It’s here at last—summer vacation! No more pencils, no more books … and no more structure. As much as we all love the freedom and long, warm nights of summer, vacation comes with its own share of stressors. The change in routine can be challenging for everyone in the family. Kids and teens have more time on their hands and don’t know what to do with it—and that leads to increased demands on parents.
How can you keep the kids entertained, separate them from their screens, and make sure they stay safe? Here are some positive ways to get the most out of summer vacation, while strengthening the family bonds.
Unplug as Often as Possible
Remember those Saturday mornings back in the pre-Internet age, when kids would spend hours in front of the TV, watching one cartoon after another? For teens today, summer vacation can become one long, unending Saturday morning, with an endless supply of things to watch. According to recent statistics, 8- to 12-year-olds spend six hours a day in front of screens, teenagers spend nine hours a day and 17 percent of children under age eight use mobile devices on a daily basis.
In his book Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids—and How to Break the Trance, Nicholas Kardaras writes that doctors and researchers consider screen time “digital heroin.” Technology use activates the release of both dopamine and endorphins, which creates an addictive response.
Moreover, increasing screen time is leading to higher levels of obesity among adolescents. In a recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers examined data from 24,800 US high school students. They found that TV viewing was linked to 78 percent higher odds for obesity. Using other devices—such as smartphones, tablets, computers, and video games—was also associated with higher odds for obesity. In addition, five or more hours of screen time was tied to inadequate sleep and increased consumption of sugary beverages.
Read more about teen cell phone addiction.
How can parents fight back? Here are a few strategies for unplugging:
- Employ regular “screen fasts” during which the entire family powers down their devices.
- Make mealtimes a no-tech zone.
- Keep computers in the living room or kitchen so you can monitor how much and what your kids are doing online.
- Set a good example by staying off your own devices as much as possible.
- Establish a daily routine for each child that includes chores around the house or outdoors to get them moving and away from their devices.
- Get outside (you’ll find tips on how to do that as a family below).
- If necessary, use software/apps that will cut off Internet access or gameplay after a certain amount of time.
- Establish clear rules around tech use, and clear consequences when those rules aren’t followed.
Get Outside Together
As well as getting kids off their screens, spending time outdoors is healthy for mind, body, and spirit. Maybe you’ve experienced it yourself: Taking a walk or a swim when you’re feeling irritable or blue can totally transform your mood. That goes for grumpy teens and restless kids as well. There are scientific underpinnings to these positive effects.
The Proven Benefits of Time Outdoors
- Research shows that spending time outside reduces anxiety and depressive thoughts.
- Time in nature has been shown to reduce stress by lowering the stress-associated chemical cortisol.
- Scientists at Stanford found that memory and cognitive function are improved by outdoor activity.
- Physical exercise improves mental health in adolescents.
- One study showed that extended time in nature, away from social media and e-mail, enhanced creativity and problem-solving ability by 50 percent.
- Unplugged time in nature helps regulate mood disturbance and nervous system arousal caused by too much time in front of screens.
- Studies show that nature activities reduce the symptoms of ADHD in children.
Great Ways to Get Outdoors as a Family This Summer
A hike or a visit to the waterpark is always a good choice, but if you’re looking for something a little different, here are a few options:
- Ropes courses: Many ski areas offer ropes courses, rock climbing, and other activities during the summer months.
- Whitewater rafting: Check out tour options on rivers in your region. Or rent canoes or kayaks for the day from a local outdoor recreation store and set sail on your own.
- Outdoor performances: Many parks or venues offer free, outdoor music, theater, or dance performances. Combine the show with a walk and picnic beforehand.
- Nature tours: Browse websites for local chapters of national outdoor clubs, such as the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, as well as regional clubs. Look for fun options that the kids will enjoy, like a wild mushroom foraging hike or a tour of turtle-hatching grounds.
Read about outdoor Adventure Therapy at Newport Academy.
Summer offers an unlimited canvas for creativity. This is a great time to try something new or return to an old hobby that got lost in the shuffle. Additionally, creativity is known to boost mental health.
Making art or music induces a state of flow, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experience of being completely absorbed by an activity. He proposed that regular experiences of flow are the key to happiness, and that they are particularly important for adolescents.
Watch Dallas, a Newport Academy alumni, tell her story of healing and creativity.
Here are a few ideas for creative projects that kids and teens can do on their own or with the whole family:
- Take classes at a local art or dance school.
- Create a vision board using poster board and old magazines; spread out the materials in an area that doesn’t have to be cleaned up at the end of the day so the project isn’t rushed.
- Start music lessons; make summer a trial period and decide at the end of the vacation whether or not to continue.
- Keep a summer journal.
- Write a short story as a family: Each family member writes a paragraph or two, then passes it on to the next person. Pass it on for a few rounds, then read the finished product aloud as a group.
Take More Time to Talk
An ongoing, meaningful connection between kids and parents is one of the most powerful factors in supporting teen mental and physical health.
Research has found that parental involvement—specifically communication in which teens open up with parents about what they’re thinking and feeling—decreases risk-taking behaviors, such as drug use and sexual activity.
Summer offers a chance to reconnect after the busy school year. Moreover, communication is particularly important during the summer, when teens often spend more unstructured time with peers. Parents need to know what their kids are doing, and they may have to impose limits on the amount of time teens spend outside the home.
But having deeper conversations with your teen isn’t always easy. Therefore, here are some suggestions on how to clear the path to open communication with your teen.
What to Say and What Not to Say to Your Teen
To start a conversation:
Don’t ask “So is everything fine?” When you ask your child if everything is fine, you’re giving her the message that you want everything to be fine. She doesn’t want to disappoint you, so she’s more likely to just nod in response and let you believe that everything’s fine, even if it isn’t.
Do ask specific yet open-ended questions like “How was your get-together with so-and-so?” or “What did you think of that [recent event or activity]?” If you give your kids the sense that you’re open to anything they have to say, whether positive or not so positive, they’re more likely to share what’s going on in their lives. But asking questions that are too general, like “How was your day?” often produce one-word answers like “Good” or “Okay” that don’t give you any information about what your child is really feeling.
To explain a limit you’re enforcing:
Don’t say, “Because I said so.” Establishing limits is important, but this classic parental fallback is guaranteed to increase your teenager’s frustration.
Do say, “I understand why you want to do this, and here’s why I don’t think it’s a good idea.” Then list the reasons. It’s critical for adolescents to feel understood and validated. You don’t want to give them the message that their request or complaint isn’t worth addressing. Acknowledge how they feel, while setting appropriate boundaries. But don’t go into too much detail: The prefrontal cortex—the reasonable, responsible part of the brain—is still developing in adolescents, so trying to appeal to their common sense doesn’t usually work.
To pause a difficult conversation:
Don’t say, “This conversation is over.” Shutting down your child is not a helpful way to respond, whether or not their behavior or demands are acceptable.
Do say, “Let’s both take a few minutes to calm down.” If you sense that you’re not getting anywhere, or either you or your teen is too worked up to continue talking, take a timeout. Tell your teen you’re going to pause the conversation and revisit it later.
Set Healthy Goals as a Family
Setting a fun goal to work toward over the summer is a great way to create some structure during vacation time. Furthermore, it can serve as an incentive for the whole family to explore new activities.
Try one or more of these family challenges:
- Get a list of hikes from your local land conservation organization and make it your goal to walk every one of them before the summer ends.
- Set the challenge of visiting one festival, craft fair, or farmers’ market each weekend—it will get you outside and walking, and maybe yield inspiration for family meals, too.
- Have each member of the family plan a day trip, including meals and activities. Schedule them on the calendar throughout the summer to make sure that they really happen.
Om Is Where the Heart Is
Summer is the perfect time to try adding a new family activity to your schedule: yoga and/or meditation. You could start with a short practice at home, using a video (there are many free options online). Or pick a beginner or all-levels class at a nearby yoga studio that welcomes all ages, and make it a family outing.
Can’t picture your teens taking to the mat? Gently insist on it the first few times, and you might find that they are much more willing after they experience the beneficial impact of movement, conscious breath, and relaxation.
Multiple studies on the impact of yoga on adolescents show that regular practice:
- Increases self-esteem
- Creates feelings of physical well-being
- Strengthens coping mechanisms
- Reduces anxiety
- Improves mood
- Enhances the ability to self-regulate emotions.
Consequently, your teen will feel happier and healthier!
The Family That Barbecues Together …
During the school year, finding time to cook healthy meals can be challenging. Plus, when everyone’s on a different schedule for school, sports, and other extracurricular activities, eating together during the week can be nearly impossible. Take advantage of summer to eat lots of fresh, local food, and to have more mealtimes as a family. It’s worth it: An increasing amount of research is proving that eating meals as a family is a smart thing to do.
Studies show that the benefits for kids of eating family dinners on a regular basis include:
- Better grades
- A healthier diet
- Good eating habits later in life
- A decreased risk of smoking, drinking, and drug use
- Lower rates of depression
- A more positive outlook on life.
Make family dinner a priority by planning it a few days in advance, and build in enough time to make sure the preparation process is pleasurable and you don’t sit down at the table feeling stressed and rushed.
Finally, remember that summertime is meant to be enjoyed! Rather than policing the family’s activities, approach each day as an opportunity to bring more fun, curiosity, and connection into your life together.
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