The Summer Slump: Increasing Structure Over the Summer
By Brooke Schwartz, LMSW
Every year we spring forward and fall back, but have you ever wondered what we do in the summer months? Some enter into a “summer slump,” a period characterized by isolation, boredom, or unproductivity, all of which may heighten symptoms of depression and anxiety. Children and adolescents who don’t engage in summer activities are particularly susceptible to summer slumps given the stark contrast between daily life during and outside of the school year. Being without structure may initially feel freeing, but may ultimately lead to behavioral issues and difficulty adjusting back to school in the fall. For college students, unstructured summers may induce feelings of disappointment and inadequacy that linger into future seasons.
Many of the suggestions you’ll read below, both for children and college students, are rooted in a treatment called “behavioral activation.” Behavioral activation involves scheduling activities to encourage people to reconnect with environmental positive reinforcement and to decrease avoidant behaviors that maintain negative emotions. And although behavioral activation is an evidence-based treatment for depression, one of its core principles — that they key to changing how people feel is changing what they do — is helpful in targeting the summer slump.
Parents and caregivers of younger children may consider the following tips to help their kids avoid a summer slump:
Stick to a schedule. It’s nearly impossible for summer days to look just like those in the school year. However, it can be helpful to maintain certain part of your school year’s daily schedule, for example by keeping mealtimes and bedtimes as consistent as possible. Doing so can help with summer behavior and make the inevitable transition back into the school year feel easier. Wondering how to keep bedtime consistent? You may consider adjusting your child’s sleep environment by using blackout curtains to block light, or a fan or air conditioner to block sound.
Fill the schedule. Schedule activities throughout the day to keep your child engaged and entertained. Activities don’t have to be elaborate or costly — you may schedule a time to check the mail, go to the park or library, color, or have a playdate with a friend.
Schedule unscheduled time. While it may seem counterintuitive, there are actually several benefits to including unscheduled time in a child’s daily schedule. Children learn the important skill of being able to amuse themselves in the absence of plans, for example by coming up with a game to play or exploring. When children have unscheduled time with others, they learn skills such as negotiating and collaborating. The following may be helpful things to keep in mind when it comes to unscheduled time: limit time on devices; stock up on tools your child can use for creativity (e.g., art supplies, building blocks, or baking equipment); and resist the urge to suggest activities for your child if they say they’re bored — instead, remind them of the materials they have access to. If you’re a working parent, consider putting your child in programs that have free or choice time built time, or if this isn’t possible, scheduling unscheduled time when your child is home.
Make the schedule visual and understandable. Children often respond better to transitions when they’re predictable ones, so communicating the schedule to your child is essential. Depending on your child’s age and developmental level, consider using images or clipart to help them understand the schedule.
Use a reward system. Providing rewards for certain behaviors you want to see more of is an effective way of encouraging children throughout the summer. Choose two or three desired behaviors. Behaviors should be stated positively — that is, if you want your child to put their sneakers in the closet when they get home, state the behavior as, “Put your sneakers in the closet when you get home,” and not as “Don’t leave your sneakers in the hallway.” Give your child consistent and positive praise when they do the desired behavior, and actively ignore undesired behaviors (when it’s safe and appropriate to do so). Decide on how the reward system will work and what the rewards are collaboratively with your child. Many people find sticker charts to be effective reward systems for younger children. Keep in mind that rewards don’t have to be expensive — some ideas of affordable rewards include reading an extra book at night, a trip to the park, or eating a meal outdoors.
Utilize your community. As important as it is for children to have structure, it’s also crucial for their parents and caregivers to feel up to giving it to them. Consider reaching out to someone — a family member, friend, or babysitter — to help you entertain your child or give you some time off.
Whereas younger children are often provided with a sense of structure in the summertime, college students tend to be responsible for creating it themselves. And many obstacles can get in the way of achieving this task (e.g., not getting offered an internship or job, wanting a break from work or responsibility, or lacking motivation/understanding of how to make a summer plan). If you’re a college student looking to bring some structure to your summer, consider the following tips:
Create a schedule that excites you. Scheduling positive activities throughout the summer will give you something to look forward to and help prevent you from feeling stuck. Just remember to also schedule “you time.” It’s compelling — and often fun — to schedule social activities throughout the summer, but building in time for yourself can help you maintain the energy you want or need in order to enjoy other summer activities. Scheduling any amount of time (ten minutes, a few hours, or a full day) to do something you enjoy or that has a positive effect on your well-being or health can be rejuvenating and lead you to better enjoy the time you do spend with others. Looking for examples? Consider engaging in simple acts of self-care (such as drinking water, cooking a healthy meal, taking a nap, or showering), kicking a soccer ball around in the park, or journaling.
Build downtime into your schedule. Downtime (with or without others) replenishes your attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to achieve your highest levels of performance for those activities you do build into your schedule.
Maintain a social or support system. It’s tough to spend the summer away from friends you’ve spent the rest of the year with, which is something that happens for many college students. Scheduling phone calls or video chats with friends from college, especially those in different time zones, is one way of continuing to feel connected to others even from a distance. Being around people (even ones you don’t know) may also make you feel more socially supported. If there’s no one you’re close to around or available, consider doing an activity that doesn’t directly involve others, but puts you in proximity to them (such as reading in a coffee shop or taking a walk in a dog park).
Try something new. One of the major perks of being a college student? The power of a student ID — it can grant you discounted access to museums, libraries, shows, sports games, and more. Not interested in going anywhere? Forget the ID and spend time trying new things that inspire, interest, or intrigue you, such as reading a new genre, drawing, gathering clothes to donate, or gardening.
Challenge expectations. It’s particularly common for college students to think of summer as a time that they “should be” doing something — they “should be” building their resume, they “should be” socializing, or they “should be” spending time outdoors. One problem with the “should be” mentality is that it can set you up for disappointment and feeling as though time spent doing anything else is time wasted. Challenging expectations about what summer “should be” like — even by simply rephrasing a thought from “I should be hanging out with my friends more” to “I may want to spend time with friends next week” — can help buffer feelings of disappointment and allow you to be more engaged in the present moment.
While summer may seem appealing in the winter months, it’s quite common to experience a much different reality. Hopefully these tips help you avoid a summer slump!
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