As the carefree days and warm nights of summer come to a close, so does the freedom of time spent outdoors playing with friends. Changes in the season (cooling temperatures, waning sunlight, falling leaves) and structured routines can create a more somber mood among kids, sparking some mild (or not-so-mild) melancholy and depression. Here are 10 tips to help kids cope with the late-summer blues and ease their transition into the season of fall and school.
Begin adjusting bedtime, wake-up time, and eating schedules to avoid an abrupt switch once school starts. "Slowly start to change some of the routine so it's not such a shock in September," suggests Jennifer Kolari, family and child therapist and author of Connected Parenting. Around two weeks before school starts, begin rolling the bedtimes back by 10 or 15 minutes a night to slowly move kids into their school schedule. "We sometimes get a little looser in the summer," says Kolari. "I think it's easier if the day begins to have a little more structure to help kids practice the transition." Robin Goodman, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and art therapist agrees: "You don't want to start the transition when school is already started."
Let your kids help with setting up playdates, starting a chore or homework schedule, or shopping for school supplies and new outfits, suggests Dr. Goodman. Kids will let you know what's trendy and will often have opinions about what kind of design or theme they like for a backpack, lunch box, notebook, or clothes. The more your kids feel a part of the back-to-school planning, the more enthusiastic they're likely to become.
Kolari refers to a "September crash" as a time "toward the end of September when kids realize that summer really is over, and then they feel sad and have behavioral issues." Trouble sleeping, resisting getting up in the morning or going to school, crying, clinging, throwing tantrums, and increasing aggression toward siblings are indications of anxiety. "It's very rare for kids in this age group (5 to 8 year olds) to sit down and talk about their feelings," Kolari explains. "They show you what's wrong through their behavior instead of telling you with their words what's wrong." Observe what your kids are doing rather than what they're saying.
Listen to kids if they share feelings of sadness that summer's ending or feelings of anxiety about the upcoming school year. Don't minimize their thoughts or stop them from being heard. "I think one of the mistakes parents make," Kolari says, "is to try to cheer their kids up and not let them think or talk about difficult feelings, when they actually need the time to process." Rather than cheerleading, "just sit with your kids and say 'Yeah, I miss that too' and really be in there with them. Tolerating our children's pain is very hard because it seems so counterintuitive. But to talk them out of it doesn't help." Once they feel heard, kids will be more willing to explore solutions and move on.
Troubleshoot potential problems with your child. If she's starting a new school, visit ahead of time or go over the route to get there. Be organized and avoid feeling overwhelmed by deciding what's going in her backpack and what supplies she needs beforehand. "If you predict something will be on your kid's mind, then prepare for it. Have your child work out the best coping strategies with you," advises Dr. Goodman. "Role-play and act out situations that they might have trouble with." Kids may be worried that school will be harder this year or that they won't be in a class with friends, so allow for all scenarios.
Spending time together through playing, tickling, cuddling, and reading gives kids a thicker skin and more confidence when they go off on their own. "Although you'd think that would make your child not want to leave you, the exact opposite happens. It's like you're filling them up and they're getting what they need. That's strengthening to them, so they can go off to school and feel a lot better," Kolari explains. The extra connection and loving moments before a big change can help kids feel less anxious and more self-assured.
"If you can teach children relaxation skills, they can use them whenever they start to get anxious," says Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, MO. Dr. Christophersen describes sitting with his son just before his first day of school and calling his attention to a leaf that had blown through the window, which they observed and discussed. This act of being mindful can counter stress. "What you're doing is teaching kids to be present and really relish and enjoy pleasant activities."
He also suggests recalling visual images from pleasant experiences from the past, such as a beach outing. You can also use a photograph to help kids recapture feelings of happiness so they can access relaxation when they feel upset. "The main thing is getting kids to think about positive events instead of negative or unknown events."
Review the previous year and the progress your child has made; then set goals for the upcoming year to give them something to work toward. Dr. Goodman explains that no matter what your child's age is, discuss what she has learned to do since last year, whether it's writing, reading, drawing, riding a bike, etc. This helps your child see that "there was progress, that this is a process, and that the same thing will happen this year." Often, the two biggest focus areas for school-age kids are academic goals and social goals, Dr. Goodman says. By championing what has already been conquered, parents can remind their kids "that what seemed hard in the beginning ended up being easier -- and they learned a lot."
"One thing that's really nice for families is to have some sort of ceremonial end to summer," says Kolari. Her family partakes in a potluck they fittingly call "the last supper." "We celebrate the summer ending, and everybody talks about their favorite moments. There's a sort of marking ceremony that's now a tradition." Whether it's having a barbecue, picnic, or campfire, or making a photo album, rituals can help create closure and allow kids to take happy memories with them into fall.
Get the calendar out before school starts and note things to look forward to as a family. Start mapping out fall trips such as apple or pumpkin picking, making or shopping for Halloween costumes, or anything meaningful to your child. "Kids will see this is a whole year of new things to start planning for. Back to school doesn't have to mean back to everything awful. There are lots of other fun things to do," Dr. Goodman points out. It's a reminder that, although summer's ending, fall has wonderful things to offer, too.
Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation
Corinne Schuman is a mother and licensed mental health counselor in Washington, DC.