Why Summer Can Make Some Kids Anxious

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 

The day’s drama started with something I thought would be special. But it ended up being disastrous.

It was nine in the morning, and I was just getting around to assembling breakfast. After all, it was summer break. No need to rush around. My four kids had spent two hours playing in each other’s rooms, still cozy in their wrinkled PJs.

“Who wants chocolate milk on their cereal?” I ask in my best sing-song voice. My four children start cheering and piping up, “Me! Me! Me!” You see, I’m that mom who almost always says no to soda, candy, and yes, even chocolate milk.

I presumed I was being a cool mom, a cross between Amy Poehler’s character in Mean Girls and Mary Poppins. But I was wrong.

I won’t torture you with all the atrocious details of the day, but everything took a downhill turn. The catalyst was serving granola with chocolate milk instead of our usual balanced breakfast of eggs, fruit, and toast. Apparently, I was not allowed to change the routine without hopping onto the Anxiety Train. All aboard.

Emma Bauso/Pexel

This is not how I pictured our summer going. I’m a work-at-home-mom and arranged my schedule so that I’d be fully present during the day, enjoying adventures with my children. I had visions of an idyllic season that included plenty of popsicles and peanut butter sandwiches, hours of swimming, and staying up late to catch fireflies.

The reality is, summer is not for the faint at heart. The long, sweltering days are a major struggle for kids who have anxious tendencies or who are officially diagnosed, like one of my children. According to the CDC, 4.4 million children between the ages of three and seventeen have an anxiety diagnosis.

Perhaps you, like me, have seen anxiety symptoms skyrocket in some of your kids during the summer season. Seemingly insignificant details can set them into a tailspin. Avoidance, tantrums, agitation, and inattention are also symptoms. Perhaps, also like me, you’ve thought, what’s the deal? Why are kids struggling, particularly in summer? And what can we do about it as parents? I’ve got you covered.

1. Changes in sleep habits.

Our families make the abrupt shift from waking up at a set time and rushing out the door to school or daycare, where children spend seven (plus) hours a day, to going to bed at a set time every night. But once the summer switch is flipped, it can become a free-for-all.

Like me, you may have naively hoped your children would sleep more in summer. Instead, we’re staying up later and going to bed at inconsistent times, while still rising with the sun. Of course, when they’re tired, their behavior can rival that of Captain Whiny Ass himself, Caillou. According to a Harvard study, children who are three to seven years old who don’t get the recommended and necessary amount of sleep are “more likely to have problems with attention, emotional control, and peer relationships in mid-childhood.” Yikes.

There’s a simple solution to the fatigue struggle train, but it requires us to step it up. Our kids need a consistent nighttime routine leading up to a strict bedtime. They may still wake up long before we’ve brewed our java, but if we can get them to bed at a decent hour, we’re increasingly the likelihood they’ll not only be happier the next day, but more successful in the future.

2. New caregivers.

There’s a new sheriff in town, and your child isn’t having it. In summer, kids make the switch from being cared for by one parent, teacher, or sitter to another, or sometimes many others, in the case of summer camps or child care facilities. And there’s more treacherous territory that comes with new caregivers –new rules, a new environment, and a new schedule.


Being under new leadership can be scary for kids who thrive on consistency and predictability. Understandably so. It’s no different than when we learn our old boss is out and there’s a new one stepping in. We have a lot of questions and hesitations, wondering if we’re going to be working under some version of the iconic and terrifying Miranda Priestly or unpredictable and unaware Michael Scott. When we thrust our kids into the hands of a new caregiver, we’re asking them to play a round of who’s-the-boss.

There’s no way around this often-difficult adjustment period. But we aren’t helpless. Besides introducing our kids to their new and fearless leader and talking up all the upcoming fun activities, we can check in with our kids throughout the day and send a transition object with them, something that reminds them of safety, home, and love.

3. Chow.

What our kids eat can have a profound impact on their behavior and energy level. When a child doesn’t eat healthy, balanced meals that keep their blood sugar levels steady, they can bounce between being hyper and unfocused to exhausted and crabby. Low blood sugar can cause many anxiety-inducing symptoms including the child feeling shaky and sweaty.

Even worse is that many children do not have access to enough food in the summer. They rely on their school or daycare to serve both breakfast and lunch. When school is out for the summer, sometimes these children don’t have enough food in their homes. Thankfully, some towns do have meal programs that offer free meals to children throughout June, July, and August.

What can parents do? A meal and snack schedule can be incredibly helpful since anxious kids do better with some predictability. Also, getting kids in the kitchen to help with meal preparation, gussying up veggies, and not giving up on offering healthy food options. Serving multiple nutritionally-dense meals and snacks a day rather than allowing a child to constantly graze on orange crackers and juice pouches will help regulate blood sugar. Of course, summer treats are magical. No need to banish them. They just need to be treats, not go-tos.

4. Increased screen time.

I’m going to cut to the chase here, because we’re all adults. Excessive and extended screen time sessions make our kids more anxious and more depressed, whether they are teenagers or preschoolers. And their issues become our issues.

How exactly does screen time make vulnerable kids anxious? According to one doctor, “it doesn’t take much electronic stimulation to throw a sensitive and still-developing brain off track.” She explains that screen time creates a hormonal, brain-chemical reaction in kids that can throw off sleep, foster addiction, and cause sensory and mental overload.

Ally Sherman/Reshot

She suggests that parents have their kids take an “electronics fast.” The results? Improved sleep, mood regulation, increased ability to pay attention, and more time for active play. I know, easier said than done. But the doc has a point. We all know that our kids would, after a hard adjustment, be happier and healthier without so much — or any — Fortnite and Snapchat.

This season is supposed to give us those Olaf “in summmmmeeeerrr” vibes. But the reality is, some kids are going to struggle with the out-of-the-ordinary. Is it pleasant? No. Is it challenging? Yes. Do the kid meltdowns make us want to chug a few margaritas on the rocks, because it’s 5 o’clock somewhere? Absolutely.

But there’s hope. With some strategizing and awareness, as well as seeking professional help when necessary, we can help our kids live their best summer lives. And then, we can too.

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