As the frenzy of the school year ends, many families find their summer schedules to be just as chaotic and time consuming. Rather than idle summer days of reading, fishing or lazily shooting hoops, many of today’s children and teens race to and from intense summer athletics, camps, standardized test preparation and vacations. Parents may find themselves wondering what happened to the “break” in summer break, and are left feeling overwhelmed and struggling to balance it all.
First, it may be helpful to pause and understand the existential anxiety of summer. “Existential” means rooted to being alive, or what is innately human. Summer (and life!) is inherently time limited and because of our awareness of how short and temporary both are, we have the unconscious urge to do all we can in these three precious months. Sometimes, efforts to not “waste time” result in overscheduling and making summer taxing, rather than relaxing and rejuvenating. In this case, doing “more” doesn’t necessarily equate to improved productivity nor enjoyment, and is simply an increase in quantity of obligations rather than quality.
Chaotic summers, rather than preparing children for the upcoming school year or helping them grow, can have negative effects. Parents may ask, “how much is too much?” The answer to that question may be in looking for signs of burnout. The school year is filled with nearly unlimited obligations and expectations; summer should not require the same level of time and energy demands. To answer the question effectively, it is important to look for psychological or physical cues that we have asked too much of ourselves with a busy summer schedule. Parents are encouraged to look for the following symptoms in their children and themselves:
- Fatigue and sleep trouble – Are you or your child having difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep or feeling well-rested and energized?
- Attention problems or forgetfulness – Are you or your child losing track of time or forgetting prior commitments?
- Illness proneness – Are you or your child feeling sick more often than usual? Or getting headaches, stomach discomfort or muscle tension?
- Feeling self-critical or anxious – Do you or your child feel as if you cannot complete all the tasks before you? Do you feel worried or concerned that you are not meeting expectations?
If any of the above applies to you, and it is a result of a chaotic summer schedule, your summer is far too busy!
As a counterbalance to the more rigid structure of the school year, children require unstructured, unguided time. Critical areas of the brain develop best when your child is allowed to explore and create, rather than only being guided or directed. This helps facilitate creativity, foster a love for learning new things and support emotional balance. Recall what it’s like to observe a two-year-old: they are driven to discover their world, especially new and novel places and things. They exhibit a joy in new discoveries and endeavors which are signs of a well-functioning brain and a healthy child. All of us have the need to learn and explore throughout our lifespan, and overscheduled, chaotic summers can disrupt this natural and necessary process.
Despite the omnipresence of screens, limiting screen time in the summer is a must. Overexposure to video games or television trains the brain to expect immediate gratification and reward, which is not in line with how the world actually functions. Immersion in a digital reality limits our natural stress-management abilities by reducing physical activity and healthy self-reflection. Too much screen time can disrupt sleep patterns and result in irritability, agitation, anxiety or oppositional behavior. It also diminishes the development of the brain areas which thrive on play with peers, intelligence-building endeavors like reading or interacting with the natural world.
Remember, your summer will be the most productive, enjoyable and healthy if there is a proper balance between structured responsibilities and unstructured time to play, explore, create and recover from the demands of the school year.
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