(CNN) — Our children are struggling with their mental health. And as visits to physicians for anxiety and other issues go up, it’s hard to figure out how to support them. But with schools letting out for the summer, families have the opportunity for a reset. If done right, it can put kids on track for a healthy school year in the fall.
To take advantage of this break from school, I reached out to Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and chief medical officer at Modern Health. She offered several ways that adults can help their children this summer. (We adults might benefit from her suggestions, too.)
CNN: You work with children of all ages, especially middle schoolers and high schoolers. What do you tell them to try during the summer to improve their mental health?
Dr. Neha Chaudhary: I think there are really five things for kids to try going into the summer: developing a somewhat structured summer routine, working on something that gives you a sense of mastery, learning and practicing new coping skills, making time and space to really play and have fun, and investing in your relationships to deepen your connection with others. If parents can teach their kids these skills, they may have a good summer that strengthens them for fall.
Chaudhary: We often take for granted the structure that comes with the school year. Although sometimes it can feel restrictive — especially when you have to wake up really early every day — it does give your brain a sense of stability and consistency that’s really important for your mental health. That doesn’t mean you need to wake up at an hour that makes you dread the sound of the alarm. You can get up later during the summer but think about how you’re going to spend your day and have some sort of a regular routine.
Playing and having fun such as an outing to the pool can be good for children’s brains and their overall health, research shows. – Thomas Barwick/Stone RF/Getty Images
Younger kiddos will need help from their parents to create the routine. But if you’re a teen, this is something you can create for yourself. Maybe you start your mornings moving your body on a walk, then schedule some time to work on a creative project and a couple of hours to catch up with friends. Maybe you make it a point to write in your gratitude journal every morning and then plan to have lunch and dinner together as a family around the same time each day. Maybe you find a summer camp or class that inherently has structure.
Find what works for you and commit to the routine. It will give you a little comfort in the background of your life, and we could all use some of that right now.
CNN: What about this sense of mastery? Why is that important?
Chaudhary: Science shows that a sense of mastery, which is feeling like you have control over your surroundings, can make you feel good about yourself and boost your mood. One way to develop a sense of mastery is to set a goal of your choice and work toward it with intention. It could be picking up a new language, practicing basketball or even getting through your summer reading list. For younger kiddos, it could be learning how to use a new toy.
It’s a great way to exercise your own choice or agency over how you spend your time and what you invest in, and picking up a new skill or activity is a relatively straightforward way to develop it. Set some goals for yourself and make a schedule to follow through. The results may surprise you, and you’ll hopefully feel some control over your life in a way that’s gratifying.
CNN: Talk about coping skills — what do you want kids to learn?
Chaudhary: During the school year, kids are swept up from one assignment to the other or one friend fight or social situation to the next, with activities and deadlines in between. It can be really hard to slow down and say, “OK, I’m dealing with some big feelings now and need to figure out how to get on top of them and reel them back in.”
In the summer, when the normal pace and stress of the school year slows down, it’s a great time to take a step back and think about what tools you’ll need when the stress picks back up. I think it can actually be easier to think through what coping skills you want to learn when you’re not in a moment of stress or feeling overwhelmed.
Ask yourself what are the types of things that set you off, and what do you do in those moments where your emotions feel like they’re spinning out of control? Do you already have healthy ways to cope that you can practice, like deep breathing, finding a distraction, putting on headphones and listening to music, putting your hands in cold water to calm your nervous system or going for a walk to get endorphins going and to quiet your mind? Or do you cope in unhealthy ways, like taking things out on friends and family or doom scrolling on social media or letting yourself go down a rabbit hole of negative thoughts about yourself?
The goal of a coping skill is to do something with intention in that moment where your emotions feel like they might be in control, so you can regain control over your mind and force the big feelings to quiet down. Experiment with a few techniques, find what works for you and try them out when the feelings come up. You may need to try out a few before you find what really helps you calm yourself in the moment.
CNN: Now for our favorite one: Is playing and having fun actually a scientifically proven way to improve our children’s mental health?
Chaudhary: Yes! Research shows that playing and having fun in a relaxed, creative, open-ended and joyful way is actually really, really good for our brains and overall health. Not only is it shown to reduce stress and release feel-good chemicals in your brain — it actually helps you express yourself and build self-confidence. It makes you feel closer to or more bonded with the other people you’re playing with. It even improves your brain’s ability to function.
This is a very scientific recommendation! Kids and teens this summer should absolutely make time for play — and so should their parents and caregivers, for that matter. I try to be playful and have some fun during the workday myself, all in the name of mental health!
CNN: I like the idea of playing together to help us bond. How else can young people deepen their connections?
Chaudhary: A lot of this depends on the individual relationship, but a good starting point is making intentional time to connect with someone, whether it’s a friend, family member or neighbor and then finding an activity to engage in that you both enjoy. Shared experiences can be a fun way to connect, and as you feel comfortable, you may start opening up to one another and being more vulnerable around each other, which also deepens connections between people.
The main idea with this point is that relationships don’t take care of themselves. They’re something we need to invest in, and they’re really great for our health. There’s a lot of research that describes the negative impact on loneliness on our health, so learning how to nurture those relationships at a young age can really help with both short-term and longer-term health. Once school starts again, these connections can get a little harder to make time for, especially while everyone is stressed.
I tell the kids and teens I see: Send the random “checking in” text to a friend. Make that moment to FaceTime your grandparent. Schedule the movie night with your parents. It will pay dividends in the end.
CNN: This is great advice. But what if it’s not enough? What if our kids are still struggling with their mental health?
Chaudhary: My advice here is unwavering: Get help. Reach out for professional support from a doctor or counselor. A lot of people put it off, thinking mental health concerns will get better by themselves, and while once in a while they do, more often than not, young people need help in getting there. Remember, once the school year starts, it just gets so much harder to take care of yourself.
Even if you’re doing relatively well but know that you’re at risk for depression, anxiety or another condition, you may even consider getting your regular checkups during the summer so that you go into the school year already plugged in with someone who can watch to see if you’re doing OK during the year or if you’re off from what’s normal for you. I tend to see most of my patients a little before the school year starts so that we have a baseline to compare things to come fall.
Also, this wasn’t on my official list, but — give yourself some grace and some self-compassion. It’s summer. If you need to unwind before you try all these things, go for it.