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Strategies for Transitioning from the School Year to Summer when Your Child Has Anxiety or OCD

The school year is coming to an end, and many families are excited for fun in the sun and a break from the hustle and bustle of the school year. However, summer can be a source of stress for many parents with the change in childcare and schedules. This transition can be particularly challenging for families of children with anxiety or OCD as there is often less structure and predictability in summer, and this can lead to avoidance. Avoidance tends to make anxiety and OCD grow, so it is important to work on limiting it.


But how? Here are some tips that can help: 


Maintain a routine. Children with anxiety and OCD crave predictability and certainty. The loss of routine during the summer is a large part of what makes this transition difficult. Although your routine will likely be different from the school year (and that’s okay!), maintaining a routine will help you and your child to know what to expect. Some important parts of a routine include meals and sleep. Nothing can ruin plans like a child who is hungry or overtired! Ensure that your child has fairly consistent times for meals and snacks throughout the day, even if these happen while on-the-go. Consider setting a wake up time to prevent sleeping in extra late and/or a bedtime to prevent staying up late, depending on your child’s specific needs. Let your child know when you will be unavailable or busy and when they will be expected to entertain themselves. Please remember that having a routine is not the same as a strict schedule; it is okay for your family to change things up and enjoy spur-of-the-moment activities, even if it’s hard for your child (more on how to handle challenges and discomfort below!). 


Plan opportunities for continued growth and progress. Has your child been working on facing things they used to avoid due to anxiety or OCD this school year? Discuss which goals you and your child would like to prioritize for the summer and how you plan to reach those goals. The way you work toward these goals may look different during the summer as many of the opportunities for this practice have been removed or changed (e.g., school and extracurriculars). At InStride Health, we help families set goals and make plans to practice. For example, for kids and teens with social anxiety, reducing avoidance may look like ensuring that there are regular opportunities for social interaction with same-aged peers (e.g., playdates or activities at the library). For kids and teens with contamination OCD, reducing avoidance may look like creating opportunities to visit certain places where contamination fears come up (e.g., malls, museums, playgrounds, or the beach). 


Anticipate challenges and plan ahead. Take a moment to think ahead about what may trigger your child’s anxiety or OCD and desire to avoid things this summer. For instance, you could anticipate that your child would worry about eating certain foods at camp and that this would increase their desire to avoid camp more generally. Once you have a sense of what to anticipate, you can plan ahead to reduce their avoidance. Planning ahead can be as simple as allowing extra time to get ready or arranging temporary accommodations (or modifications to make the situation easier) that you gradually reduce as your child grows more comfortable. For example, an accommodation the first week of camp might include previewing the menu for snacks and lunch so your child knows what to expect. After the first week, you could reduce this accommodation by previewing only the menu for lunch so your child practices tolerating the uncertainty of not knowing what to expect for snack. The following week, you could reduce the accommodation altogether (i.e., your child attends camp without previewing the menu at all). 


Remember that discomfort is okay. Despite your best efforts, there are going to be tough moments (even the best of plans go awry sometimes), and that’s ok. It’s natural for parents to have the urge to “rescue” their child from uncomfortable emotions, such as fear or boredom. However, allowing your child the opportunity to learn that they can handle discomfort is a valuable lesson for them – and you. When you notice the urge to rescue your child, practice resisting this urge by allowing your child to ride out the emotion on their own. Afterward, take a moment to discuss the situation and reflect on what was learned. For example, you could say, “I know it was tough when you were really bored while I had to work earlier. And you ended up making this cool drawing; you might not have thought to do that if I had found something for you to do.” 


Validate and encourage. When your child is stuck or struggling, try validating their emotions and then encouraging them to take brave steps. To validate, express understanding of your child’s emotions given their experience (e.g., “I get it, you’re worried that you won’t know anyone at soccer camp” or “It makes sense that you’re scared, trying something new can feel scary”). To encourage, remind your child that they have done hard things before and you know they can handle it (e.g., “Remember when you started basketball, you were worried then and you did it even though it was hard. I know you can do this, too”). If needed, help your child break up the task into smaller steps (e.g., “The first step is getting dressed”), or set a more manageable goal that you can gradually build on over time (e.g., “Today, we can go and watch”). By focusing on gradual steps, we can reduce the tendency to completely avoid anxiety-provoking situations.


While the transition may still present challenges, these tips can make it smoother and more manageable for everyone. You’ve got this!!

About The Author:

Hannah Doucette, PhD

Therapist at InStride Health


Hannah DoucetteHannah Doucette is a therapist at InStride Health with a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Northeastern University. She has extensive experience working with children, adolescents, and their families in intensive treatment settings. Hannah has witnessed the tremendous improvements in anxiety and OCD that families can experience in treatment and she is incredibly grateful to be a part of their journey at InStride Health. Outside of work, Hannah loves to spend time with her husband and their two children, and to experiment with cooking new recipes.


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