Summer and the Value of Structure

Summer break is here – and the sudden lack of a “routine” can be difficult for children and teens to navigate. Today, Dr. Jennifer L. Farley, a Staff Psychologist at the Lindner Center of HOPE, shares her thoughts on summer and the value of structure, as well as some strategies for maintaining a routine in your kids’ summer schedules:

Summer is The Quintessential Break for our kids and their educators, and it should be – it’s good for kids to have a nice break from the structure of school to be able to enjoy the opportunities that a no-school summer offers.

That being said, if you ask most kids what they are especially excited about for summer, “sleeping in,” tends to be a common answer, especially for teenagers. Most parents are happy to have their kids experience a more relaxed schedule in the summers. Yet, as with many things in life, it’s important to maintain a healthy balance, in this case, with having enough structure without being overscheduled. What many parents may not realize is that after the first 3 or 4 weeks of summer, kids who experience the most radical shift between the structure of their school schedule to a completely unstructured summer often complain most of boredom.  

Having a routine helps us plan and prepare for what comes next. Without this, we risk not being able to have some predictability and readiness to our days. Without some predictability, we risk feeling more chaotic and disorganized. And leading a disorganized, unplanned lifestyle brings the risk of becoming more anxious and/or depressed.

Think about what “boredom” looks like for kids: they may sleep in bed late, they may sprawl on the couch with no intellectually-stimulating activity, and they look “lazy” to parents.  Now, picture what “sadness” or “loneliness” or any other negative feeling “looks like” for kids. They can be quite similar to what kids experience when they are bored. Too much boredom leads to emotional discomfort, and this can lead one to lack creativity, to feel unproductive, and to experience poor confidence. These experiences can then lead one to feel more irritable, down, restless, and even anxious.  

It is healthy to have some semblance of plans and structure during the summer. For the day-to-day routine, many parents send their kids to day camps (especially working parents), while some send their kids to a sleep-away camp for a week or two. Some families hire a nanny or a babysitter to watch their children and to take them places. In any of these instances, what is healthiest is when there is a routine by which kids wake up at a certain time and engage in a morning routine.  Structure can be in the form of whatever activity is intended that day, such as swimming in the neighborhood pool, going to a movie, or having a play date with friends. Adolescents who are taking care of themselves function even better when given structure in the form of expectations – if even to complete a designated chore first before enjoying whatever leisure activity the child hopes to do.

The key is balance: allow for a mix of planned activities with some unscheduled leisure time by which children and adolescents can choose what they would like to do. Many children may balk at the idea of having any expectations upon them, but the structure and predictability they gain from it offers many more psychological and social benefits than having no plans at all.

Williams House is an adolescent comprehensive diagnostic assessment and treatment program at Lindner Center of HOPE, located in Mason, Ohio.This safe, specialized and intimate setting focuses on intensive assessment and treatment for patients age 11 to 17 (18 if still in high school). With a  patient-centered approach to treating mental illness and addiction, the staff at Lindner Center of HOPE – which includes psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker and clinical consultants – can treat each patient in an individualized way that’s unprecedented at larger hospitals and institutions.

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