Summer is almost here, and with it may come the urge to throw rigid routines out the window. Research (and experience) shows, though, that most kids thrive when they have clear expectations and routines, even in the summer months. Parent Ellen Dunlap used to greet each summer vacation with mixed feelings. On the one hand, she was excited to be free of the grind of the school year and able to spend more relaxed, quality time with her son, Ryan. On the other hand, however, she dreaded the onset of Ryan’s summer ‘personality shift.’ “After 3 or 4 days I started to see that he was short-tempered and grumpy,” Ellen says. “Most of his responses had an underlying tone of annoyance and he appeared to look and feel frustrated and uncomfortable.”
As her son got older, the pattern of behavior continued. Each year after the initial excitement about the summer break wore off, her son’s personality would abruptly change. His increasingly surly behavior put a damper on summer fun for everyone in the household. Then, she says, she had an ‘aha moment’: “It took me a little while to figure out the root of his frustration. Although he will argue otherwise, my son really craves the comfort that structure brings.”
Ryan is not alone. Experts agree that while children and adolescents do benefit from the downtime the summer brings, downtime should be balanced with structured activities and clear expectations. While some children do fine without a set schedule, many others struggle with the excessive free time and lack of routine the summer break often brings with it. Otherwise happy and well-adjusted kids might begin acting defiant and downright rude, and you might notice arguments increasing among siblings. Kids with too much downtime also may experiment with risky behaviors and wind up getting into trouble both at home and with friends.
What can a parent do to keep summer fun for everyone? One of the most important things is to communicate summer house rules and expectations to your kids and refer to them often. If you’re thinking to yourself that you haven’t thought about what you’re having for breakfast today, much less your summer expectations, don’t fret! Now is the perfect time to do just that. Some key issues to think about include how late kids can stay up (and sleep), how many hours of TV/computer time are acceptable, and what chores and other responsibilities each child or teen will be responsible for on a regular basis. Make sure all the grownups in the house are on the same page with expectations, because consistency is huge.
Once Ellen Dunlap figured out the source of her son’s summer attitude problem, she realized she was going to have to figure out how to solve it – or spend ANOTHER summer with a grumpy, grouchy adolescent boy. “The key was to plan out a few hours of his days Monday - Friday during the summer and set boundaries as to when the activities/chores would be done and what my expectations were of each task,” Dunlap says. “Once I had him work on something academic for summer bridge work and do some scheduled chores around the house, his behavior and attitude were remarkably better.”
Dunlap also did something that parents often forget to do after setting up rules or routines: she posted her expectations in a common area of the house. “Out of sight, out of mind, right? Posting them was a great non-verbal reminder,” she says. Some families also dust off the ol’ chore and behavior charts for their adolescents in the summer to make it easier to keep track and avoid arguments. If something worked well when your child was younger, it will probably work just fine now as well. Having rules (and perhaps even consequences) posted clearly will help keep everyone consistent.
Creating summer ‘house rules’ for your family will not solve every problem or turn your child into an angel overnight, but it will go a long way toward helping your family have a sane, safe, and FUN summer. Communicate your expectations to your kids, and most of the time, they’ll live up to them!