Summertime brings a lot of sunshine, a lot of free time and a lot less homework — but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy season for teens. Adolescents are at an often-challenging developmental stage when they commonly struggle to adapt when their everyday routines are interrupted. Research shows that these struggles often turn into mental health, social and emotional challenges during the summer months.
In recent years, these summertime troubles have been exacerbated by the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The shift from remote learning to full, unstructured independence – coupled with varying degrees of stay-at-home orders – threw the mental health of many teens into turmoil.
During the academic year, teenagers grow used to highly regimented schedules with crystal clear start and end times for every minute of their day. Outside of school, their various extracurricular activities, plus homework assignments, further strengthen their time management skills by demanding additional attention. This type of structure is intentional: routines help teens maintain a sense of purpose and help keep their attention focused.
When summertime rolls around and these structures disappear, your teen may begin feeling lost, anxious or depressed.
Adolescents may feel as if they don’t have anywhere to direct their energy and may find themselves mindlessly scrolling on their phones for hours at a time. Then there’s the social element. It’s a sudden shift — moving from full days with peers and friends to a summer where they may not be seeing friends at all!
So what can you do to make sure your teen has opportunities for resting, nurturing their independence, and exploring new passions – without disrupting their mental health? Explore what you, as a caregiver, can do to help this summer be your teen’s best one yet.
Establish A New Routine
Don’t get us wrong: it’s critical for teens to decompress from the stress of each school year. Especially as they grow older, the pressure on their decision-making and future plans only grows, making the unwinding during summer months all the more important. Still, taking part in a summer camp or starting a new part-time job will ultimately help your teen maintain a balance between managing their time and saving space for spontaneity.
Open the door to communication about routines with a conversation. What summertime activities does the teen in your care want to explore? Some structured activities, like a job, a camp or a sport, can be balanced with unstructured-but-routine activities, like caring for a younger sibling or helping out around the house.
Make sure everyone agrees on expectations. For example, if your teen wants to sleep past noon and you’d prefer an earlier wake-up time, have a candid conversation and create a plan you both agree on.
Keep Social Isolation At Bay
Just like the disruption of routine may lead your teen to feel lost, the interruption of regular interactions with their peers can do the same. Research shows that building and maintaining a network of healthy friendships can lead to fewer anxiety symptoms, fewer depression symptoms, fewer behavioral problems, increased satisfaction with life and improved academic performance!
Healthy friendships are particularly impactful for teens because they offer empathetic support during some of their most developmentally tumultuous years.
If you notice the teen in your care is withdrawing or mentioning how they miss their friends, it’s important to first validate their feelings and encourage them to continue to speak openly about this. No matter what your teen may be going through, it’s always helpful to focus on listening rather than on lecturing. While this is an entirely normal experience for teens, it’s important to guide them through these challenging feelings.
Be sure to offer suggestions for social activities like camping, sleeping over when appropriate or road trips that can help your teen nurture existing relationships, as well as direct your teen to local programs that will introduce them to new people. Teens can also use summer to foster new relationships with people they wouldn’t typically see during a school day, like volunteering in the community or getting involved at a place of worship. By building this type of social network at this stage in your teen’s life, they can experience positive mental health ripple effects for years to come.
Nurture Healthy Habits
Moderation, processing disappointment and physical activity – can be hard habits to establish or maintain, especially when we live in a world of digital, instant gratification. It’s understandably difficult to understand how to even build these habits when there’s always one more video to watch while sitting on the couch or another social media post about a social event that your teen didn’t attend.
Thankfully, summer can be a great season for adolescents to shift their attention to healthier habits and improve their mental health. Don’t forget that “healthy” can look different for every teen: athletes may need to be reminded to rest while they’re busy staying on top of assigned workouts, whereas musicians may need to stop playing for a short period of time if a particularly challenging song is tripping them up and leading them to overreact.
Not sure how to start the conversation? Begin by asking. You can use these types of questions to check in with your teen, encourage these types of positive habits, and reinforce the importance of each:
- What are you most looking forward to right now?
- How can I best support you this week?
- What is helping you feel most like yourself this summer?
- How can we carry self-care practices into the new school year?
- I’m wanting to reduce my screen time. Can we go on a phone-free walk together this weekend?
These types of questions just might lead to conversations where your teen shares openly about what habits they hope to continue and what ones they want to break . . . while also enabling you to spend more stress-free time together, too.
Welcome Mental Health Support from Your Community
Summertime has always presented a bit of a double-edged sword: an opportunity for rest and growing independence, coupled with the disruption of established routines and relationships. No matter the age of your teen, these significant transitions can always be eased by reaching out to your own community for support.
By modeling the ability to ask for help, your teen will be inspired to ask their own peers for help navigating a new school building, or their old teachers for help with improving their reading skills over the summer. If you notice a change in your teen’s behaviors or mental health that extends beyond your comfort zone, know that you can always contact their school’s counseling team, primary care doctor, social worker or any number of other trusted professionals. And KVC Kentucky is here to help with a wide range of mental health support. By reducing isolation, managing stress and establishing new routines, your teen can experience their healthiest summer yet.