Parenting Q&A: How can I help my kids with the end-of-summer blues?
Dear Kerry, I am writing about the trouble we are having around the end of summer vacation and the beginning of school. I have 3 kids, one in elementary school, and two in middle school. They are all moaning about the end of vacation. They aren’t looking forward to school. It’s hard to encourage them, since I admit that I always hate summer to end too. JG, Ann Arbor
Dear JG, After the 4 people in line ahead of me at the store today exclaimed over the date, I was just thinking that I rarely hear people say in March “Oh my goodness, where has the winter gone - it’s nearly over!” So there’s something special for everyone about the summer. Maybe it’s the long-term memories, laid down in our bodies and minds from childhood, of all the ways summer days are different from the rest of the year.
Lots of issues come together around the end of the summer. It’s a transition, and there aren’t many people who are gung-ho about change. Kids are going from relative freedom to having almost every minute of their days defined by someone else. We won’t be able to go barefoot for much longer. And the peach season will end. Plus there’s a new school year, with all its challenges, just around the corner. Maybe the biggest thing is that none of us has any control over time - it will pass whether we like it or not. Kids really struggle to accept that reality, and I know a lot of grownups who do too.
So maybe some of the moaning and groaning comes from feeling powerless. The bad feelings have a tendency to spread. If fact, there is interesting research that shows that our brains generalize bad feelings, while good ones stay linked to the specific nice experience. So we have to work extra hard to hold on to good feelings and expand them where we can, while it’s equally important to limit bad feelings to the specific issue.
That can give us a lead to some ways to address the end-of-summer blues. Let’s start with that powerless feeling. Since there’s really nothing you or the kids can do to hold back the season, what can you do now, and next week, and the week after that, to feel more in charge of your destiny?
How about making sure that this week you do one or two of the things that you planned for the summer and didn’t get around to? It’s powerfully satisfying to complete something, whether it’s cleaning the shed, visiting your friend in the country, an expedition to a new lake, reading that book sitting on the table, swimming a mile at last. Then your strong feeling will be connected to something nice.
How about a family supper conversation about the things you will miss and the things you won’t miss about this summer? My won’t-miss list would include the extra-big mosquitoes this year and the way the deer ate my hostas. But the will-miss list is likely to be long. Make a point of saying that missing comes from enjoyment and loving - you only miss things you care about, so even missing feelings are connected to something good.
Then maybe you can think together as a family about those precious items that you’ll miss about this summer. Some of them are bound to be necessarily limited to these months. But, if you think hard, you will find that many items on the list can actually be done well into the fall. The outdoor pools may close, but the indoor ones are there to swim in. You won’t be able to go barefoot for long, but you won’t have to put on socks for a while either. With an extra shirt and those socks on, you can even read in the hammock for another two months.
A family I know developed a tradition to deal with just this problem. Every year they planned an “extend-the summer” day for the weekend after school started. Over the years it became a fun summer thing to plan how they would extend it that year. Sometimes they went to Point Pelee to see the birds; others they canoed down the Huron River; once they followed the map to all the houses that were Underground Railroad stops in the region; another they went to the Detroit Institute of Arts on the train. The point was that the end of summer didn’t mean the end of fun and interest and family time together.
Having an extend-the-summer date also means that your kids will have a family activity together to look forward to even while they prepare to engage with a new class, new teachers and different school scene. That can make the prospect of school less daunting and remind them that home and family don’t disappear, just because the summer’s over.
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst, affiliated with the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council, and is a founder of Allen Creek Preschool. You can reach her through