How to Support your Kids’ Mental Health this Summer

Believe it or not, it’s summer! The season we (usually) look forward to all year. Three shimmering months (that normally are) jam-packed with cabin trips, swimming pools, and late nights. But now that it’s finally here, some parents may find themselves scratching their heads wondering, “How do I support my kids’ mental health this summer?” Especially during this crazy year we’re having. Here are a few tips:

Screen time

Likely, your child has been engaging in a lot of screen time. Most education has moved online due to the Coronavirus. This means hours a day on a device trying to keep up with schoolwork and navigating zoom calls. To interact with their friends, your kids have probably been texting or video-calling. Maybe they relax by watching TikTok videos or scrolling through Instagram. While trying to stay informed on current events like Covid-19 death rates or Black Lives Matter protests, they’ve been absorbed in hours of YouTube videos and live stream footage.

There have been countless studies on the effects of screens on our mental health. An article written by Julia Sklar, published in National Geographic on April 24 of this year, cites several ways we suffer when spending so much time attached to technology. One way, Sklar explains, is that interacting via the internet makes your brain work much harder than it typically would to interpret verbal and nonverbal (body language, facial expression, tone of voice) information, requiring us to spend a great deal more mental effort just to understand what’s being communicated. The brain is also trying to multitask by paying attention to a classroom’s worth of faces on a screen, not knowing when it’s your turn to talk, or bouncing between tabs on your internet browser just to be interrupted by the dinging of your email inbox. Sklar writes, “the prolonged split in attention creates a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing.” We feel momentarily productive because our brains are working harder, but we see little result of our effort. Put another way, we try to do so many things at once that we don’t do any of them well.

mental health

Utilizing online platforms so often also means always having to be “on.” This can create stress and anxiety in the brain, which can be especially detrimental to developing brains—like those of your children and teenagers. According to Bob Stahl and Elisha Goldstein, authors of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, “when you experience stress, the body produces hormones…and neurotransmitters” which help you respond to situations we perceive as threatening. Being out of the loop on the latest global update or the fear of becoming socially irrelevant—while on seemingly opposite ends of the survival spectrum—can feel just as stressful on the brain, “and the body doesn’t always know the difference” (Stahl & Goldstein, p. 27). Our brain sends our body into a heightened state, and if that reaction “remains unchecked, your level of stress can build up over time” (p. 27), triggering a neurological and physiological response more easily that is more difficult to recover from.

Balance between real and virtual life has grown in importance, but especially in a season of global pandemonium, we have been inundated with screens vying for our attention.

It can be hard for parents who work a year-round schedule to find ways to entertain their children during the summer, and after the intense plunge into homeschooling that many took without warning, parents are understandably aching for some respite. Without the routine of school and the responsibility of homework, but the habitual behavior of jumping on a device, many kids are tempted to spend a significant portion of their day interacting with some kind of screen. While it may seem harmless, according to Twenge and Campbell (2018), extensive screen time has been linked to “lower psychological well-being, including less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, being more difficult to care for, and inability to finish tasks,” as well as increased likelihood of being diagnosed with depression or anxiety, or be prescribed “medication for a psychological or behavioral issue.” While so much around us feels unstable, it is of paramount importance that we assist our children and teens in creating stability within themselves, and screens are not our friends in this endeavor.

Screens offer instant gratification. Another great way to support your kids’ mental health is to help them learn to emotionally regulate (keep themselves calm), which can be hard if they aren’t used to waiting. The old adage “patience is a virtue” could not be more true these days. We are constantly on the go, especially in the summer when we are trying to squeeze every last drop of out of the day. However, no well-rounded, emotionally healthy child ever got there by having everything they wanted the second they wanted it.

Learning to be comfortable in the in-between times (when there isn’t something immediately entertaining or pleasurable) and being present in the moment—often referred to as “mindfulness”—can decrease anxiety and helps kids gain more self-control. Great opportunities for your kids to practice mindfulness might be standing in line at the grocery store or waiting for Mom to wrap up her conversation after soccer practice (if soccer practice can even happen this year, fingers crossed!).

Smart devices also do most of the thinking for us, which keeps it entertaining. Our brains get lazy and it can be difficult or boring to sustain our own attention. Videogame creators and cellphone designers know how addicting screens can be—their whole job is predicated on keeping users hooked. You may be shocked to learn that Steve Jobs of Apple convinced millions of people to buy his products, but wouldn’t let his own children use them (Atler, p. 2). But being ‘bored’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Using your brain doesn’t have to ‘feel like school’ and helping your child learn to enjoy thinking creatively can go a long way in fortifying their mental health.

Young children and teens have an incredible capacity for creativity. The next time your child complains of being bored and begs for a screen, encourage them to use their imagination. Instead of building a house on Minecraft, why not build it out of stuff you have lying around your house, like a cardboard box or empty pop cans? Hands-on creativity increases that curiosity Twenge and Campbell (2018) were taking about. What ordinary household objects can your kids repurpose into something completely different? What games can they make up? What shapes do they see in the clouds? Draw, write, sing, mold, build—get creating!

Vitamin D

We don’t get to see the sun very often in the winter months, especially in the Midwest. And with all of the safety protocols due to the Coronavirus, many of us are looking like vampires—startled by the blinding rays of the sun. While there is still debate about whether or not ultraviolet light can kill off the virus, it is more convenient to ‘social distance’ in a wide-open space with more room, and the increased sun is an added bonus.

mental health

Summer is a great time to soak up some much-needed Vitamin D. Vitamin D has been linked to healthy bone development and increased mental health (Föcker et al., 2017). Researchers are examining the effects of Vitamin D on the central nervous system and have hypothesized that insufficient levels may contribute to depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and some behavioral symptoms of autism (Föcker et al., 2017). Vitamin D may be especially important when it comes to the functioning of the hippocampus and hypothalamus—two relatively small parts of the brain with very big jobs including emotional balance and storing memories.

Encourage your kids to spend time outside (with proper sun protection) to take full advantage of a great natural source of Vitamin D your body thrives on. This is not only great for their minds, but their bodies, and social skills as well. Grab some sidewalk chalk, pull out the slip-and-slide, or set up a driveway carwash. Who knew supporting your child’s mental health could be so fun?

Interacting with Your Kids

Summer can be a tricky time of year when it comes to rules and routines. Kids and teens want to have more freedom. Paul Krauss, MA LPC, made a great point about communication in his 2018 presentation in Arizona. He referenced a study where children were split into several groups and told not to play with a particular toy. Each group of children was threatened with punishments of varying intensities—from knowing they disappointed their parent to public humiliation in front of the other children—if they played with the off-limits toy. The researchers found that the children who had a less intense punishment were also less likely to be lured in by the toy and rebel against their parents’ instruction. The risk just upped the ante.

Krauss emphasized that the relationship between parent and child made the difference in the child’s behavior. If the parents communicated to their child that they trust them to know the difference between right and wrong and offered their child an opportunity to demonstrate trustworthiness, the child was more likely to behave obediently.

mental health

An authoritative style of parenting is characterized by a high degree of warmth and responsiveness toward the child allowing them opportunities to ask questions or have discussions about why certain rules are in place. This approachability accompanied by expectations that kids will ‘rise to the occasion’ and respect the boundaries you have put in place. When children have a clear understanding of behavioral standards and feel that their wants and concerns are considered, they are more likely to follow rules established by the caregiver.

Remember, you are the parent. At the end of the day, you make the rules. But trusting your child with age-appropriate freedom helps them get in the habit of respecting the boundaries their parents set for them and trusting their intuition to identify good and bad choices. In turn, there will be less need for constant monitoring and frequent discipline on your end. Communication about summer expectations will go a long way to supporting their mental health (and yours)!

This is a summer unlike any we have seen before, but with some care, consideration, and coordination, you can support your child or teen’s mental health during this season of uncertainty and transition.

Sources

Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible: why you are addicted to technology and how to set yourself free. Vintage.

Föcker, M., Antel, J., Ring S., Hahn, D., Ö., Öztürk, D.,…Libuda, L. (2007). Vitamin D and mental health in children and adolescents. European Child & Adolsecent Psychiatry, 26(9), 1043-1066. https://doi-org.arbor.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s00787-017-0949-3

Huver, R. M. E., Otten, R., Vries, H. de, & Engels, R. C. M. E. (2010, July). Personality and parenting style in parents of adolescents. Journal of Adolescence. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0140197109001079.

Krauss, P. (2018, March). The Intentional Clinician. Lecture presented in Arizona.

Sklar, J. (2020, April). ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/coronavirus-zoom-fatigue-is-taxing-the-brain-here-is-why-that-happens/?fbclid=IwAR1eWineVyn_tp_8migVz7Rmmb-daF8v386aHzQLqdtOXrEeBfh3fq44xqo

Stahl, B., & Goldstein, E. (2009). mindfulness and the mind-body connection. In A mindfulness-based stress reduction workbook (pp. 27–40). New Harbinger Publications.

Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Preventative Medicine Reports, 12, 271-283. https:doi-org.arbor.idm.oclc.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2018.10.003

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