Structure and stress


Why you need the simple summer plan

The end of this school year is upon us and the pleasures of summer await. Yet, summer fun is often thwarted with kids’ complaints, power struggles, tantrums, and battles. Such challenges often turn potential pleasure into sources of stress for mom and dad.

Why do things often get worse over the summer?
First, consider the dramatic change in routine and daily structure. As with adults, structure calms and soothes. So when that is completely removed, many children feel an increase in anxiety. Others simply start pushing limits immediately, and this can create a bit of chaos.
Often this is accentuated by mom or dad looking for relief from the structure, routines, and obligations. We seek to have the sense of freedom, spontaneity and the ease to make up the day as we go along. We make day-to-day routines flexible, we make decisions based upon moment-to-moment fluctuations, and we use lots of words to try to manage behavior. Most importantly, we are constantly reacting to what our kids want, bouncing around various requests simultaneously while trying to figure out what is best.
While this may appear to offer less stress, it is actually much more stressful in the long run. Many children struggle with this looseness and their behavior deteriorates under this model.
Child conduct also gets worse during summers because there is more pressure on mom and dad to manage behavior, and often their parenting tools are weak. This translates to more nagging, yelling, prodding, negotiating and arguing. From there, the screaming and threats emerge, and quickly summer has lost its joy.

Understanding the role of structure, stress and behavior
1. Children and teens thrive with structure. In an environment where there’s predictability, they thrive behaviorally, academically and emotionally.
2. Children thrive on predictability. There is comfort and security in knowing when things will happen. When children are involved in chaotic and out-of-control family systems, they often rebel at the initial signs of structure and routine, then quickly adjust and their behavior calms. With this adjustment also comes an emotional calming. Children will often report a sense that life is easier after experiencing a consistent structure and routine.
3. Consistent routines remove decision-making. This is the true source of the magic. Daily decision-making on all routine stuff is removed. Thus there is no wasted energy. In essence, these routine, daily events have been “pre-decided.” A level of automaticity then evolves that eliminates the stress of deciding. The result is reduced anxiety, reduced stress, and greater harmony. The best energy is reserved for decisions on what is truly important. This is a critically important point to remember, as it is the secret behind success. We will use it to build an easeful summer routine.

The simple summer plan
1. Have a written weekly plan
Take the time to map out each week, with careful attention to a reasonable schedule of activity. Start to teach the kids that you will honor the structure of the plan and that few last-minute changes will be acknowledged.
2. Build in daily work, then play
Rather than letting kids lounge in bed until noon and then wandering off to the pool or park, require some effort and maintain a routine. Sleeping in a bit later for the summer is certainly okay but limits are important.
Thus, up at 8am is certainly acceptable. Shut off all electronics the night before and make sure no goodies are available until some work is done.
What work? First, I suggest that you require that they complete some academics daily. Not hours, but something to keep their mind sharp. Studies show many children lose significant academic ground every summer and then have to struggle to get up to speed. Why do that when it’s easy to keep them engaged? How? Require some academic effort every day. Just a bit. Enough to keep their minds attuned to what they have already learned. Second, have them do a couple chores each day. Have these listed on the plan in advance, so there is no discussion when they wake-up. From early on, choose age-appropriate tasks that build in the sense of taking responsibility for their home and space. This is a life muscle you must start building now if you want to see maturity evolve in all areas of their life.
3. Focus on control of goodies—not forcing work
Rather than thinking you have to get out the door by 10 to make a specific schedule, relax a bit. Don’t try to push and force the kids along. This leads to much misery and strife. Instead, focus on control of what they care about—the goodies. This is your leverage point. Most kids are accustomed to having access to all the goodies from the moment they wake up. Bad plan. You just gave away your leverage. So make it clear to everyone: You get no goodies until your morning work is done. Then, we can go and play.
4. Whine and complain they must!
And your job: Ignore every bit of it. Don’t get hooked justifying or arguing your point. The plan you have laid out is simple. The path to getting their goodies is clear. In essence, “Just do your work, and then you get your phone, your friends, your swimming, etc. But you get nothing by complaining to me.”
5. Be relentlessly predictable
Once you have laid out the game plan for the week, don’t vary or get caught in negotiations with the kids. If you head down that path, then the whole thing falls apart. And don’t respond to their initial whining about how unfair this is or how horrible a parent you are. Ignore it and stick to the plan. Work is done; then the goodies. Consider launching this well before the end of school, so your children have advance notice. This will help everyone adjust. Then watch as this structure helps preserve sanity and keeps them actively participating in more responsible actions. And keep in mind that it can be quite useful to incorporate this type of structure on family vacations. Of course, there are fewer chores to do but requiring effort before the rewards will help you maintain control and keep everyone more appreciative of the fun that awaits.
Dr. Randy Cale offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. For more information visit


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