In the good ol’ summertime, what are our children experiencing? How is their mental health? Old television shows, broadcast in simple black-and- white, often depicted summertime as an idyllic, lackadaisical season. Kids were always happy and carefree, reveling in life each and every long, sunny day. In real life, off the television screen and in the 21 st century, this depiction is too often an illusion.
However, that doesn’t mean that our kids can’t be mentally healthy and well throughout the summer season.
Keeping kids mentally healthy during the summer is possible, even easy, when we consider what they need in order to experience mental health and wellbeing. Consider these three fundamental mental health essentials to be the basics kids need for a great summer full of mental health and wellbeing.
1. A Sense of Belonging
Psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, William Glasser, and more have shown through their research that a basic human need is love and belonging. It’s essential for mental health and well-being. For most of the year, school is a major source of belonging for kids of all ages. While ofcourse school involves social conflicts, it does provide an important sense of belonging and human connection. When the doors close for the summer, some kids can have a hard time adjusting to a sudden void in their network of connections.
Tips to help children adjust and maintain a sense of belonging:
Help them know that if they’re feeling lonely or down, they’re not alone. It’s normal to need some time to adjust to a change, even a good change.
Plan some special activities together. A picnic in a park, a game of catch in the backyard, a night of stargazing—anything that allows your child to connect with you is excellent.
Allow your child to have friends over, go to friends’ houses, and otherwise connect with kids of the same age. For optimum mental health, kids need connections with peers. It fulfills the need for belonging, and it creates a support network that contributes to the development of resilience.
2. A Sense of Purpose
As much as kids grumble about homework or their classes in school, these things are actually very good for them in a number of ways. Academics aside, school helps kids develop a sense of purpose. A universal question, worded differently across the life span, is why am I here? We answer that question by discovering a sense of purpose. School-age kids need to feel a drive, a motivation, a sense of purpose in order to be mentally healthy. Sometimes, the summer months can contribute to feelings of depression or anxiety because of their unstructured, ultra-relaxed days.
To help kids maintain a sense of purpose, and thus mental wellness, consider these ideas:
Let them help decide and plan activities (with age-appropriate limitations, of course). Allow them to brainstorm things to do, and have them make the plans for it. This can apply to the lunch menu or to a weekend outing. Kids thrive when they are allowed to have some responsibility for what the family does.
Give them age-appropriate chores. Sure, they’ll likely protest, but behind the rolled eyes is a kid who is developing a sense of purpose, a sense that there are things to do during the summer and that they can contribute to getting them done. That develops self-confidence, an important component of mental health.
3. A Sense of Fun
Like belonging and a sense of purpose, fun is actually essential to mental health and well-being. Experiencing fun reduces stress, anxiety, and depression, and it increases our connection to others. For kids who are out of school, away from their normal routine, network of supportive adults, and peers, summer vacation can become a drag. Kids can become listless and apathetic or irritable and prone to getting into trouble. Introduce fun for a mentally healthy summer.
Fun is a balancing act. Kids need structured fun, such as involvement in sports, clubs, classes, and camps. Structure provides routine and a sense of safety. Too much structure, though, can be stifling and stressful, even contributing to anxiety. Kids also need unscheduled time for free-play to enhance their mental health.
To find this balance,
Decide how much you can spend on structured activities, and research what is available in your area. The older your child is, the more input she can have in this process (other than the budget, of course). Let her help you choose one or a few structured activities
Put together a kit or box for free-time. Again, let your child contribute. Being set loose for free-time can be overwhelming for kids, resulting in the complaint that there’s nothing to do. Having things on hand for your child to do is helpful in getting them into the fun.
These three senses, belonging, purpose, and fun, are interconnected. They exist together, contributing to each other positively. Together, belonging, purpose, and fun help your child have a mentally healthy summer. When we care for our kids’ mental health needs, they can thrive through the summer and into next school year.
With credentials as a Nationally Certified Counselor and personal experience with mental health care, novelist and columnist Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC uses writing to increase understanding of and compassion for people living with mental illness. Her last book, My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel (Inkwater Press, 2014) was awarded a Kirkus Star, an honor given by Kirkus Reviews “to books of remarkable merit”, as well as being named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2014, and received a coveted “recommended” rating from The US Review of Books. Peterson’s sophomore novel, Losing Elizabeth, was the recipient of Storytellers Campfire’s top honor, The Marble Book Award, for “being a book which has made a significant difference in the world”. Her third novel, Leave of Absence (Inkwater Press, 2013) was named as a finalist in the National Indie Excellence Awards. Peterson, a public speaker on mental health topics, also currently writes for HealthyPlace.com, America’s Mental Health Channel, and their accompanying blog, Anxiety-Schmanxiety, which was dubbed one of the “Top 10 Blogs of 2014”. Twenty-Four Shadows (Apprentice House), Peterson’s newest novel, available in May, 2016, has already earned the coveted “recommended” rating from the US Review of Books. Twenty-Four Shadows will be available May 1, 2016, in ebook and paperback format from Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com and select independent retailers.