By: Emily Hardcastle, LCSW; Caroline Hartman, LPC-MHSP, CEDS; Hillary Hughes, Psy.D, HSP
Summer vacation often conjures memories of family vacations, fun, free time, and adventure. Children and teens tend to pine all year long for the good ole summer days when there is NO SCHOOL! In contrast, many parents waver between excitement and dread as summer vacation approaches…because even though homework battles and jam-packed schedules cease at the end of the school year, parents now have to deal with another set of challenges. These include unstructured time, finding appropriate childcare, and identifying new forms of entertainment that need to last days on end! Children and teens often have big aspirations at the beginning of summer, but they quickly find themselves bored, unmotivated, and irritable. We call this “the summertime blues.”
You’re probably asking yourself, but how can the “summertime blues” be prevented or minimized? Our dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills group for teens and parents recently learned the skill of accumulating positive experiences, in order to regulate emotions, build motivation, and reduce vulnerability to negative emotions. I mean…who doesn’t want positive experiences, right!? But, this skill is not just about short-term fun. We aren’t talking about accruing all the best skins on Fortnite, binge-watching Netflix shows, or following your favorite YouTubers’ channels. Likewise, for adults, we aren’t just talking about beach vacations, spa days, or shopping sprees. Although these enjoyable experiences create short-term fun, the overarching goal is to create a life worth living.
To create a life worth living, one needs to pursue long-term goals that are driven by values and priorities. This pursuance builds opportunities to have more positive experiences. Summer is a great time to gently guide children to their interests, and help them develop long-term goals. Teens may already have an understanding of their values and priorities. Use the extra time over summer break to have conversations where you get to know what your children and teens are thinking about for the future. If they have musical aspirations, consider signing them up for music lessons. If your child enjoys desserts, maybe this is an opportunity to find a baking class for children. If your teen values physical fitness, there are a plethora of activities including dancing, yoga, bicycling, and team sports. Pick camps that help your children find their interests, and introduce new activities to spark creativity and enthusiasm.
Along with accumulating positive experiences, building mastery is another DBT skill that can be used to defeat the “summertime blues.” However, unlike accumulating positive experiences, building mastery is not about having “fun,” and is instead about developing self-efficacy, which is an important part of self-esteem. Self-efficacy is the belief that you have the ability to get things done or achieve goals, and research strongly points to its protective effects. So, how do you build mastery? Pick out something to do that is a challenge, but not impossible. For example, learning to play a new song on a piano. This one goal can be broken down into smaller steps, each of which should be challenging and build on the previous step. You might start with learning to play the right-hand melody. Once this skill is mastered, you could learn to add the left-hand accompaniment. As each step is achieved, you move up to the next in a ladder like approach. Each step is a new feeling of mastery- a renewed sense of “I can do hard things!” For each step you accomplish, celebrate your achievement. These stages aren’t always “fun,” but they still increase positive emotions and motivation.
So, this summer, help your children or teens consider their values and priorities, set long-term goals, and then work on identifying short-term steps to achieve in order to fulfill these goals. Don’t forget to celebrate the small steps along the way! Guide your children in picking activities, camps, and goals that help them accumulate positive experiences and build mastery. One thing to remember – it’s not important how the activity they master will serve them as adults because simply the experience of building mastery has been shown to increase happiness, decrease depression, and help build a life worth living. In other words, if your child wants to increase his percentage of free throws, but you know he isn’t NBA material, don’t worry about it. The payoff to building mastery around his free throws according to his own abilities will be worth more than a NBA salary! It will be setting him up with an improved sense of self, and the confidence to try new things despite perceived or actual challenges.