Attention, parents: How to survive the school holidays without losing your mind

mum with children at the park

As the school holidays stretch out before us, kids will bristle with excitement and joy for all the fun the next six weeks shall bring.

Parents, meanwhile, might be absolutely dreading it.

While children have visions of big days out, endless ice lollies, and hanging out with pals, mums and dads are seeing meltdowns, mess, and mounds of money spent on childcare.

It’s okay if your feelings around the school holidays are based more in trepidation and terror than joy and jubilance. This is a time that piles a lot of pressure on parents – to deliver an amazing time without showing a hint of stress.

So, how can we navigate this tricky period without too many meltdowns (from parents or kids)?

Dr Jane Gilmour, a consultant clinical psychologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital and co-author of How To Have Incredible Conversations With Your Child breaks down her top tips.

Create a routine

‘Being off timetable might feel a relief at first but having no routine at all can be problematic,’ Dr Jane Gilmour tells ‘Kids often feel uncontained and unsettled without predictability. In fact, there is good evidence to show that routine can improve wellbeing for all of us.

‘House rules and rituals are likely to be different during school holidays but they should still be consistent and explicit so that everyone has the same expectations.’

Discuss plans with your children

Before you get stuck into updating the family calendar, take some time to actually talk with your kids about what they fancy getting up to – then build these into the grownup-determined routine.

Jane advises: ‘Sit down together and decide some ideas for your family holiday routine, because that means you will have kids who are much more engaged with the schedule and by contributing, they are learning how to be a community member in your family.

‘You may need to pin-down non-negotiable principles for your day to day routine (like bedtime or curfew) and then discuss options around them.

‘Part of your scheduling might involve putting in some regular activities in the routine. Ask your child to research some ideas for activities and then discuss them together.

‘For older kids, share the budget for activities and ask them to investigate options that sit in their budget or better yet find ones that are free. Depending on their age, they might be able to judge the location and the practicalities of getting there too.

‘All these are valuable life skills, and holidays are a golden opportunity to develop these abilities.

‘Be patient though because learning anything new takes time and do expect mistakes along the way.’

Think about timings

Without the usual timings of school, it’s easy for sleep routines to get messed up and wakeup times to get ever later in the day.

This isn’t great for a number of reasons. For one, getting enough sleep is vital for children’s health and development, but also, a late to bed, late to rise setup can mean the summer holidays disappear in a blurry flash.

Plus, if you let sleep routines veer too far off the norm, the return to school will be so much harder.

‘Teens sometimes become virtually nocturnal during their holidays, and though their body clock is slightly later, don’t let it get too extreme,’ says Jane.

‘Consider listing daily tasks like having had breakfast and doing teeth by a certain time. You may suggest they complete basic tasks before using their phone. This is highly motivating.’

Consider volunteering

Volunteering can be a great way to spend the summer holidays, giving children a sense of purpose.

‘Research shows that we feel rewarded when we do good things for others and that effect is strong for teenagers too,’ says Jane. ‘Ask them to name something they care about and volunteer time or raise money in support of it.

‘They could commit to a regular amount of time per week to include in your holiday routine.

‘There are always ways of weaving your kid’s passions into community contributions but you may have to get creative – for example the Help For Heroes charity uses gaming to raise donations.’

Don’t be afraid of boredom

We know we just explained the importance of routine, but on the flipside, don’t overschedule your children’s days.

‘Don’t schedule every moment of every day,’ Jane notes. ‘Figuring out what to do with free time is a life skill too and it is a good idea to be bored sometimes.

‘This piece of advice might surprise you, but it’s very important to allow (and encourage) your child or teen to feel bored for brief periods.

‘Boredom includes doing an activity that doesn’t excite you when your mind is elsewhere or simply daydreaming.

‘Awake but not really focused (in “default mode”), we can zone out and our brain does extraordinary things: it reflects on the past, visualises the future and considers social perspectives.

‘It is highly unlikely to happen with devices around, so make sure you schedule some guaranteed screen free time during the day and embrace (some) boredom.’

Be prepared for meltdowns

‘Meltdowns can be more common during the holidays,’ says Jane. ‘In the case of teenagers they are certainly more likely because teens feel emotions more acutely than they ever have felt them before. It’s the brain’s way of learning about the environment and the teen brain wants to learn quickly before adulthood starts so their emotions are intense.

‘It’s also worth considering that holiday meltdowns can be due to a change in sleep or diet routines and evidence shows a tired or hungry brain is much more likely to be irritable.’

Ahead, Jane offers some top tips for managing meltdowns:

  • Just stay close – you don’t need to say much but with a trusted adult near,
    it will help them settle more quickly
  • Describe the emotion you see without judgement – naming the emotion can help calm the brain more quickly
  • Listen to what they are saying – this doesn’t mean you agree with what they are saying
  • Paraphrase (repeat back) what your child has said – if they feel heard they won’t need to up the ante emotionally
  • Don’t attempt to discuss or debate the issue in the moment – you won’t be heard when your child is in a highly emotional state
  • Wait until you are both calm before you think it though – what happened, why it happened, the feelings underneath it and what you should do next. It might be hours or days after the meltdown before you are both calm but make sure you do come back to it.

Dr Jane Gilmour is a consultant clinical psychologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital and co-author of How To Have Incredible Conversations With Your Child and The Incredible Teenage Brain.

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