3 Ways to Summer-in-Place with Your Teen

How to make the most of the long, hot months ahead.

Posted Jun 20, 2020

When my oldest son was little, we often spent Saturdays at the park riding the miniature steam train. But what he was really obsessed with was the overpriced ride next to the snack bar that simulated a neon green roller coaster, complete with steep drops and hairpin turns. It felt so real to him, even when the ride ended and the door rolled up only to reveal we hadn’t moved from the place where we had started.

The past few months have often reminded me of this ride. The world is spinning out all around us, yet most families I know have experienced the stomach-dropping, white-knuckle journey while seated — or sheltered— in place. And of course, all while adapting to doing school online, working from home, and missing friends and social connections. In the midst of so much change and uncertainty, the end of the school year feels like a welcome break to most parents I know… that is, until they realize they are stuck with their teenagers on a roller coaster to nowhere this summer.

 Jack O'Rourke/Unsplash
Source: Jack O'Rourke/Unsplash

As with almost everything COVID-related, there is loss on many levels. When it comes to the everyday losses felt by teens, I have seen more Zoom graduation clips than I can count and summer camps, internships, jobs, and travel plans are largely canceled. Many parents have tolerated more screen time than usual to help their kids stay connected to friends, but the thought of a screen-centric summer does not go down easy.

Once we move past the losses of "normal" routines, the question I find myself asking over and over again with parents is, “what’s possible?” Here are some ideas to get you started:

Nurture connections. Lately, I find myself saying to clients that we are all guinea pigs, as no one really knows the long-term effects of prolonged social isolation on the human brain. What we do have is a substantial body of animal research that shows how interaction with peers is important for social learning and healthy brain development. While the conditions of social isolation are nowhere near the total deprivation of a laboratory study involving rats, the disconnection from peers is starting to take its toll on many of our teens.

With this in mind, as summer begins, take some time to assess the state of your teen’s connections. Sit down together and have a discussion about what they are missing, what they feel they need, and what they can forego for now. Maybe that means they really want to plan a bike ride or hike with a few friends or coordinate a day at the beach. They may ask for less restricted screen time or for you to stop turning off the wifi at 11 p.m. because that’s when all of their friends are online together.

Listen with an open mind and try to collaborate on a plan. And remember, strengthening connections doesn’t only mean with peers. Listening to your teen without judgment and with genuine curiosity builds your connection too.

Try “one thing.” For parents, part of the relief of summer is a break from keeping tabs on all things school-related, from making sure homework is done to frustration at your teen’s late nights because you know “they really should have started earlier.” But if you just switch gears from reminders about school to reminders about chores, are you really taking a break?

This summer, try dropping the agenda. This means communicating with your teen without asking a question about something task-related or telling them to do something productivity-related. Slow down and engage with them about just one thing — then relax, sit back, and see what happens. Many of our teens are so used to going at full-tilt speed, and as parents, we are too. A slow summer is the perfect opportunity to connect with your teen around issues with low — or no — stakes. For example:

  • “Check it out, I just found my high school yearbook. How could these hairstyles have ever gone out of fashion?!”
  •  “I just read this incredible article, it really made me think. Have you ever heard of [fill in the blank]?”
  • “What’s making you laugh this week [a meme/Youtube video/TikTok, etc]? Will you show me?”

Embrace boredom. There is a certain beauty to boredom that many of us recall from lazy pre-2007 summers (aka before the birth of the smartphone). I can remember the feeling of a humid summer day literally set to the soundtrack of crickets that peppered my own middle and high school years. Exactly what emerged out of those chunks of time is hard to say, but I do know I used at least a good amount of it to wander inward. This kind of internal reflection is often so hard to make time for in our normal, day-to-day lives, but I am proposing it here because research has shown boredom is actually good for our brains, and it could even be extra worthwhile for developing teen brains.

When our brain is in a state of “boredom” it activates what’s called the default mode network (DMN), a core network of brain structures mobilized when the mind is at rest. As opposed to when our attention is focused on a goal-oriented task or external activity, activation of the DMN opens the door to reflecting about the past, envisioning the future, and good old-fashioned daydreaming. It’s as if in the absence of external stimulation, our mind turns inward to look for ways to entertain itself, sparking creativity and imagination along the way.

My grandmother used to say, “there’s no such thing as boredom.” Understanding the role of the DMN today, I think I understand what she meant. So when your teen complains “I’m bored,” try asking them to trust the beauty and wonder of their brain to find a way through if they just give it a chance. When all else fails, spreading out a blanket in the grass and looking up at the clouds never hurts either.