Show What You Know: Therapeutic Summer Fun

Summer Wellness in Children

With the summer break well underway, your child likely has had time to adjust to a new schedule and hopefully experience some fun. With this change of pace, come opportunities for a summer of growth, development, and positive mental health. Below are three key areas where you can grab these opportunities, but first let me share one such opportunity that came my way.

Trading card theft brings joy!

Ways to maintain positive mental health for children during the summerI arrived to pick up my sons from camp this week, only to find my eldest in tears. Someone had taken his tin of trading cards. Upon further discussion he confessed to leaving it lying around. Part of me wanted to scold him for being careless, but I caught my irritation, and instead, decided to go a different route.

I validated his distress, simply saying, “I’m sorry you lost something so important to you.” And then I kept quiet. We sat in silence for a minute and I let him cry. He then shared more details. I stayed quiet, listening while he vented. After a few more minutes I asked him what he wanted to do. He didn’t know. I encouraged collaborating together toward a solution, each of us coming up with a few ideas. He identified that a good solution was to ask the other kids if they’d seen his tin, but he expressed feeling afraid to do so.

Shy by nature, my son struggles to speak up for himself, worrying what others will think. We had been working on this this year, and I saw the missing cards as a golden opportunity. I used open-ended questions to help him develop an experiment. We predicted nothing would change if he kept silent, but perhaps he would find the tin if he asked a few friends. The next day he took the plunge.

He told me at pickup that although no-one had confessed to the theft, his new friends had rallied around him to help him feel better, even giving him a few of their own cards. Though the tin still remains at large, my son felt good about having had the courage to speak up, and having been supported by friends.

Breathing, relaxing, imagery, and other calming toolsSummer Camp 2

Many youth have had exposure to breathing, relaxation, imagery, and other calming exercises. These are simple yet highly effective “mini-tools” that can be applied almost anywhere. Consider these opportunities to blend them in to everyday summer life:

  • A deep, belly breath before walking in to a new camp or mounting the diving board –common situations where children may encounter mild anxiety.
  • Listening to a relaxation audio recording in the car, on an ipod, etc, en route to a new event that can create anxiety, apprehension, or fear for your child.
  • Creating a two-minute mind-film highlighting a successful conversation with a job offer at the end, for a teen entering into her first job interview.
  • Taking a slow and mindful walk along the beach, encouraging your child to use all five senses to observe everything. This can help calm an anxious mind or jumpy body before bedtime or after an upsetting event.

Creating a summer playlist

Symptoms of depression or anxiety do not go away simply because it’s the summer. In fact, for some children, symptoms can worsen with the lack of structure and decreased access to friends and familiar routines. Notice when your youth listens to negative brain messages, and remind him to remove these from the “playlist.” This can offer relief from unwanted symptoms of anxiety or depression.

  • Teach your child that we all have “playlists” of tunes in our brains. Some are helpful, but some have themes of doom-and-gloom or fear.
  • Help your child to replace negative tunes with better ones, or create a new “playlist.”
  • Development of new tunes can be as simple as writing basic statements, such as, “The kids are friendly. I’ll be ok.” Or they can be a more complex list of questions to answer when anxious, such as, What’s the worst that can happen? Has this ever happened before? If so, what did I do? What would my friend say about this? Is this really a horror or just a hassle?
  • Once these new tunes have been created, form a new playlist. This can be done verbally, or as a fun craft project you can do with your child.

Sid the Science Kid: At home experiments

AFS_New_mexico_Western_Life_Camp-CROPSummer often provides opportunities for new experiences, and you can capitalize on this by coaching your child to become a scientist of sorts, challenging unfounded adverse thoughts.

For most individuals struggling with anxiety and depression, negative, unhelpful ideas and beliefs settle in over time. Thoughts like, “there’s no point,” “it won’t make me feel better,” “it’ll be terrible,” or, “no one will talk to me” may take hold. However, unless they reflect situations that have actually happened, these statements can be challenged with at home experiments.

  • Listen for ingrained ideas or beliefs when you don’t hear them. If your child isn’t saying them, you can often see them in action. For example, look for the belief behind your child’s refusal to try a new camp or go to the carnival. What are the assumptions in the complaints about bad things anticipated in an upcoming family trip?
  • Rather than becoming frustrated with your child, take on the role of a scientist and encourage your child to create, and test a hypothesis. For example, “So you believe it won’t help you feel better. On a scale of 0 to 10 how good do you feel now?” (3) “How good will you feel after going swimming?” (3) “Okay, let’s go to the pool and see what happens. If your prediction is correct, that it won’t make you feel better, we don’t have to go again this summer.”
  • Run your experiment. At the end of the event ask your child for his/her 0 to 10 rating. Discuss what made it change or remain the same. If it improved, encourage your child to engage in the activity again as a means to continue to feel better. But if the prediction is correct and things don’t improve, help identify what factors caused this, and see if you can re-run the experiment eliminating those factors. For example, there were no other kids at the pool because it was too late in the day, go again, but earlier in the day.Summer-Camp-vpo9sy

Show what you know all summer long!

Summer fun can provide opportunities for in-the-moment learning—also known as experiential learning. Research shows that this learning allows for a deeper and more sustainable level of memory encoding. These opportunities for growth, development, and positive mental health can impact your child’s mood and anxiety without it feeling like work. The next time you are at the pool, beach, or in the car, listen out for an opportunity to suggest an experiment, or coach your child to modify his/her “playlist.” It can be fun to show what you know!

Guest contributor Katherine Martinez, PsyD, is a registered psychologist at the Vancouver Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Centre and co-author of the book, Your Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide To Anxiety And Panic (Magination Press, 2009). Dr. Martinez specializes in cognitive-behavioral assessment and treatment of anxiety, mood, and childhood disorders, as well as providing parent effectiveness training to parents.