Summertime gives children an opportunity to take a break from a structured school schedule and gives parents the challenge of keeping them busy. Child psychologist Larry Balter, PhD, talks about whether parents should allow their children to run completely free during the summer or whether the kids should still have some scheduled activities during their downtime.
How important is it for children to have a schedule of things to do during the summer? Is there anything wrong with just letting them run free?
It's important for parents to set up a routine for their kids during the summer, even though it's their downtime. At the end of the school year, children may say whatever the contemporary version is of "No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers dirty looks," but after 2 or 3 weeks of nothing to do, they are going to get bored. That's if they don't have any scheduled activities. There's an upside to having free time, but there is also some anxiety about what to do with it. It may sound funny to you, but there's a kind of sense of loss that kids experience and many kids get kind of blue and find themselves at loose ends.
What are some signs that parents should look for to tell if their kids have the blues?
- Poor appetite or overeating.
- Irritable moods: Children often show depression differently than an adult. If they become hostile and provocative, have a tantrum or fly into a rage, it could be a sign of depressed feelings.
- Poor concentration: Difficulty making decisions can be a sign.
- Sleep problems: Changes in sleep patterns can include difficulty falling asleep, restless sleep, or waking very early.
- Feeling hopeless or helpless.
If you see one of these signs occasionally, you don't need to be concerned. But, if you see two or three, and they are prevalent, your child might be showing the onset of the blues or depression.
You have some tips on how parents can prevent this from happening?
- Encourage physical activities: Being sedentary and sitting with the Game Boy or watching TV isn't enough. Children may feel like they are doing something, but parents should make a concerted effort to make them be active. Research shows that physical activity helps avoid the blues. It can be swimming, jogging, bicycling, using a scooter, etcetera. Something to get the circulation going.
- Schedule social activities: Having play dates with peers is essential. You don't want them to be too solitary. Parents have to plan these things. Children can't just be left to their own devices. Look around for community activities that your children can get involved in. Teenagers may like getting a summer job or taking care of younger kids.
- Allow downtime: Activities are important, but children should be allowed to have some downtime and just hang out, including children who may have to go to summer school.
- Learn something new: Kids are't going to want to hear me say this, but I think that some educational activities are really important. Encourage them to use their minds and try new things. Let them participate in new hobbies, work puzzles, play word games and try new activities. It's also important that they keep up the skills they learned during the school year, like reading and math. But you can make it fun. At the beginning of the summer, take them to a bookstore and let them select some books to read. You can get them some new computer software that helps them keep their skills up.
Should parents try to spend more one-on-one time with their children during the summer?
They shouldn't over do it, but it is important for children to spend more time with the family. This helps counteract the sense of loss they may be feeling because they don't have the social structure that school provides. Family activities such as picnics and day trips are good. Preparing meals together and sitting down tdinner as a family are also good. These sorts of things give the child structure and help you stay abreast of how they are doing.
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