Summer vacation. This favorite time of the year for kids is often the most stressful time of the year for parents. Whether your child is off for three full months or attends school year-round, if he is oppositional or defiant, you’ve probably learned to dread school breaks. Here are the top concerns we hear from parents and some tips on how to prevent the summer “break” from turning into a summer “breakdown.”
If your child won’t get up in the morning to attend summer school, this is his issue to correct, not yours. If you take responsibility for his performance, you are making it your problem to solve—and robbing him of the chance to learn from his mistakes.
- My teenager won’t get a summer job. Why do any of us work? Because we’re motivated. We either feel good about the work itself, or we want money or some other kind of emotional payoff. If your teen isn’t motivated to get a job, try not to reinforce that by giving her all the “extras” she wants over the summer. Movies, eating out or anything that your teen may come to you with an outstretched hand for are opportunities to teach the value of earning money. Some kids can’t work; they live in a rural area and don’t have transportation to get to a job, or there truly is nothing available, not even fast food. That’s very different than the attitude of, “Why should I have to get a job?” Your teen may become motivated to find work if he misses the rewards that go along with a job.
- During the summer, there are more opportunities for my child to get into trouble: more parties, more friends wanting to “hang out” who are a bad influence. What should I do? Although kids often want to “run free” during summer, limits such as curfew still apply. Decide ahead of time how many nights per week your child can go out, how many times friends can come over, what is okay and what is “too much” hanging out. Make the limits and expectations clear from the start of summer and stick to them.
The issues of toxic friends and poor choices are tougher for parents. But here’s something to think about. When your child was two years old, you monitored him very closely—probably 24/7. But as our kids grow, the time they are “unsupervised” gradually increases. That’s the natural way of things. Each milestone he achieves—staying home alone, walking to the store, driving, dating—is preparation for adulthood. Think of these years as “practice” for the Big Game of Life. Will your child make mistakes? Certainly, as we all did. Mistakes and poor choices are the pathway to learning.
Once your child reaches a certain age, it’s impossible to choose their friends. They see “bad influences” at school, in the community and all over. Instead of trying to keep your child from associating with someone you perceive as “toxic,” focus instead on teaching values and how to make positive choices. This is a skill your child can use in relationships throughout life. Whenever she encounters a risky situation—as we all do—she will use those skills to decide how she will conduct herself. Most of us have had at least one “friend” who wasn’t “good for us.” The one we always got into trouble with. The first one to suggest we drink or use substances. How did you learn to stay away from that person—or at least make good choices for yourself? Lectures from a parent probably weren’t nearly as effective as learning from experience. So if your child makes a poor choice, try to think of it as an opportunity to learn and grow, preparing for the day you won’t be there to watch over her.
- My child has to attend summer school, but he refuses to get up in the morning. What do I do? If your child has failed a grade, think of summer school as an opportunity rather than a punishment. It’s an opportunity for him to make up credits and to move forward to the next grade. If he’s failed the grade due to not turning in homework, not studying or skipping class, it’s certainly possible he will continue to make similar poor choices when it comes to summer school. But remember: this is your child’s issue to correct, not yours. If you take responsibility for his performance, you are making it your problem to solve—and robbing him of the chance to learn from his mistakes. When you feel like summer school is your responsibility, that’s when you’ll get emotional, desperate to get him up in the morning. As hard as it is, let him take responsibility for his own actions. Call the school just as you would during the normal school year and let them know you’ve provided every opportunity for him to attend, but he is choosing not to do so. If he makes the choice not to get up, he will fail summer school and the natural consequence is he won’t be promoted to the next grade. If this makes him uncomfortable or unhappy enough, he will change his behavior. Repeating a grade won’t be the end of the world—his or yours. Many people have had to do things twice before learning what they need to.
- My child is supposed to attend summer school but we have a vacation planned. What do we do? Many parents find out at the last minute that their child is missing assignments and failing. This can trigger a “fight or flight” type of reaction in parents: Oh no! What are we going to do?! He has summer school and we were going on a family trip for a week in July! Adrenaline—and maybe anger—surges. You know your child better than anyone, and you know what the failing grades are about. Was he truly struggling to turn in assignments or pass tests because he had trouble staying organized or he didn’t understand the assignments? Was he putting effort into the work but just couldn’t pass? If so, you may choose to suspend your vacation plans to support him in the opportunity to pass the grade or allow him to stay home with family or a friend you trust.
But if you know he was messing around, watching TV or playing video games instead of putting effort into his work, you may make a different decision. If he refused to do the class assignments out of defiance or failed due to suspensions for poor behavior, this is his consequence. This is not your consequence—or any other members of the family. You still may decide to go on vacation and leave him home with a friend or family member, someone of whom you approve. A natural consequence of having to attend summer school may be that he misses some fun activities. Or he can go with you and the natural consequence is he may fail summer school. There’s a quote often used in the business world: Poor planning on your part does not make an emergency on mine. This is how the real world operates: daily decisions affect us in the long run and other people (bosses, coworkers, spouses) don’t always jump in to save us.
- My kid is up all night and sleeps all day. I can’t get him to do anything! Many of us fondly remember the days we stayed up watching reruns on television or the Late, Late Show. Kids tend to feel energetic at night and tired in the morning. If your child has a summer job but stays up all night and shows up late to work or misses work, remember; the consequence will be his, not yours. Most parents worry that this pattern of staying up late will make it hard for their child to readjust to a school schedule. It’s definitely appropriate to let your child know a few weeks before school starts, “Okay, we’re going to get back to our routine now.” But if your child is oppositional or defiant, you must choose your battles carefully. Staying up late and sleeping in is not a legal or safety issue. Is it something you can live with?
Choose peace as much as possible
If your child is oppositional or defiant, choose your battles carefully over the summer. Three months is a long time and if you try to change every behavior that’s annoying, it’s going to be even loooonnnger! Whenever an argument starts, ask yourself: Is this my problem or my child’s? Is it a legal or safety issue? Is it worth getting upset over? In a year or two, when I look back at this, will it be a big deal?
Asking yourself these questions can help you to determine if you’re micro-managing your child and stressing yourself out in the process or simply leading and guiding your child, which is a much more effective role to play.
Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.