For so many kids, summer really is bliss. There’s the initial joy of school being over that soon gives way to sunshine-filled days, later bedtimes, and generally loosened-up routines.
But as summer slips away, things tend to go south. Kids who just a month or two ago couldn’t believe how lucky they were to spend an afternoon at the beach turn into tired, entitled monsters, freaking out when you ask them to do anything, or yelling about seemingly little stuff.
And depending on when school starts where you live, you’re likely deep into end-of-summer-slash-start-of-school tantrum season, when kids seem to collectively lose their minds.
So why does it happen? And what can you do about it? Here’s what parents need to know about navigating this short (but intense!) stretch of time.
Spending a long time out of their routines eventually catches up to kids, no matter how much fun it is.
Yes, kids love how unstructured and fun summer is. But being out of their routines for several months eventually catches up to them, especially if they’ve spent week after week soaking up lots of sun, staying up late and not necessarily eating all that well.
“We know that kids thrive when there is structure in their routines, and not having that is chaotic,” said Dr. Candice Jones, an American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson and author of “High Five Discipline: Positive Parenting for Happy, Healthy, Well-Behaved Kids”.
Jones, who is a mom herself, certainly doesn’t think that kids and families have to stick to a strict schedule during the summer. But it can help to just remind yourself that your kid isn’t melting down because they’re trying to push your buttons; they’re melting down because the happy chaos of summer may finally be catching up to them.
Day-to-day, make sure you’re doing what you can to prevent tantrums by “managing their environment” and making sure your kids are getting enough food and that they’re relatively well-rested, Jones said. Sometimes on long, hot, end-of-summer days simply making sure a kiddo gets a nap and a few good snacks can do wonders for their overall behavior.
Remember: Transitions are tough, especially this year.
As you navigate the summer/fall back-to-school tantrum season, it’s also helpful to remind yourself that transitions are difficult, especially when many kids are heading back to the classroom full time for the first time in 18 months.
“It’s hard for children and parents to go through,” Jones said.
If your child’s school hasn’t started yet, it can be helpful to reinstate some routines beforehand and practice what it’s like to all get out the door in the morning, she urged. Ideally, about two weeks or so before they head back, you’d start to institute a more regular bedtime and wake time, for example. Block off time for them to read, or for you to read together, so they get a bit of practice learning again if they’ve taken a bit of a break.
Then just try to be gentle and patient with yourself and with them, Jones urged.
Try “active ignoring.”
Tantrums may be developmentally appropriate for younger kids, but that doesn’t necessarily help you stay calm in the moment. So Jones is a big fan of taking a few moments to step away from a toddler who is melting down, provided it’s safe to do so.
“One of the strategies that works is the removal of your attention. Don’t argue with the child. Don’t beg and plead. Just kind of calm yourself down, and remove your attention, and once your child starts to settle ... then you can acknowledge their feelings by saying something like, ‘What’s going on? What’s wrong?’” she said. (Some kids really benefit from someone holding them close while they’re in the middle of a tantrum, Jones added, and you can absolutely still give them that kind of close physical support while not giving into their demands.)
The Child Mind Institute calls this strategy “active ignoring,” and notes that it’s very important to give positive attention as soon as the behavior you’re looking for starts.
Give older kids plenty of opportunities to talk about their feelings.
There’s ample evidence that children of all ages had a tough time emotionally over the past 18-plus months, so now more than ever it’s important for parents to give their children time and space to open up about what they’re experiencing as the summer winds down.
Also, don’t be surprised if older school-age children suddenly seem to be having meltdowns or regressing, which has been happening throughout the pandemic.
With kids who aren’t necessarily big sharers, it can help to back into the conversation a bit by asking how they think their friends are coping with this current moment of transition, for example, or by telling them a bit about how you’re feeling right now. (Here are some other creative ways real parents have found to get a sense of their children’s pandemic-related feelings, which may work for the end-of-summer/back-to-school stretch.)
Don’t forget to get them excited about school as well, Jones said. Let them help you with back-to-school shopping, she suggested. Remind them of friends they’ll see or activities they love that they’ll get to do again.
“Check in, see how they’re doing, and talk to them,” Jones said. “Let them know you’re there for them.”