If the end of your children’s school year hasn’t already arrived, it’s definitely in sight and it’s likely that everyone’s energy levels are being seriously drained if not already running on empty. Typically we often view the long summer break as a restorative time for children (and their teachers) but not for parents and childcarers. Perhaps this mindset adds to the perception of potential stressful situations, complicated planning and a sense that ‘everyone else is having fun apart from me’.
Stepping into our children’s shoes can help us shift our perspective and take a moment to think about their thoughts and dreams for the summer and appreciate some of the reasons why it might not instantly reflect the fantasy version often aspirationally shared through advertisements for family holidays (you know the ones- where everyone is on their best behaviour, still clean, the resort is perfect and the sun forever shines).
So what might be happening for our children at the end of the school year and the start of the summer break?
All Work and No Play
Learning and socialising are hard work- we often underestimate the cognitive effort that learning and being part of a social group outside of your family requires. Just as we attempt to manage ourselves during a hard day at the office filled with constant expectations, tricky relationships and ever diminishing time as it chips away at our capacity to be tolerant and professional, there are parallels to the efforts that children have to put in to their days at home, nursery or school. The chance to be free from these expectations- even for a short while, can be liberating and gives children’s brains a chance to rest and process information effectively. Once we more fully appreciate how tiring their daily routines can be, we can be a little more understanding regarding the underlying reasons why the occasional melt-down can happen.
Balance is key. Many children will sleep their way through the first few days of the holiday as their body and brain adapts to ‘recharge’ mode, conversely some will have difficulty sleeping even if they’ve previously been good sleepers as their brains struggle to relax. Get them outside, physically active and making essential health boosting vitamin D in safe sunlight. Be careful not to plan too much into those precious first few days, recognising that good rest is a sensible investment against the remainder of the break. A flop on the sofa can have miraculous powers; don’t underestimate it. Put yourself in that pace car.
Stop and Start
The end of a school year represents the ending of something and the start of something else- all regular events in most people’s lives, however for children, and particularly those who are still building up their confidence levels, the ending of school signifies a great deal more than simply looking forward to weeks of no school, lie-ins (!) and fun times. Be careful not to write off their current experiences and achievements by only focusing on what’s happening next. Remind them that just because school has finished, not everything associated with that has finished too.
Children are often very logical in their thinking, so the discussion about the next school year, who’s going to be in their class, friendship groups and all the other practicalities that are going to be in the mix can be hard for them to conceptualise. Likewise, the details we forget to include in those conversations such as where the new class physically is, how they are going to get to school or how their new uniform should be worn can be disproportionately worried about. For many children, a gap in their knowledge is filled by their best guess answer and becomes their reality. Make sure that you chat about every detail and encourage their questions and thoughts. With a child who is a worrier it can be helpful to calm these hidden worries by asking questions that get them thinking and indicate that you take their concerns seriously. Start the conversation by sharing your thoughts on school/work/situations that you’ve been in and talk about times where you’ve not been clear about something and what or who helped; this helps a child feel much less isolated with their fears and normalises uncertainty and suggests coping strategies; all critical positive mental health foundations.
Constructed vs Deconstructed
Routine, the expected and complying are all elements of home life, nursery, school and work and many of us thrive on it. For children, being part of an organised process such as school is a comfortable situation enabling them to feel in control and familiar. Alongside routine, there are often boundaries of expected behaviours and consequences and although typically children push against these and know expertly which hot buttons to press and when, nonetheless those boundaries represent emotional safety to a child- they need to know reliably where the edge is.
When these boundaries flex gently, most children can cope admirably and are clear about the special circumstances that have contributed to the flexing (perhaps being on that advertised family holiday we talked about), but too much variation even when it’s in their favour, can lead to a child displaying a wide range of undesirable behaviours because too much of their world has become unfamiliar. So be fair in your flexing, but don’t overdo it. Keep at least a skeleton structure of your usual routine and if it’s going to be changed explain why and that it’s not a permanent fixture!