Five Things Kids Need to Regulate and Recharge

“Are we still on summer break?” my oldest asked me yesterday.

I wanted to respond, “Who knows anymore?” but I held my tongue. Instead, I answered with a cheery, “Yup! Still on summer break!” Then I handed him a popsicle in a somewhat feeble attempt to assert summer-ness into the day.

I empathize with his inability to track the passage of time. For our family, the transition from distance learning to distance summer-ing hasn’t felt particularly clear. Families everywhere are still juggling work, financial strain, childcare, anti-racism work, and a whole lot of uncertainty without a clear understanding of what comes next. To use a well worn metaphor, “this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Child blowing a dandelion seeds into the air.

So what can we do for our kids and ourselves to sustain the work?

First of all, we need to remember that “stress lives in our bodies before it lives in our brains.” This is especially true for young children. In other words, we can’t expect our kids to verbally process their way through this time. Indeed, if you ask a four year old, “How are you doing?” they are likely to say, “Great!!” and then proceed to throw all of their toys against the wall before falling to a sobbing heap. Many teens are equally as unlikely to share their inner lives with us when we ask.

With this in mind as we head into the heart of the summer, here are five ways to regulate and recharge for the road ahead:

Get into nature.

Exploring nature with children helps soothe their bodies and their minds. A growing body of evidence demonstrating that access to nature is good for mood, social-emotional development, motor coordination, and attention. Find ways to get outside every single day. Need concrete ideas? Check out Sheila Williams Ridge’s book “Nature Based Learning for Kids Anytime, Anywhere, on Any Budget.

Play, play, play.

As Mister Rogers reminds us, “Play is the work of early childhood.” Play is how young children process scary experiences, metabolize stress, and make sense of the world. Make room for free play and remember that play isn’t just for little kids. Teenagers need play too – whether it is in creative online worlds or outside.

Build a worry toolkit.

Worrying is one of our human superpowers. Worry causes us to scan our environment for potential threats, anticipate what might go wrong, and consider responses that will minimize harm. Right now, as kids scan, there are plenty of things to pay attention to. While some of our kids might be rolling along just fine, others are consumed with worry. This is a good time to build our kids’ toolkit for handling worry.

Access your understanding.

Parenting young children and teens alike often feels like one step forward, two steps back, (or, depending upon the day, three steps sideways and then lie down). On one hand, this makes sense! Children and teens are not robots. They have the same bad days, inconsistencies, and maddening variability that we grown ups do. Add to this that their brains are under construction and ongoing stress and it’s no surprise that we might experience a lot of volatility right now. Here are four things to remember when things fall apart. 

Parent with a growth mindset.

This is a time for accountability and repair in our families and in our communities. This is not a time for safeguarding perfection or for holding yourself or your kids to unachievable standards. This is a time to get real, work to show up as our best selves, and repair when we fall short. This is a time for growth. What a powerful model for our kids.