Suffice it to say, school definitely did not look the same this year. It's been a challenging time with profound adjustments for students, teachers and parents, to say the least. While school can often be rife with stress for children and teens, from peer pressure and bullying to the burden of homework and social issues, the pandemic has added another layer – or five – of stress. So, as the summer approaches, it's the perfect opportunity for students to let go and focus on that which we've all struggled with lately – time for play.
"Everyone, especially students, have been coping with a significant amount of stress, with many feeling heightened alarm and some experiencing depression," says Terry Warburton, a certified professional counsellor and parent consultant with Manitoba Blue Cross's Employee Assistance Program. "We know that mental health problems have been increasing due to the pandemic. Children and teens do not need more pressure put on them academically. Rather, they need time for their nervous systems to settle and experience rest.
"Summer break provides a classroom that is at least as important as the school classroom and probably more important. Parents can take a key leading role in helping summer to be one of rest, recalibration, healing and play for their children and for themselves."
Our brains learn best when there is no sense of urgency and we're free to rest, use our imaginations and express our creativity, and that's why a summer free of stress, academics and expectations is essential.
"Play is not a frivolous activity or waste of time. In fact, true play is absolutely necessary for social, emotional, intellectual and physical development. It is in the process of playing that the brain develops a better capacity to learn. It is the best way to prepare for school," says Warburton, who specializes in child development and behaviour.
Play can also help adolescents manage toxic emotions and express pent-up frustration and stress that may be boiling over after a long year.
"Spending time on activities like going for a walk or run, getting creative, or becoming engrossed in an enjoyable activity can all be ways to help settle a child's or teen's nervous system," says Warburton.
Warburton is quick to note that playing video games falls into the entertainment category and is not beneficial in the same way. Play is valuable when it is expressive and it comes from the inside out.
If there are concerns parents want to work on with their kids over the summer months, such as academia, anxiety or social issues, the focus on play is still key. Find fun, creative ways to tackle some of these harder topics, as adding pressure or coercion can only elevate stress levels and decrease the chance of learning while also negatively impacting the relationship.
Summer offers the perfect opportunity for parents, as well as extended family and caregivers, to focus on strengthening their relationship with children. Adolescents thrive when they are in a safe, caring relationship and feel taken care of, and when the adults in their lives demonstrate delight, enjoyment and warmth with them.
"The most important thing that children need is to know their parents 'get' them, love them like crazy and are on their side, no matter what. Summer is a great time to bombard kids with that message," says Warburton. "When children feel this kind of love and connection, that is how their self-esteem grows. Focusing on relationship and play is the best way to help our children with intellectual, emotional, physical and social development."
This time with family can also be a much-needed reprieve from peer relationships that can be taxing and sometimes result in bullying. Creating safe relationships with caring adults can be a positive way to teach children how to socialize in a respectful, considerate and loving manner.
"Summer is never wasted when the focus is on connecting with our kids, strengthening the relationship and providing lots of room for creativity and play. The challenge is for parents to take the time and initiative to do this. One of the challenges can be that their kids are spending so much time with their friends or in front of a screen, which limits family time. Parents might need to get creative to create family time that kids want to be involved in," says Warburton.
Want advice on strengthening the relationship between you and your child or teen? Manitoba Blue Cross's counselling services are available to all Manitobans, regardless of whether or not you have coverage with Manitoba Blue Cross. Find the available support and book an appointment here.
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