campers might get to partake in. Help your children visualize what the week may bring. Prepare them for that week’s daily schedule, and make a list (either with words or pictures), to give them an idea of how their day might play out. Where is drop off, where is pick up?
Kids are often set off at drop-off time. Most of us have had the experience of that clingy death grip right at the time we need to walk out the door. It’s my personal favorite. You might try to talk ahead of time about how drop off will look. If you can, take them to where the camp’s drop off will be prior to the start of their camp week. This way, they can know what the area physically looks like. Go over the details of what the drop-off process will be. Who will drop them off and pick them up? Will they be attending post-camp activities until you can pick them up after work? What can they expect to do in the evening after camp? Once all of these outstanding questions are answered, your child should be able to feel a bit more secure about getting dropped off at camp. Then when the time comes, try to make it short and sweet.
At pick-up time, if your child seems agitated, do not overwhelm them with questions about what they did that day. Play some calming music in the car, or when you get home and give your child space. Do your best to carve out plenty of rest time in the evening. Camp can be exciting and exhausting. Having some down time is often the best way to help your child prepare for the next day.
If your child is not attending camp, days off can also be anxiety provoking. My own child is very triggered by not knowing what to do with herself on these days with a lot of open time. Drawing a simple stick figure cartoon of what is happening first, second and third, even if it’s all activities at home can lessen the angst. These are not meant to be works of art, but quick problem solvers so you can get on with your day. Handing this job off to older kids to do the drawing may help give them a sense of control. Consider making a treasure hunt style picture of all the things they want to do and then mark them off one by one. When they are all done, have a little celebration—your child was able to self-regulate and plan out their day off. It’s a big deal!
Helping your children through these tricky transitions brings the reward of having kids that know how to use tools to help themselves through the summer season’s unknowns. They will slowly start to worry less and gain confidence. This, in turn, will allow them to experience one of the most important aspects of summer, relaxation!
Contributing Author Susan Carter Anderson is a School Psychologist and a Mom who enjoys playing bridge, gardening, cooking and watching Sci-Fi movies.