By Summer Batte, author of Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid’s Guide
Ah, summertime. It’s advertised as a time to rest and rejuvenate without schedules or demands. Except most people don’t manage well in the complete absence of structure. And if you have a child who is anxious, disrupted routines can amplify their worry. A person’s mental health benefits from stability, and for anxious children, stability means routine and structure. Knowing what to expect helps them make transitions throughout the day and feel more in control. Besides, routine and fun aren’t mutually exclusive. There are plenty of ways for kids to have both this summer.
1. Carefully Curate Camps
Depending on your resources, needs, and desires for your summer, day camps may be an option. When my daughter was younger, there were so many fabulous camp choices that I signed her up for a smorgasbord, shuttling her to a different place each Monday. And for some kids, that will be perfect.
As an anxious child, however, my daughter found transitioning each week to new places, people, and rules exhausting and worrisome. (And let’s not talk about how much money I wasted on camps that my daughter hated because she had no energy left to enjoy them after all that worry.)
Finding one camp that your child can attend throughout the summer might make for a more comfortable option, and save you both a lot of angst. Another option, if you’re able, is to select a few camps and sprinkle them throughout the summer. Having a week or two between camps provides some downtime before your child gears up for another adventure.
And consider that the basics about the camp might matter more than whether it’s a soccer camp or a secret agent academy (yes, that one’s real). If your child is familiar with the counselors or other campers or is comfortable in the location (for example, she already goes there for theater every week), she might feel less anxious from the outset and have a better experience.
2. Set Up a Calendar
Without the usual markers of time that kids have during the school year, it’s more difficult for them to know how much of the summer has gone by. So whether your child will be in camps all summer or at home sucking down popsicles and trying to score more screen time, post a calendar of the entire summer where your child can see it. Note special events, activities, camp weeks, and any other plans.
Even happy events—like a family wedding in July—can have a way of sneaking up on kids and feeling stressful. At some regular time (perhaps every Saturday), go over as a family what is happening in the coming week or two. This way nobody is surprised that they’ll need to socialize at a barbecue on Wednesday or that the last day to cash in on the library’s summer reading rewards program is coming up soon.
3. Set Up a Schedule
Now that you’ve got an overall calendar and you’ve (possibly) inserted camps, trips, and other events, think through what each week and day will look like. Transitions are difficult, so having established routines can lower kids’ anxiety and help prevent meltdowns. Keeping regular appointments on the normal schedule (therapy is on Tuesdays, swim lessons are on Thursdays) can help kids feel rooted and in control. Then, decide what else is important to do each day or week.
My family homeschooled for three years, and I find myself now making our summer schedule look a lot like our homeschool schedule did. Get as detailed with your schedule as you need to for your child, but as kids become more independent and need less supervision, you can simply set chunks of time for various types of activities. After all, it is supposed to be summer break.
Maybe mornings are for independent, quieter activities and chores so that you can get some work done. Then after lunch, everyone goes outside for at least an hour. Make your schedule visible and make sure the whole family is on board. It’s important to make sure the expectations for each family member are clear since having that information can reduce anxiety.
Having a schedule can also help you on days when activities outside the house or trips away from home are planned. You can specify that tomorrow morning will be on the usual schedule, but in the afternoon everyone is going to Grandma’s house. On a family vacation, you might decide that meals and bedtime will stay on schedule even though the activities of the day will change. Even parts of a routine can be helpful in reducing anxiety.
Sample Summer Schedule for At-Home Days
Wake Up–12 p.m.
Make your breakfast (cereal) and get dressed
Independent activities (read, puzzles, art, board games)
12 p.m.–1 p.m.
Help make lunch
1 p.m.–3 p.m.
Outside (garden, games, walk, bike ride)
3 p.m.–5 p.m.
Free time (screens okay)
5 p.m.–8:30 p.m.
Dinner and family time
Get ready for bed
4. Accept a Little Mess in the Name of Independence
If mornings are for independent activities, consider putting good choices—puzzles, books, and art supplies—within easy reach. They can go into a bin labeled “independent activities,” while balls and hula hoops are in an “outdoor games” bin.
Some kids have a hard time thinking of what to do, and being able to physically see the options helps them make good decisions. (Hula hoops are not my idea of living room décor, but I let one live there for months at one point.)
5. Hold Sleep Sacred
Tempting as it may be to indulge late nights, those are probably best reserved as a special treat. Maintaining your child’s usual bedtime and bedtime routine will help sleep come more easily. And getting enough sleep is key in keeping anxiety at bay and everyone at their best.
6. Get Active Outdoors
Sunlight helps us regulate our sleep cycles. Interacting with nature promotes lowered stress, anxiety, and depression. And exercise encourages our brains to produce neurochemicals that help us feel our best.
Pick a regular time when your child and you can move your bodies outdoors, even if it is just for 20 minutes. If you child is reluctant, try going for a walk together and wowing them with research about how walking can increase creativity.
7. Help Kids Find a Project
Don’t worry, this project isn’t meant to be big or difficult, nor should it have a “deadline” if that provokes anxiety. I’m talking about anything fun (and reasonably doable) that your child is excited about.
Summertime is the perfect time to engage in some self-directed learning (a.k.a. self-directed fun), so carve out time for those endeavors and help your child celebrate progress.
What is something your child would really like to do this summer? Read as many books as possible by a favorite author? Get better at jump rope? Train the dog to sit on command? Each member of the family can have a project or fun goal. By sharing your projects with one another, you’ll gain insight into why one person is holed up in his room all the time. Turns out, he wants to work on writing a graphic novel.
Having a thing or three that your child really wants to accomplish or learn to do this summer also means that you can encourage those activities within your daily schedule—or any time you hear “I’m bored.” At the end of the summer, even if there weren’t trips or events to talk about, you and your child will feel a sense of accomplishment—and not as if the time passed without anything to say for it.
8. Work on a Life Skill
The more we know how to do and manage on our own, the less anxiety we feel. In the summer, when there’s no school or homework, set aside time to help your child learn a new life skill. For example, without a place to be at 8:30 a.m., summer is the perfect low-stakes season to have kids practice making their own breakfast. Or start doing their own laundry. Or spend some time each Sunday going through the camp list and packing their backpacks themselves.
9. Schedule Some “Do-Nothing” Days Too
I love schedules and routines, and they help my child. But I learned early on that overscheduling would break her. As an anxious person, she was exhausted at the end of a normal day, let alone a day filled with special activities or a new camp. And the minute school ended for the year, her highest aspiration in life was to be a slug on the couch.
Rather than fight that for three months, I plan a few “do-nothing” days at the beginning and end of summer break, and I scatter some throughout the season so that she has ample time to recharge her batteries.
Some of these days are just days I’ve vowed not to make any plans outside the house. Others—particularly at the start of summer break—are truly days of nothing. She might watch movies and stay in her pajamas all day. I may (eh-hem, definitely do) order pizza and not bother finding a vegetable to go with it. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for some kids, having a day or two of authorized laziness just feels good and makes them more willing to work with the family’s light, fun, but definitely structured summer schedule.
Summer Batte has worked as a writer and editor for more than 16 years. For the past four years, much of her work has been focused on research-based advice stories. She came to appreciate her undergraduate studies in psychology at Stanford University more than ever when she experienced peripartum depression and anxiety, and a few years later, learned she was parenting a child with anxiety. For nearly 10 years, she has researched anxiety and learning disorders to ensure her daughter got the education and life she deserved, and also to help explain anxiety, therapy, and medication in a way that respected and trusted her very bright child’s ability to understand complex concepts. She homeschooled her daughter for three years, which led to even more research into learning styles, teaching methods, and the American education system. It also meant she had to relearn a lot of math. When she has downtime, Summer likes being with her family, reading, watching great TV, trying to perfect chocolate chip banana bread, and knitting (which her daughter made her learn). She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Summer is the author of Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid’s Guide
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.