Let’s face it, no matter how counter-intuitive it might feel to some of us, children thrive on well set limits and predictable routines. Even the "bordering on chaos at all minutes" side of me can't argue with the experts on this one. Limits and routines are even more important for children with special needs or families who swing more toward the permissive end of the disciplinary continuum. I know firsthand about that one, because my family fits this description to a T.
Every year, usually starting mid April, as we inch towards summer break I start to notice more behavioral issues starting up. I run down my internal checklist – is it something at school? Has there been any family strife? Is it dreaded hormones or annual dis-equilibrium? - it takes me awhile before I have my aha moment; summer is coming, which means change is coming. Whether we’re talking about camp, staying at home, or traveling, summer inevitably means saying goodbye to teachers and peer groups. It also usually brings with it some type of change in sleeping patterns, routines, and often multiple new or unfamiliar environments. Don’t get me wrong, I think summer can bring us all a breath of fresh air, but for children, young or old, it has many unknowns and I often think the anticipation of the unknown for children is far more anxiety provoking than any true reality.
Kids are kids, they can’t always tell us what is the root cause of anxiety. And we aren’t always the best judge of what is going on. The one thing I do know about children; their behavior is always trying to tell us something their words can’t. Often children are unable to separate their feelings into descriptors. Sometimes they feel their feelings in their body and we see it arise in their behaviors. It helps to think about times you have known clearly about your child’s anxiety… what was most noticeable? Social withdrawal? Difficulties with impulse control? Meltdowns?
Children often can’t tell the difference between anxiety and excitement, or even pinpoint the worries they actually have. Even as adults, excitement and anxiety often runs hand in hand. One of major roles teachers and parents play in the lives of the children we are caring for, is helping them anticipate what happens next. Many parents look forward to summer because it means vacation, more casual evening routines, more relaxed mornings… but to kids, it can mean boundary changes which leave them feeling unsure and sometimes less than safe. Our job as parents is to keep our kids as informed as possible about the plans...where they go, when they need to be ready, what things will be like, who they go to for help etc… and usually if we do some of this “calendar of events” infomercials, they start to realize they have questions or concerns they couldn’t verbalize and now that we have started the conversation they’ll finish it. This is sometimes a tightrope walk because with over information we can let our own anxieties leak out and end up building greater levels of anxiety than already existed. Imagine how many questions you would have, full of where’s, when’s and how’s if someone just started to tell you; “You’ll go to this camp, then we’re going to grandma’s, then back home, they another camp. It will be SUCH a fun summer”… Really?
To downplay the anxiety, start by anticipating some of the issues that might arise. Think about how your child tends to handle changes. Most kids do better with less time to anticipate what things will be like, but at the same time you don’t want to just suddenly be shipping them off to grandparents or a new sleep-away camp. Give choices when you can, and review any rules which might change during the summer when things are more relaxed. Basically, be as consistent and communicative as you can be to help your kids with the anxiety of anticipation. Last week my thirteen year old MADE me sit down and lay out her next two weeks day by day because she needed the structure and security of knowing. So the trick of this time of year is, adding the structure the kids need while we remembering to have fun! Summer is a great time to soak in time together, and don’t forget to “bottle” those summer moments of joy to remember when our hectic school year starts back up.