As the school year winds down for much of the New York area, you may find your child exhibiting unusual moodiness, frustration, restlessness, and lethargy. Many parents may view these symptoms merely as the child being impatient to begin the summer break with more freedom to sleep later and play more. For many youngsters, however, these symptoms are a sign of anxiety.
The school year offers routine, structure and predictability for children. The schedule of waking up at a certain time, transporting to school, moving through the school day towards dismissal and the return trip home offers a level of consistency which is important to optimal functioning for children of all ages.
Think back to one of those days when the alarm clock failed to go off and your morning routine became instead a rush to accomplish the bare necessities in order to get to your destination on time. Even if you make it, it then takes time to “recover” from the disruption in routine in order to become once again emotionally centered and focused. This is the same level of disruption youngsters anticipate with the ending of the school year, and it has the same impact of putting them off their emotional center and causing distraction and un-ease. Children may not be able to verbalize these feelings, but many teachers can testify to increased incidents of class disruptions; including testiness, defiance, aggression and lack of motivation to participate in school activities.
How can you help? As with any significant transition, it is important to prepare a child where possible. For those youngsters lucky enough to be participating in summer camp or other such structured activity at the end of the school year, parents can begin to build a time frame and establish expectations for this activity. Get a camp brochure you can go over with your child or look up the facility’s webpage. Even if this is a place the child has been to before, do not assume lack of anxiety. Remember that each year your child has to get acquainted and reacquainted with new camp counselors, new campers and possible change in routines or rules. It is important to talk to your child about their previous positive experience to set the tone for what is to come. Where possible, make a visit to the facility so that your child has some familiarity come starting day. For younger children, it may help to identify with your child a comfort object (i.e. a favorite stuffed animal or family picture) that child can take with him during initial adjustment period. Also, be on time for pick up and drop off in order to establish and maintain a sense of time and predictability for your child.
For those parents who will be relying on home-based engagement activities, plan, plan, plan. Many local libraries, community organizations, parks and schools offer increased activities over the summer months to keep youngsters busy. Do some investigation and allow your child to be part of choosing which ones they will participating in. Make a calendar and hang in a public area of the home. This calendar should reflect not only the agreed upon activities but also days and time assigned as “family time”, play dates for your child, time with grandparents or other extended family, and trips planned. Again, this will establish a time frame and a sense of predictability for your child. Be proactive by reviewing with your child acceptable activities and behaviors for any unplanned time in order to avoid disagreements and help your child to feel safe.
The end of the school year can create feelings of disconnect and uncertainty in our youngsters. While beginnings and endings are a natural and expected part of life, parents can significantly impact their child’s emotional resilience by recognizing symptoms of anxiety, acknowledging the validity of these feelings and preparing their child to effectively manage change.