Over the past week most of the children that I work with have been counting down the days to the last day of school. Many children and teenagers seem exhausted, burned out, and ready for this very trying school year to come to a close. Talking with so many depleted children has me thinking about summer and how parents can support their children’s social and emotional well-being this summer.
First and foremost, children and families need time to relax and decompress. As COVID restrictions are lifted, there may be a temptation to make up for lost time and plan a summer that is jam-packed with activity. My suggestion is to plan for lots of fun and to create a plan that honors the importance of allowing time for children and parents to rest and recover after a grueling year. Of course, recharging can look quite distinct for different families and for individual family members. Perhaps your family needs to spend some time in nature, or maybe the adults in the family need to figure out a way to have some time to themselves. Teenagers who have been vaccinated might be craving time with friends where they can be together with fewer restrictions on their behavior. Additionally, whether they realize it or not, children who have been spending hours in front of a screen each day may need to decompress by engaging in hands on, physical activities.
It will also be important to provide children with opportunities to connect with same age peers over the summer. Connecting with peers will come easily for children who are attending camp or a summer program, but if your summer does not include such plans you might need to be more proactive, perhaps setting up a couple of playdates or get togethers over the course of the summer. Time with cousins is a treasured part of many families’ summer plans, and I have spoken with lots of children who are eagerly anticipating connecting with cousins whom they may not have seen since last summer. Keep in mind that time with cousins is special and precious…and it will be ideal for children to also have some contact with classmates or other friends who are not part of their family, since interacting with these peers strengthens a somewhat different set of skills than the skills children use when they connect with cousins.
Another important part of summer for many children is having the opportunity to take safe risks and try something new. Often summer provides a wonderful opportunity for children to practice and master a new skill. This might be a physical skill, such as learning to put their head underwater, to dive, to ride a bicycle or skateboard, or catch a pop fly, or it might involve trying a new food, having a first sleepover, having a job for the first time (whether working in retail or pet sitting for a neighbor), or learning to drive. When children have the opportunity to challenge themselves, try new things, and stretch to a place slightly outside of their comfort zone, these experiences help them see themselves as competent and capable.
While so many of us are beyond excited for restrictions to be lifted and for life to return to a sense of normalcy, it will be important to use some time this summer to mourn the losses that children and families experienced during the pandemic. For some families, this may mean mourning the loss of loved ones who passed away at a time when families were unable to gather and share their grief. In addition, everyone has suffered the loss of life experiences that were unable to happen during the pandemic. From birthday parties to special school trips to proms and graduations, so many important rituals and rites of passages were missed over the past 15 months. Families in my practice know that I often talk about thinking about life as a series of chapters in a book. So many people want to close the COVID chapter, but in order to find closure it will be important to talk about and acknowledge everything that was lost during the pandemic and process feelings of sadness, disappointment, and frustration.