The days were getting warmer and longer, and school was winding down. Although my 6-year-old daughter, Nora, was finishing up a great year in kindergarten, suddenly her behavior at home was less than stellar. The promise of summer vacation was glimmering on the horizon and yet she threw tantrums and frequently woke up at night.
Parents often infuse the end of school with their own memories of family trips to the beach and gorging on ice pops. However, for some kids, leaving their teacher and classmates can trigger feelings of anxiety. "Change—even good change—is hard on children. It's disorienting for them not to know what to expect," says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of What About Me?: 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention Without Hitting Your Sister. To help ease your child's transition to vacation mode, follow these tips.
All of those end-of-year parties and performances can make your child overtired and overstimulated. Enforce her bedtime so she's not heading to school exhausted, and don't be afraid to turn down an invitation. "Set a limit for how many events you are willing to do each week," suggests Amy McCready, author of The "Me, Me, Me" Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World. "Every invitation sounds like fun, but it's easy to get overwhelmed by the constant activity."
My family took a big step back and skipped a party at a classmate's house, and a neighbor's pool party, but went to a close friend's smaller get-together. Keeping to our regular schedule brought some much-needed relief from Nora's tantrums—and my yelling—that were becoming a regular occurrence. Did we seem like a stick-in-the-mud family for responding with a polite "no, thank you" to the neighbor's pool party? Probably—but for us it was the right call.
Summer vacation is a great time to create family memories, but your child may be worried about not seeing the friends he's made at school. "Most children this age feel lonely if they go too long without interacting with kids their age; your child will appreciate it if you can arrange for him to have some playdates with school friends," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. While my daughter did relish hanging out with Mommy, Daddy, and her brother at the start of summer, she was begging for playdates only a few days into vacation.
Of course, summer provides an opportunity to make some new friends too. You may have enrolled your child in a camp to encourage these social interactions. "Keep in mind that it's like starting school all over again," says Maryellen Cunnion, Ed.D., associate professor of education at Simmons College, in Boston. Take a tour of the camp during an open house before school ends. Meet a few counselors and children who will be attending so your child will recognize friendly faces. If that's not possible, sit with your child and look at pictures of the grounds and staff on the camp website.
It's fun to look forward to what's next for your child, whether that's kindergarten or first grade. However, any talk about a new school year could make her uneasy. "Some children might be moving on to a new building when this year is over and making a big transition in the fall," says Liz Warrick, a parenting coach in Winchester, Massachusetts. "But that's months away and most children don't have a good grasp of time yet." Ease up on the talk about how she's going to be a "big first-grader" now. If she tells you she's nervous about next year, don't brush her off by saying, "You'll be fine!" Instead, remind her of other new situations in which she was anxious and how she handled it. You could also tell your child a story of when you were nervous in a new situation and how you overcame your fears. "Kids love to hear stories about their parents," says Warrick. "They can't imagine that we ever have any trouble."
Before school ends, ask your child about his favorite classroom activities and brainstorm ways you can re-create them at home. If he enjoys art class, buy him some sketchpads and other art supplies. If nature gets your child excited, you might want to start planting a backyard garden together that you can tend to over the summer to learn about how plants grow. "Don't worry about teaching skills for the next school year," says Diane Levin, Ph.D., professor of early-childhood education at Wheelock College, in Boston. "Engage your child in what he's interested in and involve him in active play and learning. That's the best preparation you can give him."