Summertime Structure: How it can Save your Sanity!

August 20th, 2010

By Billy Kaplan, LCSW
HCC President & Clinical Director

“Summertime, and the living is easy…” When I think of this song, and the summertime, I like to think of my own childhood playing freely in the park, which is now just across the highway from the offices of House Calls Counseling. Summertime was simple and carefree for me and my parents. I imagine the same was often true for you when you were a kid.

I know, though, that for those of you who have children with attachment- and trauma-related problems, the song likely sounds something like, “Summertime, and the living ain’t easy!” I’m sure that, for you, summertimes tend to be full of conflict, tantrums and stress. If I may quote a former president (whatever your politics), “I feel your pain.”

In Attachment-Focused Parenting, Dan Hughes reminds us that “providing many choices and free time certainly can generate an ability to develop interests, enthusiasm and self-initiative that may facilitate independence and creativity. However, such freedom may also generate anxiety and reduce safety when it does not match a child’s readiness for such self-driven choices and behaviors – a readiness that may reflect his (or her) developmental age, temperament, confidence in a given situation, and general emotional and physical state at the time.”

I suspect that for the children and youth with attachment and trauma related issues who have had difficult summers in the past, our good intentions to provide them with positive experiences may have unintentionally backfired. When these kids are not ready for certain opportunities, they are filled with anxiety and a reduced sense of safety rather than a sense of freedom and joy.

However, while other families are enjoying the sweet, carefree pace of the summer, you and your family do not have to resign yourselves to a season of horrors! This article offers three practical tips which I hope will make this summer less stressful and more fulfilling for you and your kid(s). 1) create structure, 2) create structure, and, 3) you guessed it, create structure. I know, I’m a wise guy. But I really mean it!

There are many ways to create structure. The simplest, of course, is to enroll your child in a day-camp that is well suited to attend to the emotional, developmental and behavioral needs of your child. And WHERE does such a camp exist, you may be asking? That, of course, is a greater challenge. I know that some kids I have worked with have had great success at YMCA sleep-away camps. Now, you may be thinking I’m nuts! However, I worked with a kid with pretty severe behaviors who went to a YMCA camp, and somehow that change in environment, and the astounding staff at the camp, made the experience work for her. The kids’ caregivers and I had excellent communication with the leadership of the camp before she went, including providing the camp with written documentation of her status and interventions that have best worked with her. The camp also decided to connect her with one counselor in particular to keep a special eye on her during her stay.

For those of you for whom camp is not an option, I suggest setting up “camp” at home. Plan each day, and the overall week, with a mix of activities: fun time; need-to-get-done “chores”; get-out-some-energy play; quiet/down time; arts and crafts; outings/adventures; reading/writing; water play; nature time, etc. As the Theraplay® folks suggest, it may be helpful to think of carving out time for activities which provide structure, engagement, challenge, and nurturing. You can find more specific ideas at the Theraplay website.

I suggest displaying the schedule for the entire week on a Velcro or magnetic board. I recommend a Velcro/ magnetic board rather than a white board for several reasons. A white board can be “accidentally” erased by “someone” in a dysregulated emotional/ behavioral state. Then the plan for the week is lost unless the parent has written it down elsewhere (which I advise anyway, for backup). However, with a Velcro/ magnetic board, if items are taken down in a dysregulated fit, the schedule can be more easily repaired (along with the relationship).

The other advantage to using a Velcro/ magnetic board is that it makes it easier to move things around. Flexibility is a crucial part of structure; we need to have the ability to follow our kids’ readiness for any given activity. If the plan was to go to the zoo Tuesday morning, and your kiddo wakes up in a “mood” that day, s/he is, in a sense, letting you know that s/he doesn’t think they deserve to have such a fun activity because inside they “know” they’re a “bad” kid. Hence, it may not be safe to go to the zoo Tuesday morning. With a Velcro/ magnetic board, it’s easy to just move the zoo trip from Tuesday to Wednesday, and Wednesday’s activities to Tuesday. In this way, you get the opportunity to send the message to your kiddo that YOU think they deserve to have as much fun as going to the zoo, so you’ll try again tomorrow.

One additional benefit of a Velcro/ magnetic board is that, for those of us who are artistically challenged, we can use pictures from magazines and the web in addition to writing the words, for kids who can’t yet read.

Finally, here are some helpful tips for you and your family to get the most out of using the board:

  • Create the schedule on Sunday nights for the following week, and include your child in the planning for as much as they can handle without becoming dysregulated. Limit the choices they have (for example, “which outing do you want on Tuesday – the zoo or the botanic gardens?”) and make clear what items are non-negotiable (for example, laundry and groceries must get done; but when they get done can be negotiated).
  • Each morning, ask your kiddo to look at the board to “remind” you what the plan is for the day. Similarly, each night, have the kiddo look at the board to remind you what is coming up the next day.
  • When it’s time to do the chores, like laundry and groceries, find creative ways to involve your kid(s) and make these activities fun for them. Also, make sure to plan an activity that your kid(s) can look forward to after the chore is completed (for example, pool/ sprinkler time!!!). Ask your kid to look at the schedule to “remind” you of what’s coming up afterwards, so that you all can stay motivated to get the chore accomplished.

I hope these ideas will help you and your family have a summer of many delights, and far, far less stress than you may have had in the past!

or call us today at 847.256.2000 to have one of our therapists see you in the comfort of your home. We make arrangements to meet in an office when it’s preferred or desired.