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Surviving the “End-of-Summer Scaries”

12 Aug, 2022

by Allison Hurst, MS, NCC, LPC

The end of July is an all-around emotional battleground. Let’s be honest—no one in the vicinity of school-aged children feels fully back to baseline until almost October.

Many parents eagerly await a semblance of routine to re-enter their homes with the start of school. They are in survival mode. Things like popsicles for breakfast and screentime marathons have taken the place of well-laid summer plans and activities. There are household mutinies and fist-fights on the trampoline, and half the family budget just went out the window for markers and new shoes.

The adults may just feel like they have lost all sense of mental fortitude.

For the children in these scenarios, the big bursts of behaviors can often be related to conflicting emotions about the upcoming changing of routines and uncharted territories of a new school year. They have had sweet tastes of freedom for two months, and the realities of that abruptly ending are becoming evident.

Children who thrive in routine are hitting their limit of the free-range nature of summer, while those who thrive in less structure are contemplating their impending doom of academia.

And should we mention the heat? Being trapped inside at this time of year for sheer survival is almost torturous. Even from the comfort of the A/C, the extreme temps we are currently facing can absolutely contribute to mood changes.

Research of what scientists and psychologists have deemed the “heat hypothesis” suggests that violence and aggression are heightened during the summer months, particularly during heat waves. One could say we are all, quite literally, “losing our cool” [1, 2, 3].

But for whatever reason this phenomenon of pre-school-year-chaos exists, one thing that I have noticed in my roles as an educator and mental health counselor, is this: During this time of year, parents truly set the tone.

I understand that it is incredibly difficult to keep that tone a pleasing one. Hopefully, the following considerations can be used as an empowering set of ideas to foster intentionality and family connection during the raging stage of Summer Scaries.

Suggestions for Surviving the End-of-Summer Scaries

1. Speak as if your children hear what you say about them. (Because they often do). Imagine: If all you ever heard your spouse say on the weekend was how ready they are for you to return to work on Monday, how would you feel?

It is absolutely okay to be MORE THAN READY for school to begin. But be mindful of how often, and in what context, you are expressing this in front of your children. Remember to also remind your children what you enjoy about them and the things you have done over the summer that showed you positive things about their character.

2. Remember that your brain is the most developed one in the house. You are the calm in the storm for this time of transition. It can be easy to get drawn in to the general pandemonium of emotions pouring from your children. But you, my friend, have a fully-developed frontal lobe and are in a position to better manage the situation for yourself. Take a moment to call another adult or spend some time with a friend.

3. It is okay to have your own emotions this time of year. Model healthy ways of managing them. Take breaks when you need to. Step outside or use your children’s independent play time to focus on one of your own interests.

4. Allow for household flexibility where you can. What are some typical guidelines that can be lightened to avoid power struggles? Of course, you can still have the same expectations for your kids; your family values and basic rules should remain the same. But maybe you allow some food on the carpet for a special night or declare a “no chores day!”

This is the time of year when “choosing your battles” is of great importance.

5. Your children may not openly discuss how they are feeling. It can sometimes be observed in changes in mood, behavior, or social interactions. Younger children especially will process their emotions through play. Sometimes kids might not even understand that their emotions are related to upcoming changes—it could be that they are simply noting the overall tension of the household as preparations ensue, and responding accordingly to the level of stress that is present.

6. Your quiet, calm-mannered child is probably feeling big things, too. Find some one-on-one time with them. Instead of pressuring them to talk, simply offer the space if they need it while you participate in one of their chosen activities with them. Connection with you can help regulate emotions.

7. Find small ways for each child to feel autonomous in decision-making about the upcoming year. This can be as easy as choosing their backpack or helping you make a list of lunches they’d enjoy having packed.

8. Calmly talk through the logistics of your new upcoming schedules so that your kids are not surprised on their first day of a new routine. Let them visit the campus, if allowed, of any new schools or locations they may be attending.

9. Set lowwwwwwww expectations for extra-curricular activities the first week of school.

I am talking lower than low here. Allow for resting and free play in the evenings. No one should be overextending themselves outside of the school day. On Friday night, have a family movie night or order pizza. Let everyone air out their emotions and exhaustion in their own particular fashion. Learning new routines and socializing in settings with new kids and new expectations is difficult for children, and you will inevitably be feeling that underlying tension as well. Allow the household to simply focus on feeling comfortable in their new changes over that first week and weekend.

Extra Family Challenge:

Find time to have a “last blast of summer” for the whole family. This can get both adults and kids out of the end-of-summer funk. Do something local, keep it simple, and choose an activity that is out of the ordinary or a tried-and-true family favorite for a last chance to spend extra time together.

We know you are all tired. Your kids know that you are tired. Structure is on the way, I promise. But these last few weeks and days are prime opportunities to remind your child of your family values and create memories together. Hang in there, mom and dad. October is coming.

References:

1. Anderson, C. A. (2001). Heat and Violence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(1), 22–28. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.ep11512432

2. Anderson, C. A., Anderson, K. B., Dorr, N., DeNeve, K. M., & Flanagan, M. (2004, December 13). Temperature and aggression. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0065260100800040

3. Eisenbud, D. K. (2017, April 15). Analysis: The ‘heat hypothesis’ and spikes in terror and war. The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com. Retrieved August 1, 2022, from https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/analysis-the-heat-hypothesis-and-spikes-in-terror-and-war-488870