School holiday anxiety: Strategies from a psychologist

With families looking forward to the summer holiday break, it can be surprising when your child shows signs of anxiety. Psychologist Emma-Rose Parsons shares her strategies for supporting the unpredictability school holidays can bring.

As the holidays are fast approaching, there is one concern that I often hear from families that catches them by surprise – their child showing signs of anxiety during the holidays.

Holidays for many children can be anxiety provoking, particularly the longer summer break. Yep, you read that correctly. In a time when we imagine peacefully sleeping in and resting up, hanging out with friends and enjoying a summer ice cream, many children feel withdrawn, anxious and discombobulated (it’s a great word, isn’t it?).

So why is this? Well, school and the associated after school activities give a significant source of structure. There is a clear plan, a set of expectations and a schedule. There is clarity and predictability.

During school holidays, we swap out a lot of these structured activities and replace them with ‘holiday vibes’. We tend to have irregular sleep patterns, eat out more often, have more social events, go away on holidays or day visits and the like. Parents work different hours, sports/art class/music classes are on hold, and the daily routines are gone. So many changes!

Essentially, we often throw our routines up in the air and try to ‘go with the flow’. Which for some people is completely fine and even really enjoyed. For others, it creates uncertainty and anxiety.

What do you see when this happens? It can present differently for different children and teens. You may see withdrawal, anger outbursts, high levels of frustration, anxious fiddling, refusal to leave the home/room, reluctance to see friends or family, less joy and less laughter.

So, as parents, what can you do to support your more anxious child or teen if they are feeling the stress of unpredictability in the holidays?

Use a planner of some sort to write down major transitions. For example, if you are headed to the beach house or if Mum is working on specific days, write this on the planner.

Add any social events on the planner – even if they are play dates.

Use a colour-coded system for events so that children have more choices.  For example, green events may be events that the kids can choose to go to or not. Orange may be events that you’d really prefer they went to, but they can still opt out if needed. Red are events that they need to attend.

Plan the holiday break with your child wherever possible. Have their input into how often you have outings and how often they have home days.

Consider blocks of home vs outings. For example, maybe have two to three outings a week, and then other days clearly marked as home days. Or have one week of camping and one week at home marked on the planner.

Try to keep wake times consistent. Even if you find it hard to get the sleep times consistent, get up at the same time each day. It’s ok to migrate to the couch to relax; just get out of bed at a similar time each day (i.e. 7am or 8am)

Keep eating well. That doesn’t mean you need to skip the ice cream, but keeping a good diet will definitely help.

Even on home days, get some fresh air and movement. Boring, I know. But outside time is great for mental health, and movement will assist with sleep and anxiety. Walking the dog to the café for a milkshake or even skateboarding on the drive counts. It doesn’t need to be a trip to the gym, just get outside and move.

Listen to your child. If they are exhausted from the year and need to take the first week off socialising completely, try and make that work. Create a way for them to relax at home in a healthy way.

Gaming and screens are often a hot topic in families during holidays. And at the end of the day, the answer is balance. Negotiate and decide on the rules early and be consistent where possible. Balance screen time, with outside time.

Don’t stress about socialising too much. Lots of socialising over the summer break isn’t needed for all children, provided they have other sources of connection. Each person has different needs and nuances to balance when it comes to social requirements.

Good luck parents! I hope these Summer holidays have moments of joy, laughter and fun in them for you and your child. And remember, even if you are trying to balance work and parenting, with a little pre-planning, it tends to work out in the end.

Happy summer!

About Emma-Rose Parsons

Emma-Rose Parsons is a psychologist, speaker and board approved supervisor who opened Spectrum House in 2008. She works in both private clinical practice and in schools assisting children, youth and their parents/guardians. Emma-Rose is passionate about increasing a family’s quality of life, by offering Education, Understanding and Skills for Life.

Stay in touch with Emma-Rose on Facebook, on LinkedIn, on Instagram and through her website.

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