“Everyone is different,” Ashley Cosby, ATR, LCPC, therapist in the Department of Psychology and Psychiatry with Carle Health in Champaign, said.
For those at greater risk during summer, the problem isn’t that they have less structured time.
“Less supervised time is the problem,” Burgundy Johnson, DO, division lead of child and adolescent psychiatry with Carle Physician’s Group Behavioral Health Bloomington, said.
Less structured time can be healthy and beneficial for children at times, Dr. Johnson said. Less structured time gives children the opportunity to try new things, explore new interests, be creative and learn how to spend down time.
But when that time is less supervised, some children get into trouble.
“The main concern during summer is fewer adults touching base with children and youth, so they are less likely to detect problems,” Cosby said. “During the school year, teachers and coaches may notice changes in behavior.”
When schedules are disrupted, some children and youth stay up later and spend more time unsupervised in front of screens on social media, YouTube and so on. They get less sleep, rise later and their meal times are interrupted, Derrick Booth, Ed.D, executive director of community services at Trillium Place, said. Trillium Place, an affiliate of Carle Health, provides mental health and addiction services in Peoria, East Peoria, Pekin, Lincoln and Eureka.
Inconsistent nutrition has physical and mental health consequences, Cosby said. Because inconsistent eating patterns can mean hunger and overeating, the varying blood sugar levels can mean mood swings.
In addition, some children and youth don’t consistently take their prescription medication during summer, Cosby said. That can lead to symptoms of whatever the meds are treating.
“Kids who may be inclined to get into more trouble, be impulsive and fall into bad behaviors are the ones who need … good supervision by adults that have positive effects in their lives,” Dr. Johnson said. Research indicates that it’s not structure that helps kids but healthy role-modeling by adults.
“The kids who are most at risk in the summer to fall into deviant behavior are most likely to be the ones, on average, who have fewer positive role models to access and have more unsupervised time in the summer,” she said. “Children and adolescents are very impressionable and want to fit in with peers so summer can be a dangerous time for an unsupervised, impulsive youth who wants friends at all cost.”
Summer also can cause anxiety for youth with body image issues, Booth said. Youth anxious about their bodies may stay inside more during summer when their peers are spending more time outside. Social isolation can lead to depression and anxiety, he said.
When people think of the youth dangers, they may think of violence or criminal behavior. “But, usually, it’s suffering in silence,” Booth said.
When children are sedentary, gaining weight can lead to feeling different, losing self-esteem and being bullied.
The best strategy to keep children and youth emotionally healthy during summer is supervision by healthy adults and time with peers who make good behavioral choices, Booth and Dr. Johnson said. “Parents need to seek out the healthiest places that work for their schedule and their child’s schedule,” Dr. Johnson said. This may be a church group, a sport, a camp, free teen nights at a community center, or school or park district activities.
For teens, summer employment, summer camps and time at community centers provide opportunities to explore interests, pursue passions and discover strengths, Booth said.
“Find places where you can engage in positive activities and where you can feel safe, physically and emotionally,” Booth said. “Do things that make you happy. Discover your passions.”
Parents and caregivers should provide guidance and have conversations with their kids when they have more time during summer.
“Ask them ‘What was the best part of your day?’ ‘What caused you worry?’ ‘What caused you joy?’ Parents can be more intentional about getting to know their kids during the summer,” Booth said.
“Playing with your kids, talking with them, reading a book with them – those things can make a big difference,” Cosby said.
“Parents should set healthy boundaries and model those behaviors,” Cosby said. They should limit screen time and prioritize health, nutrition and sleep.
Parents who have concerns about their child’s mental health should discuss those concerns with the child’s primary care doctor or pediatrician, who may make a referral to a therapist or psychiatrist. If the concerns are urgent, call 988, the suicide prevention and crisis lifeline; 911; or go the emergency department.
Parents concerned about their child’s mental health in the Peoria, Pekin, Eureka and Lincoln areas may call Trillium Place at (309) 671-8084 or toll-free at (888) 311-0321.
“If a caregiver is noticing some concerning changes about a child, such as drug use, increased risky behavior, cutting, talking about wanting to be dead, isolating themselves, these are all reasons to be concerned about safety and suicide,” Dr. Johnson said. “Don’t hesitate. Trust your gut when you’re worried about a child.”
An underlying solution to improve youth mental health is to build communities, she said. “With social media and continued emphasis on individualization in our society, we have never been so connected and yet so alone. We need to build communities and we need to build them with and around people who support good mental health.”
“I can say that some kids will have a tough summer and some won’t but the important thing is that there is always hope,” Dr. Johnson said.
For more information on Carle behavioral health, click here.
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Categories: Staying Healthy