24 ways to 'win at summer'.

24 ways to help you have a joyful and settled summer

The summer holidays will soon be upon us, and while the time off school and work may be something to look forward to, the lack of structure can be very unsettling for children who have had an inconsistent start to life.

For children who are used to going to school, great fear and anxiety can occur when this routine stops. Even for preschoolers, the presence of older children in the home or the pausing of their midweek groups can play havoc with their emotions.

We all know that spending intense periods of time together as a family can bring out the worst in us too, as we get irritable and frustrated at the lack of time on our own - both for parents and children.

With these challenges firmly in mind, here are some ideas for how to help this year's summer be a joyful, settled time for your children and for you.

1. Plan in advance

I don't know about you, but I feel like I do an awful lot of advance planning for my adopted boys! Somehow, there are lots of things that are just easier if I can give them a bit of thought in advance.

So, while you might groan and wonder how you're ever going to find time to plan the holidays in advance, setting aside an hour or two to do so can make a huge difference to everyone's emotional health.

It might help to map out a simple calendar for yourself of what's going on each week, including trips away, family or friends coming to visit, special events already in the diary, and so on. Doing this will highlight any particularly busy weeks of the holidays where you may need to protect some downtime, or any quieter weeks which may need an activity or two.

When I do this I'm often struck by how busy our summer has already become! So my job is to highlight free days and protect them from being invaded by yet more activities, playdates or meet-ups, to make sure my children have enough time on their own, with siblings and with me.

2. Balance activity and rest

Some children enjoy or need a lot of activity - others need more rest. Most children (and adults) like to get out of the house each day for something, but what this 'something' is, and how long it lasts, will vary from person to person.

So plan your free days and weeks with your child's needs in mind. Make sure, as far as is possible, you have enough activities to alleviate boredom, and enough unstructured time to allow rest and settling.

My children are very active, but trips out of the house sometimes end up being fairly inactive, like going to the shops or the library, so we end up spending lots of time in the garden on the trampoline or the swings.

When the weather isn't so forgiving, we'll often make dens or obstacle courses indoors. I know they need to be very physical during the day, and we're all better off when there's been an opportunity to use our muscles!

3. Involve your child in planning

Give your child some control by inviting them to choose one activity they'd like to do during the holidays. It might be an expensive day trip, in which case other ideas might have to be sacrificed, or it might be something quite simple like a picnic in the park.

Plan these activities into your personal calendar to ensure they happen.

4. Keep some structure

Many families find that, even though they're not getting up for school, it is still important to keep a morning routine for their children. Simple things like getting up, getting dressed and having breakfast at around the same time each day helps to give children security that their needs will still be provided for, even though there's no school.

Think about which other routines are important for your child: similar mealtimes and bedtimes, the same chores, the same structures and ways of doing things.

5. Create a daily visual timetable

This helps children to feel in control, especially if they get some choice over activities. When they know that there's a plan, they are less likely to feel fearful, and exhibit the negative behaviour patterns which come from fear.

You can find free printable daily visual cards on the Internet. Use these, or make your own, and display in a prominent position in your home. Much of the routine can stay the same from day to day, but you can slot in various different activities as appropriate. Mealtimes are important to include, so that your child is assured that they will still be fed regularly.

Even though my boys don't often refer to our timetable throughout the day, just having it there, and contributing to making it each day, helps to reassure them that there is a plan.

6. Create a visual timetable for the whole holidays

In addition to the daily visual timetable, consider creating one for the whole summer. I tend to draw or print out a calendar, then stick on some pictures for where we are going or who we are seeing. For older children, you could simply write the words.

Our calendar gets displayed in the same place as our daily timetable, and I try to make the pictures re-usable by covering them with sticky-back plastic - I'm always grateful I did this by the time the next holidays roll round!

7. Plan play dates

When you're making your plan, consider any periods of time when little is going on, and arrange a play date or two.

Think carefully about who to meet with. This is probably not the time to reach out to someone you don't know so well, but could be a great chance to catch up with close friends who understand some of the issues your children face in the holidays, and are likely to give you energy, rather than drain you of it!

8. Utilise camps/activity days/workshops

From the age of 4 or 5, many children can start going to holiday clubs and other holiday classes and workshops, so check out your local guides and online forums to discover what kinds of activities your child might enjoy this summer.

My son has always loved going to football clubs, and my daughter enjoys dance and gymnastics. They have also both enjoyed local church holiday clubs.

As they get older, consider whether your children would enjoy going on camp. If they are hesitant, see if some friends will go too. My son went away for the first time when he was 8. It was a Christian camp, and he went with four friends. We had the peace of knowing he was being given Christian teaching and role models, and he had the excitement of being away and doing lots of new activities.

Utilising this kind of childcare gives you a chance to spend one-to-one time with other children, or catch up with jobs, or just get some respite - and your child will probably love these new experiences too.

9. Take up offers of childcare

Summer is most certainly the time to try and remember who has ever offered to have your child for an afternoon!

Make a list, start asking and start planning a few times - ideally well spread-out - when your child could spend a few hours with a close friend or family member. This can give you important respite, a chance to catch up with jobs, or to invest in your other child/ren. Make sure the friend looking after your child is someone they know and trust: the holidays are a time to build and strengthen attachments, not shake a child's foundations.

10. Be wise with holidays and guests

Summer is the time when many of us go away, especially if our children are in school, and it is often the time when others make plans to come and visit us.

Be aware of how your child reacts to travelling elsewhere, or to others coming to stay. Take notes, and spot patterns, then be prepared to act on them. Don't be afraid to suggest that friends or family stay elsewhere if you know it upsets your child's routine to have others constantly in the house.

Over the last year or so, we've realised that our youngest child exhibits his most challenging behaviour in the few days after we've come home. So I will be planning in some 'come-down' days for after our trips away. I will avoid making plans with others, yet try to schedule in some structured activities at home, including sensory ones, to help settle his emotions.

11. Emphasise the coming home

If you're going away this summer, make sure you talk about coming home too. Children with care experience can become fearful of travel to a different place, especially if they've had several transitions to deal with in their past.

You could leave a teddy waiting in the window, put out an unfinished activity to be completed after the holiday, or talk about plans for when you return home.

12. Arrange fun activities around contact sessions

If you're negotiating contact sessions through the summer, be mindful of how this affects your child. Consider planning a fun or relaxing activity or day-trip the day before or after, to bring some lightness after the session, or to deal with any emotions arising from it.

13. Make a boredom jar

The holidays can get very long. Why not create a boredom jar? Think of different activities your child could try when bored, then put them all in a jar for your child to pick out in moments of boredom.

Include a variety of independent activities and those which require your help. They could include making things, playing certain toys or games, outdoor activities and challenges, practising a sport or musical instrument or other skill, cooking, drawing, list-making or even small jobs.

14. Plan in self-care time for yourself

In order to be who our children need us to be, it is hugely important that we rest and look after ourselves.

When making your plan for the summer, highlight the times when you could enjoy a moment to yourself, with your spouse or with friends. Arrange evening socials with friends, or a morning coffee.

Perhaps you can start to instigate an after lunch quiet time, or screen time, in order to catch your breath.

15. Think carefully about packing

Some children feel understandably anxious around suitcases, so consider how this can be allayed.

Your child will pick up on your stress and anxiety, so plan in enough time to pack for any holidays you're taking. Perhaps think about getting all the equipment ready in one place so that the suitcases can appear as the very last step in the process, or perhaps do it when they're asleep.

16. Plan to get fresh air as much as possible

This might sound obvious, but the weather isn't always very forgiving here in the UK! So make the most of the weather whenever possible, as we know fresh air is hugely beneficial for everyone, not least our children who often need space to explore and be physical.

Children enjoy variety, so make a list of local places you can easily get to: different parks, walks, picnic venues, and other open-air attractions. Pencil them into your own calendar, so that you don't forget, but leave them off the children's timetable until it's a definite plan.

17. Get children involved in routine chores

Summer is a great time to teach a few simple chores that have to be done daily - you could even make a rota system that has the added bonus of not always having to be the one to set the table or load the dishwasher!

Make chores into a responsibility, not a burden. Be consistent about which chores are expected, and which are optional.

In our household, for example, my children are expected to put away their own clothes (from school age), and also to help with clearing up after dinner. Other chores, however, are optional. I may invite them to help me hang up washing or get things out for lunch, but if they're not keen then I won't force the issue.

18. Keep school preparation to a minimum

Spending six weeks preparing for school can be highly disruptive for children who need to know they have stability today. With this in mind, think carefully about how you will involve your child in school prep, and what you will shield them from.

For example, I buy uniform online and well in advance of the summer holidays (it's often cheaper!). I don't tend to take my children for 'school hair cuts' over the summer, and I use sticky labels to name things so that my children don't have to spend hours watching me sew labels in. We go shopping for school shoes towards the end of the holidays, when we're starting to think and talk more together about school.

Try to keep any essential preparation very relaxed, and be aware of whether any mention of school is making your child more anxious, or more reassured.

19. Ask school to make contact

Having advised you to exercise caution with school preparation during the holidays, I do think that a small amount of structured contact from school can be very helpful.

Many families report that having a school or teacher who will get in touch with your child through the holidays really helps to ease the transition to a new year group.

Whether a postcard, letter, phone call or email, this can be a healthy reminder for your child that they will be returning to school and that they will be well cared for there, whilst they remain firmly in holiday mode for the present.

20. Accept the mess and chaos

I'm not saying that you should live in a pig sty for six weeks, or that children shouldn't be encouraged to help tidy up after themselves, but you'll have a much easier ride during school holidays if you can accept that the house is just going to get messier. (And that it might not get straightened out for a while.)

Putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves to keep a perfect home when actually our priority needs to be our children can really cause our emotional well-being to plummet - so don't do it!

At the end of the holidays, when our house looks distinctly cluttered and full of rubbish, I have to work at reminding myself that it's done overtime with the number of people using it during the day. This helps me to appreciate what our home does for us, and not beat myself up about not keeping it immaculate.

21. Take up a family activity

Summer can be a good opportunity for an extended project, such as a new craft, music-making, Lego, or a large jigsaw.

What does your child enjoy? What would they like more time to do? Is there a shared hobby or activity that all of your family enjoys, and which could start creating a family culture or identity?

Think about how you could set this up for them over the summer - not only allowing the space to do it, but the time too. Perhaps it will become part of a daily schedule, for example after breakfast or dinner, or perhaps it will be something for the weekends.

One summer, I decided that we would focus on singing, as it's something each of my children enjoys. They all chose a song, and we took time through the holidays to learn each one and sing them together. Motivation inevitably tailed off towards the end of the holidays, but we had a lot of fun together and ended up learning several new songs more confidently.

22. Monitor sugar intake

The summer is a time for increased consumption of ice creams and other sweet treats. While this is arguably an important rite of passage for children, many children with care experience find it difficult to regulate their emotions, and spikes in blood sugar levels don't help.

I'm not going to suggest you ban sugar from your children's lives this summer: I'm not sure this is even possible (although do get in touch with me if you've found a way!).

But there are a few things we can do to help our children in this regard. Protein slows the release of sugar into the blood, so - where possible - try and offer some protein along with the sugar. Keeping to your regular pattern of meals and snacks will also help to maintain healthy blood sugar levels, especially if additional sweet snacks are given as part of these meals, and not at separate times.

23. Pray

It may sound obvious, but start praying now for a healthy, happy and productive summer for your family. Why not get others praying too? This is something that distant family, godparents and friends will love to do, if they're not near enough to provide practical care.

24. Evaluate your summer

When the holidays are over, evaluate how they went and write some thoughts for next year - you'll be surprised how quickly you forget if you don't.

In particular, what worked really well? What didn't work so well, and how could it be avoided next year? How did your child cope with the holidays as a whole? Where were the pressure points?

I did this last year and it was a really helpful process, giving me ideas for what might help our family survive and thrive more successfully this year. When I come to plan this summer, I will definitely be using these notes.

Lucy Rycroft for Home for Good (LucyRycroft.com)



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