Summer Slump and Self Esteem

Now that school is out for the summer (yay!), what are your kids going to do all day?

Most parents find that the answer to this question changes over time.  When my kids were young, they stayed in pre-school.  Once they were out of pre-school, I scrambled to find them interesting and engaging day camps where they would have fun.  Today I watch my friends and clients with school aged children put together the pieces of the summer-time puzzle in the same frenzy I felt when I did it.

There’s a tough few years when kids are too old for day camp but too young to be on their own. While sleep away camps tend to accommodate older kids, they can be expensive and not all parents want to ship their kids off for the entire summer.  Sports can be great exercise, character building, and time-filler, but often there are transportation and logistical problems difficult to navigate during weekdays  Kids and parents are left in a quandary about how to fill their time within the limits of finances, laws, abilities, and interests.  So, what to do?

The answer is: it depends.  But by all means, do SOMETHING!

From years of working with kids at this age and older, my perspective is that leaving kids to figure themselves out for the entire summer doesn’t work.  The results range from mere boredom, to isolation, to depression or anxiety, to acting out behavior and lots of drama.  While I think it’s not a bad idea for kids to be a little bored to teach them how to use problem solving skills (and maybe a little imagination!), day after day of boredom is contraindicated and can put stress on the entire family!

As summer approaches, I make a point of asking the kids and parents in my practice what the plans will be for the break.  Not only do I want to be sure summer camps and schedules are accommodated while we continue our work, but I also want to encourage discussion about how my clients’ time will be structured and how they will stay engaged in meaningful and fun activities.  I see summer as a great time for kids to learn things or work in ways that could enhance their self-esteem beyond academics!

Here’s an example:  Several years ago, I knew a young woman who decided to take the summer after high school “off” from having any responsibilities despite my strong suggestion that she find a small part time job.  It ended up being a rough summer for her.  With nothing else to focus on but the drama in her social group, she spent a lot of time alone or desperately trying to make plans with friends so that she wouldn’t have to wonder where everyone else was and what they were doing.  When she finally left for college, she was relieved to be out of the social drama and situational depression that had plagued her for the past three months.

The following summer, I ran into this same woman.  She was taking classes online and working a small part time job.  She enjoyed how different a work environment was compared to an academic one, felt  valued by her co-workers and supervisor, proud of her contributions, and loved having some financial independence.  After feeling so demoralized the prior summer, she felt happier and more confident with her current choices.

Of course, it’s harder for kids under 16 to find a job and most kids in middle and high school won’t want to take classes during their precious summer months.  In fact, I like to encourage kids to find things to do that are hands-on rather than academic.  Summer is a perfect time for that.  This is a great time for them to earn money, explore interests that they don’t have time for during the school year,  help out in the community, or learn a new skill.  All of these efforts will pay off by increasing self-esteem – something school  doesn’t always do.

Following are some suggestions I make to the kids and parents in my practice when the child doesn’t qualify for or can’t find work :

  1. Get small jobs around the neighborhood like dog walking, pet sitting, babysitting.  Having some responsibility is a great self-esteem booster and it’s great practice for kids to be accountable to and valued by someone who isn’t a teacher or parent.
  2. Exercise is something I recommend to all my clients as long as they are healthy for it.  After all that’s been researched and written about the benefits of exercise, I don’t think you need to hear about it from me!
  3. Read.  In fact, consider a reading “project.” When I was a tween and searching for things to occupy my time,  I frequently ended up swimming laps with my orthodontist who suggested I read through the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings Trilogy one summer.  The next summer he suggested The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, sparking a life-long love of historical fiction.
  4. Help around the house.  While I”m not suggesting Cinderella-esque expectations of kids, I do believe it’s important for them to contribute to the “community” of the family.
  5. Volunteer in the community.  While it’s great to get paid for a job, I’ve found that kids gain self-esteem from contributing to a cause in which they are interested.  Sometimes there are age limits with this (our local humane society requires kids be at least 15 to volunteer) but often the tweens and early teens are welcome and their help is valued.  When it’s possible, I encourage families to find a cause they can all support and volunteer together but teens also need their own “thing” and can take great pride in their efforts.
  6. Offer to help as a “CIT”.  When my younger daughter aged out of her favorite camp, she contacted the director and asked if she could help out as a counselor in training.  Since she didn’t get paid, this was really a way to volunteer but not in a typical non-profit environment.  She managed to get several babysitting jobs this way, which was an added bonus!  Sometimes camps and preschools are happy to welcome their alumni and the extra pair of hands!
  7. Learn a new skill.  As my kids grew up, I tried to come up with goals for them to learn something new every summer.  One year they began learning instruments, another year they learned how to word-process, and between 8th and 9th grade, the assignment was to learn the local bus system.  Not only did they take pride in their accomplishments, what they learned was very useful!  I suggest this to parents in my practice.  There are so many practical skills kids can use in their lives that aren’t taught in schools and sometimes there are camps or classes that teach things such as cooking or baking, skills that are both practical AND fun!

Every child and teen I’ve worked with has wanted and enjoyed their family time over school breaks. Fun is definitely the top priority during the summer and I hope your family finds some ways to play together throughout the year, especially during the summer months.

If your child needs help combatting summer slump, give me a call.  I’m happy to meet with any and all family members to help you and your child have an enjoyable and meaningful break.