“I’m worried about getting sick. I wonder if I might die,” says a perfectly healthy eight-year-old on her first week of summer break.
“I can’t stop thinking about that text I sent,” a teenage boy says just a few hours later. “It was the wrong thing to say. I shouldn’t have asked her out. I should have waited. I bet that’s why she hasn’t responded.” The text he was referring to was sent over three months ago but he can’t stop thinking about it.
Later the same day: “I have been so anxious since school let out. It’s like my mind won’t stop running. I can’t get away from my thoughts.”
It’s that time of year.
The beginning of summer break is one of the worst times for anxious kids. It’s the time when untriggered anxiety (also known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder) rears its ugly head. Untriggered anxiety occurs when there’s seemingly nothing to worry about. It’s 70 degrees and sunny. You have no commitments and nowhere to be yet you are anxious. The anxious brain has tons of energy and when busy, the energy is given an outlet. When not busy, the brain just spins.
The last few weeks of school are especially busy for kids with exams, end-of-the-year parties, events, and so on and the first day of summer…it all stops. Everything comes to a screeching halt and kids no longer have academic or social pressure. They have nothing to worry about or so it would seem. The problem is their brain is still going 90 miles an hour but during summer, it doesn’t have anything to attach to. So what do kids do? Create problems. I call these Default Worries (you can find out more about these in Why Smart Kids Worry) and they serve a very important function for your brain – to give mental energy somewhere to go. Default worries cause children (and adults as well) a lot of grief because we try to resolve the worries instead of seeing them for what they are – just a way to release mental energy.
Here are 3 ways to manage summer anxiety:
- Awareness: become aware that the brain is creating problems and instead of trying to solve the problems, focus on reducing the fear by using coping strategies.
- Structure the Unstructured: Going from something to nothing is hard for the anxious brain. Have your child get a calendar, write out all of the activities he/she has going on and, in the empty spaces, create things to fill the void. Schedule at least 3 activities each day to allow the brain to relax within the structure.
- Change the Channel: Teach your child that our brains are like televisions and we have the remote control. We can choose what we think about and when we get on a channel that isn’t helpful, worrisome or zapping all of our energy, we can change it. The only caveat is that what we change it to must be just as intense as the thought we are changing it from. An example is: “I’m worried no one likes me,” —> change to —-> “I can’t wait for my birthday party!”
It’s hard to see kids feel miserable during such a fun time of year. As a rule, the first few weeks of summer are the worst and just like any transition, kids will settle in. It’s helpful to keep in mind that as a parent, you needn’t try and fix the worries or try to talk your kids out of them. You can offer support by helping structure the summer and encouraging your kids to use coping strategies to help manage fear. We have more power over our minds than we think.
Happy summer to you all!