The balance between routine and fun is the battle every parent starts on the first day of summer and continues to fight all season long. New studies show kids are more stressed during the summer months, and marriage and family therapist Megan Oka isn’t too surprised.
“It’s a funky balance parents are trying to strike between summer relaxing and the idea that we have to schedule our whole lives out,” Oka said. “Structure is really good. Even for summer.”
Even as we head into July, it’s not too late to start some better habits. Oka recommends having a set bedtime every night, even if it’s an hour or more later than during the school year. “Regular bedtimes make a huge difference for everyone’s mental health,” she explained. Other beneficial routines include waking up at the same time each day, regular mealtimes and morning and evening rituals. “Kids stress comes because they aren’t sleeping well. They’re either getting too much or not enough.”
The stress of routines isn’t the only thing parents and kids struggle with this time of year. The dreaded words, “I’m bored” seem to pop up almost immediately. Lisa Robanske said one thing she has noticed is by the time summer vacation starts, her kids have forgotten how to play.
“I spend the first couple weeks playing with them and teaching them how to play and then they will actually play instead of fight and destroy things,” she said.
Giving kids the opportunity to play on their own and use their imaginations is key to reducing stress, Oka explained, and screens can’t be involved in that process. “If kids have down time they’re usually on screens, which isn’t considered down time.”
When it comes to balance, Oka recommends having one or two structured activities throughout the summer, and then give kids enough time to be bored. “Kids in general usually have plenty of structured time, but they don’t usually get the chance to become bored. Boredom is where creativity comes from.”
Children as young as three or four can play by themselves for a small amount of time. Oka said even though more parents are working more hours at work, parents today are spending far more hours with their children.
“Parents put a lot of pressure on themselves. If they’re home and their kids are home, they feel like they must be playing with their kids. You’re allowed to give your kids time to play by themselves,” she said. “It’s an important skill to learn how to be by yourself. Just in general human beings are bad at being alone, but it’s good to teach our kids that skill.”
But if you’re the parent that wants to take advantage of the nice weather while it’s here, you’re not alone. Sara Hendricks said she feels their summer gets packed because they’re trying to fit everything in before the “9-month winter” here in Cache Valley starts. “It’s not that I’m against them getting bored, it just feels like summer is over in the blink of an eye, so we do our best to make the most of it.”
At the end of the day, Oka said it’s a paradoxical attempt to have structure, but also be ok with activities that evolve naturally.
“All of a sudden everyone is in the backyard or we end up talking after a meal. It doesn’t always have to be something grand. I think parents often feel like they need to provide their kids with experiences from a really young age. But scale back and do something simple, and you’d be surprised at how much everyone enjoys themselves.”
As the school year approaches, Oka said a lot of children’s stress comes from kids thinking about going back to school. “Start talking about that in the end of July, beginning of August,” she said.
A few questions you can ask to get the conversation started include:
- “What are some things you’re worried about with school?”
- “What are you excited about?”
- “What is good about school?”
- “What is going to be challenging this year?”
- “Are you worried about your teacher or where your friends are going to be?”
“Talking about that stuff and figuring out how to make the best of it will help your kids not be consumed by it this summer,” Oka said.