As school winds down, many families look forward to beach vacations, summer camps and lazy days. They break out the backyard sprinkler, sunblock and barbecue grill. But parents of children with developmental trauma disorder (DTD), like myself, often dread the long summer days which are anything but relaxing and enjoyable.
Our kids will sabotage fun activities and have behavioral and emotional meltdowns on a regular basis. They’re likely to disrupt anticipated family vacations with rages and extreme behaviors. And it’s a waste of money to enroll our children in summer camps they’ll only get kicked out of.
There’s no use sugar coating it—summer is going to be challenging for our families. But there is hope.
Here are 10 strategies to help you survive summer (and maybe sneak in some relaxation time too):
1. Have realistic expectations.
We often view summer as an opportunity to focus on getting our child’s negative behavior under control. It’s important (for both you and your children) to be realistic, however. Maybe simply getting through the summer is a huge accomplishment. Plan activities your child enjoys and that you feel good about—playing basketball, riding bikes, maybe watching cartoons at times if you need a break. Remember, a daily tug-of-war is not a way forward.
2. Pick your battles.
For summer success, go back to the basics with family rules and chores. Don’t wait for your children to wear you down. Instead, make conscious, up-front decisions you can own. Explain to the kids that chores and rules still need to occur during the summer. Yet, plan them in a way that doesn’t cause extra stress for you or the family. For example, neatly-made beds may make a bedroom look tidy, but is it worth 30 minutes of your day? Is it worth feeling stressed? Is it worth kick-starting adrenaline pumping through your child’s body? Decide what is and is not negotiable for you, within reason.
3. Keep the kids busy.
Help your kids sleep better at night and get into less trouble by keeping them busy. Remember, many kids with DTD are developmentally delayed. Get creative and offer tactile activities like play dough which can be fun for kids of all ages. If your child can handle it, recreational sports, camps and trips to the playground are all great ideas. Look for opportunities in your area. For example, you could sign your older teens up for the free teen summer challenge program through the gym Planet Fitness to help build their self-esteem and get those feel-good endorphins flowing.
4. Plan ahead.
Help your kids transition from the routine of school to home by maintaining regular bedtime and mealtimes. Also, plan regular activities the whole family can look forward to and enjoy together. You don’t have to break the bank either. You could look into free summer bowling programs or outdoor concerts, for example. Go in knowing that using these outings as a reward or consequence isn’t going to work (see Why Sticker Charts (and other traditional parenting techniques) Don’t Work). Instead, view these as opportunities for your kids to get their energy out and have fun as a family.
5. Utilize local services.
If your child is on the severe end of the spectrum for DTD, you may need to access community services over the summer. If they can’t function safely at home, talk to their therapist about options like partial hospitalization or day treatment. Some communities offer local camps and programs for at-risk kids where your child will receive additional supports. If your child has an IEP, they may qualify for summer school through the district as well.
6. Have a crisis plan.
While it’s important to be optimistic, we also must be realistic. Summer is likely to be long and hard with many meltdowns along the way. Take some time to really consider what your child’s triggers are and ways to avoid them before they even begin. Also, plan practical ways to de-escalate situations. Instead of implementing consequences, focus on reintegrating them back into family activities as quickly as possible. Be sure to have a crisis plan for when your child is unsafe, including a way for siblings to remain psychologically and physically safe.
7. Keep up with therapy and medications.
Your child will have different stressors during the summer than during the school year. This is why medications and therapy cannot take a summer break. Many psychological medications cannot be stopped without adverse effects and, if they can, your child likely needs the added support of the medications as they navigate the summer. Also, keep up with your child’s therapy and treatment appointments even if the schedule is irregular.
8. Carve out time for yourself.
It’s important to balance the needs of everyone in the family— including your own. Letting your kids sleep in a bit later than normal during the summer can be one practical way to make time for yourself. If you’re a stay-at-home parent, consider having your spouse take some vacation time so you can get a break from being the primary caregiver. Spend that time out of the house relaxing and enjoying a bit of summer. Perhaps your spouse can work 4-day weeks to provide some support. In some cases, it may be worth considering a spouse taking Family Medical Leave (FMLA) to help care for the child.
9. Plan respite for siblings.
Siblings only have one childhood and deserve to enjoy their summer too. Be intentional in planning ways for them to escape toxic stress and have fun. Enroll them in overnight camps and day programs. Always try to arrange transportation with other families so your troubled child cannot sabotage their sibling’s activities with misbehavior. Consider letting siblings spend extended time away with grandparents or cousins.
10. Simplify, simplify, simplify.
You have limited ability to control your child’s behavior but you can reduce other stressors in your life. Don’t overcommit yourself to activities and find ways to simplify the mundane tasks of life. Hire a teenager to mow your lawn and bring in a maid service to clean the kitchen and bathrooms whenever possible. Have a pizza place on speed dial and buy quick-fix meals. By eliminating stressors from your life, you increase your capacity to handle stress. This is good for everyone in the family.
Your family dynamics are unique. Some of these strategies will work for you and some will not. You’ll probably be more successful with children on the mild-to-moderate end of the spectrum. Be creative and pragmatic. Hopefully these 10 summer survival strategies will spark some optimism for a more manageable and enjoyable break.