More Health:

June 22, 2023

Parents can support kids' mental health this summer by developing structured routines, experts say

Limiting social media use, getting outside and building healthy habits can help children feel good while school is out

Kids in the U.S. are having a hard time. In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency over a youth mental health crisis that has led to increased mental health visits, diagnosed mental illnesses and treatments for anxiety and depression. 

As many as 80% of children experiencing mental health issues are not receiving care from a specialized mental health care provider. Some schools districts have provided resources to support mindfulness and stress reduction; in Philadelphia, where students are grappling with the trauma of gun violence, mental health support is especially vital.

With summer officially here, families are planning beach trips, heading to pools and spraygrounds and finding ways to entertain their children. Experts recommend parents and kids also attempt to build a structured summer routine, even if it's not as stringent as what students experience during the school year.

"We often take for granted the structure that comes with the school year," Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, told CNN. "Although sometimes it can feel restrictive — especially when you have to wake up early every day — it does give your brain a sense of stability and consistency that's really important for your mental health." 

A 2022 study found that forming consistent routines with young children helped them prepare for school, improved social and emotional function and solidified relationships between them and their parents. As the transition from preschool into kindergarten sets the tone for formal education, researchers found that maintaining routines for basic activities like sleeping, eating, grooming, playing, reading and parental discipline can enhance positive behaviors and keep kids happy and stable. 

Routines can create structure, give kids a sense of accomplishment, improve moods and help maintain good mental health, especially during breaks from school and work schedules. Experts recommend getting dressed, brushing teeth and having family meals at the same time each day and maintaining a healthy summer sleep schedule.

While kids and teens typically find time to exercise during the school day, whether through outdoor recess or gym classes, the summer can provide more opportunities to spend time indoors lounging and using electronics. Experts recommend kids and teens head outside during the warmer months and find ways to stay active

"Outdoor play helps children grow socially, helping them develop healthy ways of forming friendships, responding to physical interaction, and using their imaginations to entertain each other," said Dr. Katie Lockwood, a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's primary care ward. "It helps them solve problems, build relationships within their peer group and gain a respect for nature." 

Spending time in nature can improve cognition, memory, mood, empathy and cooperation and reduce the risk of psychiatric disorders, according to the American Psychological Association. Strolling through a park, going on a hike, swimming in a pool or playing outdoor sports are all ways to connect with nature and improve mental stability. 

Last month, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory warning that social media is a driver of the youth mental health crisis. He urged policymakers, parents and kids to examine the impacts that social media has on children's mental health. 

"Kids are starting to use social media at younger and younger ages, as their brains still have a significant amount of development left to go through," Dr. Daniel Gray, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente, told ABC30 in California. "Then, unfortunately, especially the sort of preteen, early teenage years and junior high type years, that's when kids are very, very susceptible to things like peer pressure and comparison to others, and are really trying to figure out who they are in their own skin." 

About 95% of children ages 13-17 use some form of social media, the Pew Research Center found last year. Research suggests frequent social media use may be linked to changes in the developing brain, decreased life satisfaction and increased risk of depression and anxiety among kids and teens. 

While limiting screen time and social media use can help improve children's mental health, parents should also educate their kids about social media literacy before they create accounts, block unwanted content on their children's devices and remind them to be careful about revealing personal information online. 

Follow us

Health Videos