Avoiding Dread and Enjoying Summer: A Teen’s Guide to A Mentally Healthy Summer Transition

Carrie Campbell, LCSW-C Therapist Columbia, MD
Carrie Campbell, LCSW-C Therapist Columbia, MD

You can practically taste summer. The seniors have graduated, the weather is warming, and plans and vacations feel so close. As a teen therapist, I’ve seen clients who have a sense of anxiety and dread mixed in with the anticipation. Summer means freedom from school and a lot of other responsibilities and yet sometimes the lack of structure and routine can leave us feeling untethered and even lost. Or maybe you’re feeling the opposite, overwhelmed by how full your summer is with work, SAT prep, sports, and other responsibilities. So how do you mentally prepare to be present and enjoy your summer instead of dreading too much or not enough free time and the ways that can negatively affect your mental health? Let’s start with naming expectations.

Naming Expectations

Disappointment often sets in when our expectations don’t meet our reality. I’m sure many times you are not even aware of the expectations you have until they are unmet. By taking time to actually name what your expectations are, you have more insight into preparing for these expectations and can even brainstorm how to navigate the feelings that come when they are unmet. For example, maybe your expectation is that this summer will be anxiety and stress free, or will give you more financial freedom because you’re working more, or that you’ll be able to spend a lot of time with friends and have fun. You may have many expectations for various parts of your summer, potentially around relationships, work, free time, etc. It can be helpful to start more big picture and then focus on more specific expectations if you feel like there are a lot of them. If you find yourself saying “I don’t have any expectations for the summer,” I’d challenge you to sit with it a little longer. What would disappoint you if it wasn’t true at the end of the summer? What are you looking forward to? Take or write down whatever comes to mind without judgment, simply acknowledging where you are without dismissing or downplaying it.

Reality Testing

Once you’ve named your expectations, it can be helpful to determine how realistic these expectations are. If your expectation is an anxiety and stress free summer, how realistic based on your circumstances and responsibilities is this goal? If it seems generally possible to have a low stress summer, what might get in the way of that? If it seems pretty unlikely, how can you be intentional about planning for some anxiety-free time? Maybe you’re hoping to enjoy more financial freedom with all the work you have scheduled, and yet you realize that there will be little time to spend that money and enjoy because of how packed your schedule is. The point is not to judge yourself if you find that your expectations are unrealistic but rather to manage that expectation by either making it more realistic or intentionally pursuing it.

Navigating the Transition

So now you have a sense of expectations and how you plan to navigate them but transitions are still usually hard. The end of the school year is often packed with activity and stress, so how do you transition to summer well?

  • Strive for a balance between structure and spontaneity. Keeping some general sense of routine or structure can be helpful, even if that structure is loose and flexible. During the school year, we tend to have an established pattern of when we wake up and when we go to sleep because of the demands on our time. Keeping some patterns in your sleep schedule can be helpful for feeling in control and help you to feel your best, even if you go to bed and wake up later than you do during the school year. Besides sleep, consider a routine you can implement regularly. Maybe you go for a walk or run at the same time of day most days or you get up and have breakfast before you go on your phone. Routines can be simple and still be effective and give your mind a sense of stability during a transition. If you’re worried that your summer will be just as regimented as your school year, consider how to make room for fun or what small things you can say no to in order to actually relax. 
  • Make space and bring awareness to what’s coming up for you. In the busyness of life, we can often avoid and ignore emotions just below the surface. We often fear addressing those emotions and so we will keep ourselves distracted with lots of activity or screens or sleep or drugs and alcohol. As the season changes, allow for space in the quiet for time to time without rushing to fill the space. It’s okay and even healthy to acknowledge those feelings underneath. If you experience sadness, disappointment, disillusionment, anxiety, etc when you sit still, just acknowledge that and remind yourself that all feelings are valid and okay. You don’t have to stay and dwell on those feelings but experiencing them and naming them is a healthy practice.
  • Strive for moderation in pace. When we are too overwhelmed or overburdened, we can often go to the opposite extreme when we have downtime and completely shut down. Just about anything in the extreme can be unhealthy, like having too many plans/demands on your time or too few. As you think about what’s important to you this summer, try to manage your social life and your alone time in relation to what is required of you at work or at home. Summer is a time to relax and to not feel anxious over school work for most people, but completely shutting off and not doing anything meaningful with your time can lead to restlessness, boredom, isolation and even depression. If you have a lot on your plate, try to use days off or unscheduled time to engage in activities that are life-giving and make you feel most like yourself. 
  • Consider how you will care for yourself this summer. Think through what makes you feel most like yourself, this is my favorite definition of self-care. Caring for your body, mind, and soul takes some level of intentionality and effort but it should also be enjoyable and fulfilling. How will you eat, move your body, engage with others, etc. that will leave you feeling like your most filled up self? Push against the desire to endlessly “veg out” on your phone or watching Netflix because it seems like it should be restful. Mindless screen time is fine in moderation, but choose it instead of it being your default way you spend any unscheduled time. 

As you follow these steps, it may make sense to consider starting teen therapy this summer. The mental and emotional space you often have during the summer can help you to do really meaningful work beyond just managing whatever crisis occurs in the busyness of life. If you’re interested in pursuing teen therapy, contact us here or by calling (443) 574-4295. 

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