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Tips for managing kids' mental health during a summer of uncertainty and change

kid on swing
Myles Tan
In a summer like no other, keeping childen's mental health on track may be more of a challenge than usual.

School's out for summer, though that change may seem less significant when your kids have already been home from school for months. With many camps and vacation plans on the scrap heap this year, keeping your kids' mental health – and your own – in check may take some extra work this summer.

For some tips, Michigan Radio's Morning Edition turned to Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan.

To help your kids, take care of yourself

“In March [when school buildings closed], a lot of people had adrenaline. We were in problem-solving mode. I want parents to know it's really normal to be staring at this blank canvas of the summer and thinking, 'I just can't.' We need to understand that parents are feeling physically exhausted, mentally and emotionally depleted,” she says. 

“Take stock of your own emotional state and it'll be much easier to not put too much pressure on yourself to try to plan the perfect summer.”

Explaining what kids can and can't do this summer

When you're talking about things that are safe to do, comparing and contrasting the risks and benefits with specific examples can make things easier for kids to understand.

"Put it in concrete terms to kids. What are the risks of doing this activity? But what are the benefits we'd get out of it? That may make some kids more comfortable with venturing out." -Dr. Jenny Radesky

"That may make some kids more comfortable with venturing out if they've been more anxious about being exposed," she says. 

She also gave an example of how you might weigh the pros and cons for your child.

"'We think that it's pretty low risk to go to your outdoor soccer practice where there's new social distancing measures, but the benefit of that is so huge. You get to see your team. You get to see your coach. You get some activities that don't involve your mom and dad being around you all the time.'"

However, if you have a more impulsive kid who just wants to get out there and jump on the playground equipment and go to the swimming pools, Radesky says you'll also have to take more time to discuss new norms and rules and how they are designed to protect everyone.


Talking about police brutality, protests, and racism 

In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, there's also another serious conversation happening across the country about racism and police brutality.

Radesky says it’s important to take an age-appropriate approach.

"Talk about things that for younger kids are concrete. They may need to talk about examples of unfairness that they've seen in their day-to-day lives and talk about how they handled it," she says. 


"Your teenager might be more open to conversations. It's really worthwhile to sit down and watch some movies together, or have them read some books or comic books that have different sorts of protagonists from different backgrounds."

"[As parents] we're not going to be very good teachers about racial injustice unless we ourselves are willing to open up our own lens and our own way of thinking about this."


Radesky says pushing yourself to learn and grow is also important.   

"As parents, and I'm speaking as a white mom of two white kids, we're not going to be very good teachers about racial injustice unless we ourselves are willing to open up our own lens and our own way of thinking. And opening our minds right now ... will model for our children that we're willing to be more flexible, empathic thinkers, but also it'll make us better teachers."

Signs your child might need more help

"For some of these kids, they're showing more externalizing behavior. They're having more tantrums. They are 'melting down' more often. And so I'm encouraging parents to give their children an outlet for that energy and talk about their feelings in different ways," Radesky says.

"For kids who are internalizing and just getting sad, just getting low motivation, not wanting to do anything,  those are times where talking helps. But also, [it helps to give kids] opportunities to feel successful, to feel like you're contributing to the well-being of your community or your family," she says.

But Radesky says when in doubt, contact your pediatrician or a therapist to get professional advice. 

Editor's note: Excerpted answers have been edited for length. To hear more of the interview, go to the top of this page.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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