Every child is unique, with individual emotional health needs that may emerge when schedules  change. As kids begin the transition from the academic year to summertime, Kathryn Cullen, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians), says that the loss of structure can be challenging. 

Headshot of Kathryn Cullen, MD

Dr. Cullen, whose research and clinical work primarily focuses on depression and related problems in youth, says that especially following the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health challenges in young patients have risen. This means it is more important than ever for parents and guardians to stay connected with kids and be aware of their evolving mental health needs. 

Signs to Look For

Summertime can be both a wonderful break and also a challenge for youth mental health, says Dr. Cullen. She explains that the extent to which youth are managing an ongoing or emergent mental health issue can also impact their engagement in beneficial summertime activities. In particular she recommends that parents, guardians and other caregivers be on the lookout for concerning signs in children and adolescents:

  • Isolation or withdrawal from social time with family or friends
  • Not doing things they might typically enjoy
  • Crying more often
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Making concerning statements about their lives

Informed by her primary research focus on addressing risk factors for self-injury in young patients, Dr. Cullen stresses how important it is to take note of any of these signs and talk with a doctor about them

Fostering Children’s Mental Health During the Summertime    

For parents and other caretakers, Dr. Cullen explains that it is important to fill the summer with activities for children to keep their minds at work and engaged in the world around them. Kids across age groups have different needs, but each one benefits from the stress relief that comes with a summer break. 

Learning and growth opportunities are essential for healthy child development and well-being. Whether it is a summer camp or an at-home activity, different kinds of structure can keep kids engaged and learning. But again, Dr. Cullen stresses that the best activities for each child  depend on who they are and their individual needs and preferences. 

Dr. Cullen also says it is important to provide social opportunities for kids, and that some kids will need help to build a healthy social network. Social interaction at a young age is important for kids’ development, and the summertime is often a helpful time to build that outside of school. Dr. Cullen explains that keeping kids engaged and interacting with others enriches their mental health, since it helps them develop social skills and ways of managing their emotions. 

“I think it is good to recognize that kids may have a higher amount of needs for mental health,” says Dr. Cullen. “So we should be thinking about that and what kinds of support they need for the upcoming summer.” 

With summer on the doorstep, Dr. Cullen wants parents and guardians to know that if they think their child is struggling with mental health, to talk with them about it and make an appointment with a doctor or mental health professional. You can find several options here