Making the most of summer break: Taking stock, enjoying and resetting resilience

By Mark Bertin

Happy summer. Enjoy. Let go wherever you are able of excessive thinking and ongoing planning and any striving. Come back to whatever feels best for your family. Relax, recharge, and reset your priorities.

As parents, letting go does not have to mean ignoring reality. We can use these times of relative relaxation to reconnect with our own common-sense wisdom. Under stress, we revert to habits, whether stuck in circular homework debates or ruts around planning after school activities. Changing any habit begins by acknowledging it: Wow, this school year bedtime was a mess. Summer is an opportunity to step out of autopilot and move back towards clarity and choice.

Recharging Our Batteries

Savor the easy times. Give them your full attention and awareness. Let go when you catch yourself rehashing the past (I can’t believe he failed biology), rehearsing the future (he’s going to fail out one day), or ruminating over problems (OK, we have a great plan for next year, but is it the perfect plan?). Immerse yourself in family time or quiet time on your own when you choose. And then, also touch base with why your kids are happier over the summer – is it only the lack of schoolwork?

Part of our long-term health relies on appreciating and valuing restful breaks. School life gets intense. Remaining caught in our “fight or flight” state of mind changes how we act, think and feel – which in turn creates more stress. A breather on a quiet day or a vacation is not only worthwhile – it’s vital to our well-being to shut down the stress cycle when we can.

Staying strong and resilient also builds from relationships. School year logistics can disrupt connection with friends and family. To use a concept coined by author Wendy Mogel, summer can be like putting money in the bank for a family – positive time to draw on when the going gets tough. Whether it’s togetherness all summer, a week of vacation, or low-key weekends that bookend sleepaway camp, give full attention to these precious moments.

Resilience also relies on our physical health, something that does not always get enough attention year-round. A healthy lifestyle specifically supports classroom learning and emotional health, yet this whole generation, young and old, has become less active and more screen-focused. Summer is a time to restore ourselves, and our children, not only mentally but physically.

Protect healthy routines over the summer. With no school activities, it’s easy to let screen time expand, even though under-monitored screen time replaces healthier activities. Emotional skills improve away from devices. Creativity arises out of free time and even boredom that smart phones and games meticulously consume. Unstructured time in nature, consistent exercise, regular sleep and socializing with friends all can be part of long-term fitness.

Mindful awareness means seeing life with clarity. Supporting a balanced lifestyle goes a long way for our children even during the summer. Take at face value what works through the summer and savor it, and then file that information away for the future. Take advantage of the clarity you find during your break and consider what makes most sense for you and your family down the road.

Refocus: It’s a Summer Breeze

With the pressure off, most of us face a paradox: Less motivation to work on something new but more opportunity. We often feel most driven to make changes in the midst of the chaos. I’m exhausted, I should sleep more. I’m so stressed, I should meditate. Of course, that off-balance moment is the hardest time to implement change entirely because we’re off-balance. On the other hand, summer is a perfect space to readjust or try something new.

Without over planning, simply notice what’s working and think about how to make it stick a while. This summer, out of school and on vacation, is a perfect moment to focus on new activities (like mindfulness) or reinforce oldies but goodies (like sleep and exercise). Stay grounded in reality – summer break is summer break – while still being open to an easier future.

Outside of academic related pressures it’s easier to think flexibly. That’s because when we are caught up in stress, decisions easily become muddled. Whether around lifestyle, academics, or household routines, acknowledge what you would like to see happen next. During this calmer time reflect on how you’ve been living and what you can make happen next.

If it’s useful, experiment with a mental practice sometimes referred to as ‘touch and go’: Observe your situation and consider a plan as long as that feels manageable. Then come back to the present (sitting on the beach, walking in the park, reading a book) when your thoughts become circular or stressful. Whenever planning skips over from useful to stressful, settle your thoughts in something concretely grounding, whether that is the warmth of the sun on your face, the grass at your feet, or the chaotic sounds of city park.

Sometimes simple answers sit right in front of us. The body requires a certain amount of sleep to function well. Kids are easier going and more rested in the summer in part because they sleep more. Getting enough sleep is also good for learning and mental health, yet prioritizing that bottom line often relies on routines created and sustained by parents. So next fall … what’s a new way to manage sleep?

It’s summer, and that’s all there is for now. But we also need to make proactive plans sometimes. Is there a step to consider around family scheduling? Stress management? Over-scheduling or healthy eating or sleep habits? Observe, come back to enjoying the summer over and over again, and also set reasonable intentions for the fall. Mindful doesn’t mean passively observing everything that happens, it means remaining aware, alert, and nuanced in deciding what to manage and what to leave alone in our lives.

Seeking a Middle Road Between Passive and Proactive

Celebrate your down time. Don’t let planning mess up your summer but do not miss out on opportunity for changes either. Whatever summer trends you find restorative and healthy, consider if they deserve more attention throughout the year.

Times of transition are often the easiest to adjust family routines. In the middle of a pressured school year, a switch of rules or schedule can be jarring. Seeking out a more natural break can feel more palatable: Once school ends, you’re going to start taking out the garbage. Or maybe, Seventh grade is going to be hard, so we’re going to limit your screen time once it starts. Transitions can be more straight-forward moments to break a habit or start a new one.

Children require opportunities to define themselves, but also rely on our wise adult perspective to create balance as they grow up. Most need some guidance around schedules, homework, and lifestyle. Left to their own devices (so to speak), many children would play too many video games, stay up late, or eat too much candy all the way into adulthood.

Allow yourself these extra weeks of summer to set up a healthy fall. Gradually build towards better routines by starting early discussions; We all need to exercise, so everyone is going to do something physically active soon. Consider exercise, homework, chores, screen time or anything else that might benefit from an adjustment next year as school begins. In a low-key way, start to imagine next school year – without getting caught up in worry.

Enjoy summer because it is there to be enjoyed. Reassure yourself, if you have doubts, that it is exactly what your kids need right now. And then, in an unpressured way, lay down gentle steps towards the future. With clarity, settle into summer, create space for family and friends, and also set your intentions for the future.

Mark Bertin is a developmental behavioral pediatrician and author of How Children Thrive and Mindful Parenting for ADHD. He is an assistant professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College, on the faculty of the Windward Teacher Training Institute, and on the editorial advisory board of Common Sense Media.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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