Summer Brights and Summer Blues: Supporting Kids in Transition
By Elizabeth Devaney, SEL Center Director
Summer. It’s a time of fun and relaxation. A break from all the structure and hard work of the school year. But it is also a time of transitions. And for some kids, those transitions and the break in the routine is tough. Although they may enjoy sleeping late, or making new friends at camp, or more time to play, it can also be hard to adjust to all that freedom. And for many, anticipation of the next step, whether it is just a new teacher, or the bigger step to a new school, can produce some anxiety.
This summer in my house has been particularly rough. We started the summer with my husband away for two months on a research trip (less exotic than it sounds – think sitting in a library all day trying to read old Spanish and Latin manuscripts). Five days after he returned, our beloved babysitter who has lived with us for two years left to return home to her family in Germany. My 5 year old doesn’t remember life without her. In two weeks, a new babysitter starts. Add to that my oldest preparing to move from elementary to middle school and my youngest starting Kindergarten. Transitions abound in the Devaney household. And I know we aren’t unique – so many families experience changes like this all the time.
My inclination was to reach into my archives and start researching like mad – drawing on everything I know about social and emotional development to figure out how to help my kids deal with the loss of a caregiver and the absence of a parent and the move to new schools. I made careful plans for count downs and feelings journals and ways to talk through behavior changes. But on Tuesday night, our last night with our babysitter, I could feel my oldest trying to hold it together. She had been carefully keeping her cool, making sure to tell me she was “fine” whenever I asked. But then a mundane task, I can’t even remember now what it was – maybe filling the dishwasher or unscrewing a sticky jar cap, undid her. And I just put my arms around her and said “it’s okay to feel sad.” And with that, she was able to release something she had been holding in. Her shoulders dropped, and we both cried. And with just that permission, she seemed to relax into the changes we were experiencing. Her tension and careful façade went away and she seemed much more relaxed.
It got me thinking about what kids really need during times of stress and transition. I am so very aware that what my kids were experiencing was nothing – a mere inconvenience – compared to the trauma and struggle some children have to face. But I know that for children, all heartache is real – the realest they have ever felt. From our adult perspective, it may be easy to think “it’s not so bad”, but for a child, it really IS that bad. Regardless of the intensity of their emotions, I was able to see in this example the importance and power of love, support, and acceptance. The freedom to a child found in the permission to feel whatever it is they might be feeling. A warm hug. A shared tear – modeling that it is normal and acceptable to feel sad. A moment to release. All the research went out the window as I was reminded that my careful planning was nothing compared to my compassion and support.
So as you spend time working with young people in summer camps, run into teens playing basketball at the park, share in summer fun with your own children, and begin to gear up for the school year ahead, remember that despite their insistence that summer is the best, they may be experiencing some stress and anxiety related to their change in routine. They may be feeling or experiencing things that are trivial to us, but incredibly real and difficult for them. Your simple understanding and permission to feel a little out of sorts may be all they need to regain their equilibrium and enjoy the remaining weeks they have before school begins again.