Summer’s right around the corner and this frazzled mama and her burned-out kids are plenty ready for school to end. My high schooler can’t wait to sleep in late every single day and my middle schooler can’t wait to ship off to sleepaway camp for a month. For my two older girls, summer promises warm, lazy days, hanging out with friends and spontaneous adventures. No schedule, no expectations – this is their idea of the perfect summer.
This is so not the case for my almost 7-year-old. For her, the idea of no schedule, no expectations, and plans made on the fly is just plain uncomfortable. Not knowing what comes next is nerve-wracking, not exciting. Having options isn’t fun for her, even if they’re fun options.
That’s because structure and predictability are her friends. Without them, her anxiety gets the best of her. Her head fills with a million questions and her tummy flip-flops. Last summer, she broke out in hives that lasted on and off for weeks. Shifting from the predictable structure of school to the looser ways of summer is a huge challenge for her.
While most kids are psyched for the freedom of summer, kids with anxiety might dread the change, even though that change holds all kinds of awesomeness. It’s not that anxious kids don’t want to mess around outside all day or spend the morning elbow deep in finger paint. Like any kid, they too crave time to dive into whatever it is they love without the pressure of perfection or proving what they’ve learned.
The problem is, it’s really, really hard for them to transition from the known to the unknown, the familiar to the new – and summer can be full of new, whether that’s camp, travel or the simple novelty of an unscheduled day.
With a few weeks of school left, my daughter’s anxiety about summer is already kicking in: Will she wake up late? If she does, will she miss breakfast? What time does the plane leave when we go on our trip? What if she forgets to pack her swim goggles? What if she leaves her favorite stuffed pig on the airplane? Who will be her camp counselor this summer? Will she know anyone in her group? What if she touches poison oak?
These are not the innocent questions of a purely curious child. Anxiety drives her inquisitiveness and it’s not the good kind. She’s not excited or mildly nervous; she’s imagining the worst-case scenario. While separation anxiety or fear of animals, thunder or strangers are typical childhood worries and developmentally appropriate at specific times, ongoing anxiety about everyday stuff is more difficult to manage. At times, it’s exhausting for both of us.
Not knowing what comes next makes my little one worry, which means her head starts spinning out all kinds of what-if scenarios. I have to address each one carefully, acknowledging her fears without making them worse. This can either take a few minutes or the better part of an hour. It can happen on the way to an activity or when I pick her up from one.
Recently, when I collected her from art class, she started crying the minute she saw me. It took almost 15 minutes for her to tell me she was worried the sparkly pink pompons would be gone next time she needed them for a project. It took another 10 minutes for her work through her feelings with me and leave the art room.
Keep in mind that this happened during the school year when she’s operating with predictable routines and structures. Now imagine what happens when that structure goes on hiatus for two months and you introduce a new schedule, possibly new people and maybe a new environment. It’s totally overwhelming for an anxious child.
I do my best to limit the number of transitions during the summer. She goes to one day camp for a few weeks in a row with the same group of kids and the same counselors. I go over the week’s schedule with her in advance so she knows what to expect and remind her each morning what’s on deck for the day. Travel is trickier. This summer we have two trips planned. Each one requires prepping my daughter well in advance about what to expect as well as creating as much consistency as possible when we reach our destination.
It breaks my heart to see my sensitive, bright, funny girl struggle so much with summer. I so desperately want summer break to be exactly that for her – a break. I want my daughter to experience life outside of school, to know the joy of eating three popsicles in a row at 10 in the morning or running through the sprinkler without worrying about getting her hair wet. I want her to jump up and down when I tell her we’re going to the beach for the day instead of worrying about getting a sun burn.
I can’t make her fears disappear, but I can give her a safe space to have her feelings. I hope she’ll eventually learn to tolerate and manage her anxiety in a way that gives her more freedom. Meanwhile, I’ll keep coaxing her to take teeny tiny steps out of her comfort zone so she can experience more of what summer’s supposed to be like, endless popsicles and messy mud pies included.