by Ashley Bennett, Director of Trauma-Informed Care
My kids have been out of school since last week and I am excited about the change in routine for us! Sleeping in, sunshine, lots of free time! Let’s go summer!!
Even typing this makes me laugh, because there have been long seasons of my parenting journey when the thought of a simple weekend home with my children would send me into a panic. A three-day weekend? Nope. All summer home together? Out of the question.
I have had 8 children pass through my doors in foster care, each of them bringing with them a short lifetime full of unpredictability, confusion, and fear. The structure that a school day brings was always a welcome relief to them…and honestly, to me too. Parenting at the level that was required of me during those early seasons of welcoming them into my home was HARD. The respite I got from them being in school all day was a life saver.
The reality is that most of the kids that have been welcomed into my home lacked the ability to play, not because they were unimaginative, but because no one had ever created an environment where they could be free to play which meant that long weekends and summer breaks would find my children unable to self-start on an activity, struggle to keep attention and focus, and then ultimately lead to high sibling conflict and often aggressive and dysregulating behavior. Free time and down time were not good for our family.
I would imagine for many of you reading this, you can relate to the fear that comes with not knowing how you’ll survive a three-day weekend or summer break with a particular kid whose behaviors are confusing or challenging.
When I became a foster mother, I knew that my life would have to look different and that many accommodations would have to be made to ensure that the children in my care not only were safe, but FELT safe. This included structuring our days in a way that helped their brains and bodies stay regulated and begin to heal from the toxic stress of their childhoods.
Summer break is here whether we are ready or not! If you, like I was for so many years, already feel anxious and wonder how you will survive, I pray these tips would help you to take summer on and give your children the gift of a safe and enjoyable summer!
*Stick to a predictable rhythm or routine.In general, our kids do best with a structured routine that lets them know what’s next. So, having a general schedule for your lazy summer days can be helpful in preventing behavioral dysregulations and sibling conflict. Predictable rhythms for your day help children stay on task better, they don’t ask as many anxious questions about what is coming next, they transition between activities better, and behaviors overall improve. This is because a visual daily/weekly calendar provides our children with the ability to see what is coming next and prepare their brains to make transitions. It helps alleviate anxiety because it is predictable. It also gives our children a sense of perceived control over their life. So, before your summer routine officially begins, grab a whiteboard, a chalkboard, a poster board, a magnetic board or whatever materials you already own to create your own family schedule or rhythm.
- Post it where everyone in the family can see it.
- Use photos instead of words if your children are young.
- Empower your children to help you set the schedule up which gives them even more perceived control of their days.
- Be creative but keep it simple. With this tool, less is more!
- Talk about the routine the night before or in the morning so everyone knows what to expect.
*Be proactive and prepare them for big routine changes. For our children, change can be very challenging and summer time brings all kinds of changes to their routines; no more school, vacations, summer camps, family visiting from out of town, lots of fun trips around town. While all of these things seem like positive happy experiences, a child with a trauma history can interpret positive stress as just STRESS. So, before a vacation or extended family visitor, or change to the routine, talk about it regularly. Prep the child for it. Add it to the posted calendar. Involve the child in preparing for the event. These preventative measures can help a child feel safe and in control of their new experience which tells their brain to “relax” and maintain regulation.
*Prepare them if they are heading to a new daycare or summer camp. Many of you work fulltime and you know your kids will be getting plenty of structure at their daycare or summer camp. For some of your kids, they’ll be transitioning to a new summer daycare provider. This change can be hard for our children who don’t know what to expect in this new situation. Help your child understand the change by overcommunicating with them about it beforehand, visiting the new location, introducing him to the people in charge, and maybe even staying to play for a bit with the child at the new location before leaving him alone. These proactive strategies can help your child make that transition much easier.
*Encourage food and water every two hours. Keeping our children’s brains in optimal thinking mode includes making sure that they have regular food and water every two hours. This is especially important for those hot summer days, long adventures, and hours spent in the pool. So, make sure to plan for regular snack breaks when you’re making your summer routine. Simply giving a child a granola bar and a water bottle BEFORE behaviors begin, can often prevent them from happening at all!
*Encourage physical activity & sensory breaks every two hours. Just like our children’s brains need food and water, so our children’s bodies were created to move! It’s not normal for children to sit still for long periods of time. Regularly exercising and moving for at least 20 minutes every couple hours can keep their bodies from dysregulating. But don’t forget that too much exercise can dysregulate them too, so after three hours at the pool, you can expect a meltdown to happen! Prevent it by regularly getting out of the pool for a snack break before heading back in.
*Recognize that free play and downtime can be hard for our kids. One of the things that was most surprising to me as a foster mother was that my children were unable to just pick up a toy or activity and entertain themselves when they had free play time. No one had ever taught them to play. I’ve talked to other foster parents who say the same thing, their children really struggle with managing down time. The way I first dealt with this was to set up a preschool-like setting in my home in which we would move from activity to activity and I would tell my kids what activity they were doing next. I posted it on the schedule and they were able to follow it without complaint. If I didn’t create this routine, behaviors between children would escalate and we’d have more challenges. At the beginning, I would have to model play for them, getting out the container of playdoh, sitting down with them, and then suggesting ways they could build something or engage the activity. After awhile, I could simply set it up and walk away to do something that I needed to do for a short period of time and they would continue to play with it. Overtime, this playing with them and then scaffolding them toward independent play worked wonders and I can report now that after a few seasons of operating this way, my children are now independent and able to successfully entertain themselves (most of the time!). I’ve also reorganized our toys, art supplies, sensory tools into containers over the years that were more visual and stored in one place-which seemed to help my children. Overwhelming play rooms and too many toys can shut our children down and limit their ability to focus, play and stay regulated. Pulling one bin out, engaging it, and then putting it away has been helpful for my children who have ADHD and childhood trauma histories. Another tool I have used was to make a list of the toys & activities we have at our home and posted it on the refrigerator as a visual cue of their play options-this seemed to better help them self select something to do.
*Don’t forget to connect. Your children need you to spend time with them, not just send them off to play. When you set your routine for the summer, make sure to incorporate intentional time together. Shoot hoops for 20 minutes, go for a walk together, play in the pool, or get out a board game. A little bit of connection time throughout the day has a huge impact in preventing behavioral challenges and helping you both enjoy the summer together.
*Make self-care & compassion a priority. Don’t forget about you this summer! Being a foster parent and parenting with a trauma lens can be tiring and leave little room for self-care. Make sure you add you to the summer schedule too!