The end of every school year often triggers a myriad of emotions for children and adolescents. Even in a ‘normal’ year, children may experience a broad range of emotions at the close of the school year — from the excitement of no more homework to the grief, loss, and boredom of being away from friends and overall decreased socialization. Undoubtedly, in an emotionally compounding school year that stretched across the agitating events of 2020 and 2021, children may experience even more intense feelings of frustration, confusion, or anxiety about what to expect in the Fall. There also may be some sense of ambiguity as to what the social landscape will look like for them. These are all common, and even expected, emotions when navigating change. However, when unaddressed, these emotions can lead to behavioral changes such as being withdrawn or acting out.
Parents are instrumental in supporting children with healthy transitions and can do so by modeling how to cope with the stress of change and by incorporating protective factors into daily routines that may increase their child’s resilience. Family resilience research suggests that families can overcome potentially dysfunctional behaviors, and that family resiliency influences positive outcomes in both the short and long-term for children. Resilience has been described in families as “the successful coping of family members under adversity that enables them to flourish with warmth, support, and cohesion.” The following five tips can promote a sense of recovery and restoration and may assist children with processing the shift while preparing them for what’s to come.
Explore how your child feels about the school year ending to understand how to support them. The closure is key to reflecting, learning, and growing. While the direct approach in asking about feelings is often met with a simple, “fine,” children will eventually express how they feel when parents and caregivers offer an intentional space for them to respond. Ask open-ended questions, which immediately signals their brain to begin to search for answers that extend beyond minimalist answers such as ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
Validate your child’s experience to help them make meaning of their thoughts and feelings. This requires reflective and radical listening so that the child’s experience is honored without shame or blame. Reflective and radical listening entails resisting a response, repeating what you hear them say, and asking for clarity. This practice can deepen your connection as well as the level of trust between yourself and your child, and supports their overall emotional intelligence development.
Highlight and honor your child’s accomplishments during the past year with specific examples of what they did well. Your reflection of their strengths creates what is known in neuroscience as the Positive Affective States. These affective states promote openness, deepened relationships, better decision-making, and improved performance. While your child may not have achieved the desired grade point average, or perhaps faced other struggles in the school setting; they undoubtedly had something positive occur. It is our job as parents to illuminate and celebrate their strengths and accomplishments, and to teach them how to do this for themselves as well! Strength-based parenting has been shown to be effective in helping children manage and cope with their life stressors.
With this, it is equally important to acknowledge the challenges that your child did face and recognize the changes that may have taken place in their life at the close of the school year, and to help them assess how to overcome those challenges in the future. This is best accomplished by helping your child imagine what they would like to accomplish by asking questions such as “What would you like to imagine your next year to look like?,” and “What do you think is important in helping you accomplish that?” This kind of conversation introduces your child to accountability. It can help them identify solutions while promoting a sense of self-efficacy through nurturing their self-esteem.
Children may fuss and moan about the mundane rhythms and structure of the school year, however, routine is necessary for all of us to navigate our daily lives. Our nervous system thrives on predictable experiences, and while Summer is generally a time for rest, incorporating schedules and rituals help children know what to expect. This aids in reducing their anxiety. Younger children will benefit most from bedtime and morning routines, but all children will gain emotional regulation when they are prepared for planned events and activities. Creating a calendar of Summer events like family movie nights or walks in the park can help ease the uncertainty and promote a sense of normalcy around what they can expect, as well as give the family a collective outlet.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly — relax and have fun! Children look forward to the summer months and should be encouraged to enjoy their time off. Modeling self-care is one of the most powerful lessons parents can teach children — it is a critical aspect of their emotional wellbeing. Of course, eating healthy, getting a good night’s rest, and exercise are the go-to self-care strategies. However, parents are incredibly creative in thinking outside of the box to promote fun and meaningful experiences for their children. Remember that brain science shows that happiness helps us cope and recover, so look for opportunities to laugh and live it up!