As we approach the holidays, children and young people may have mixed feelings about the holidays. We spoke to Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist Rachel Melville Thomas about why it can be tricky, and how parents can support children and young people:
Why is the end of the school year emotionally difficult?
Melville Thomas says: "We often think that children are excited and happy about the summer holidays, but many children feel “held together” by the school routine and the regular social life, and losing it means an underlying loss or discomfort. Perhaps there is an awareness of this when we call it “breaking up” for summer.
Many children have to say goodbye for now, to close friends, and for teenagers in particular, this can mean they feel rather isolated and lost. For some children, there may be leftover fears from Covid times about being on their own, and unable to be in touch with the school scene.
On the other side, children and teenagers are pushed into closer contact with parents and family carers – which can be a time of renewed bonding – or increased tensions!
For many parents now, the cost of living crisis has put paid-for summer activities out of reach. It’s a hard task, to explain to the family that activity camps or swim parks aren’t on the menu this year.
For children who have already had difficult experiences of loss, and saying goodbye, the end of the school year can be particularly troubling. They may be leaving behind a well loved teacher, or other member of staff that has taken time and interest to support them."
The stress increases when your child is heading for a big change in September, such as from junior to secondary school, or other significant moves.”
How can you prepare children for transitions?
Melville-Thomas suggests that parents ‘tune in' to how your child is feeling right now. The first thing might be just watching and listening and hearing what they're chatting about to their siblings or online to their friends. What's the mood?
It’s helpful to ensure there are plans of some kind for the first few days/week of the holidays. It might seem like a good idea to let everyone ‘crash’ into screens and snacks, but it’s then hard to move on to more lively, interesting activities that you want them to engage in.
When children are a bundle of mixed feelings – they will often cut to the easy answer of “I’m fine” but might display other behaviours which suggest that they are not fine, so it’s important to notice this, as well as what the child says using your ‘gut instinct’ as a parent; if your child doesn’t appear fine, check again and keep a watchful eye on them. Give them space to say both happy and sad feelings.
Talk to your child about their experience of leaving to help them emotionally process this. For example - ask your child what was the best thing about their old class? What was the worst? Who will you miss most as you say goodbye to Year 6? This helps children think it all through and feel understood and supported.
Collaborate - get them to make summer activity plans WITH you – make lists of what they would ideally like to do, where to go etc. Be clear that you have limits of availability and explain the difficulties of budget. Look online for free things to do in the area, print out the lists of fun homemade creative activities and get your children to choose.
What to look out for if my child is struggling?
Younger children often show that they are struggling by changes in their behaviour. Often the first sign of being out of sorts is increased squabbling or behaving badly. It seems to make no sense that your school-free child is MORE of a handful than before. “Why aren’t they happy and grateful?”
More seriously, if you have a child who's having difficulty sleeping, or bedwetting again, or reporting physical symptoms such as headaches and tummy aches, you may want to figure out what's this all about?’ These symptoms may recede as the child settles in September, but they may warrant further discussions with your child’s teacher or GP.
With older children and teenagers, signs that they are struggling emotionally, show up in different ways. You may see things like low mood and irritability. (Teenagers can often be irritable, so it isn’t always obvious that they are depressed.) Another key alarm signal is losing interest in things that they used to do, withdrawing into their room, not being interested in seeing friends. Here again, some careful listening really helps, as well as a gentle suggestion of a GP visit for a check-up.
If you are worried about your child’s mental health, you can discuss this with your GP. The ACP also have a list of child psychotherapists working privately – see our Find a Child Psychotherapist page.