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.