Summer Toolbox: How to Keep Your Teen Safe and Thriving

By David Magee
Teens in summer

Summer break is fast approaching, and children and teens are anticipating weeks of excitement and freedom. Frankly, so are parents. We want our children to have a fun and relaxing vacation, and most of us would also appreciate a break from the constant flurry of activity the school year brings.

Not so fast, says student wellbeing activist David Magee: Children don’t need absolute unstructured freedom just because school is out.

“With plenty of free time on your child’s horizon, it’s crucial to know what they are up to and to guide them on healthy paths,” asserts Magee. “Left to their own devices, they are likely to stay up all night absorbed in social media, eating junk food and certainly not following the routines and habits that feed their wellbeing.”

Magee doesn’t mean to be a spoilsport. It’s just that he is all too aware of the risks and dangers that lurk everywhere these days. Rates of depression and anxiety in young people are at all-time highs. Teens are misusing drugs like Adderall and marijuana, and accidental fentanyl overdoses are soaring. And smartphone and social media addiction damage children’s self-esteem and lead to eating disorders and body image issues.

The good news is that parents can do a lot to lower the risk of their children’s falling prey to these and other tragic outcomes, including helping them develop a toolbox of habits, practices and mindsets that help them maintain their mental health and sidestep risky obstacles like substance misuse.

Here are a few tips to give your student the best odds for having a safe and fun summer that will also help build habits that will set them up for a successful life:

Encourage Them to Get a Summer Job

Not only does a summer job teach your child a work ethic, responsibility and time management, it builds their self-esteem, shapes their identity and can be a source of joy, says Magee. Help them brainstorm workplaces that interest them. For example, a budding horticulturist might enjoy working at a local nursery. A future teacher will learn a lot from being a camp counselor. 

“If your children are too young for a paying job, they can get many of the same benefits from volunteering their time,” says Magee. “Look for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity that allow children and tweens to volunteer, or find a service project to work on together as a family.”

Explain the Risks of Substance Misuse 

The beginning of summer break is a good time to give your children a refresher about the dangers of drugs and alcohol (or to broach the topic for the first time). More children are using drugs such as marijuana, Adderall and Xanax. But marijuana today is 300 to 400 times more potent, and nearly four times more addictive than it used to be, and counterfeit pills are laced with highly addictive and deadly fentanyl, which has contributed to huge numbers of accidental drug overdoses across the nation. 

“Tell your children in no uncertain terms about the dangers of drug misuse,” says Magee, whose own son William died in 2013 of an accidental drug overdose. “They need to know that even recreational drug use can harm or even kill them. These conversations need to happen early and often, so children understand the risks before they are exposed. The ability to say no and avoid putting themselves in those situations is a tool that will serve them for the rest of their lives.”

Help Them Prioritize Sleep 

Sleep deprivation is dangerous for children and teens. It results in behavior that mimics ADHD symptoms and causes rollercoaster emotions and impulses, angry outbursts, and an increased risk for anxiety and depression. Over one-third of all teens get only five to six hours of sleep a night, according to a 2010 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, while the optimal sleep amount for teens is 9.25 hours nightly. The summer is the perfect time to set healthy sleep habits that will last your child a lifetime. Together with your child, choose a bedtime that ensures they get more routine quality sleep. 

“Let your child become part of their own sleep solution,” says Magee. “Instead of preaching and pressuring them to sleep, engage them in conversation about its importance and benefits. You can also help them identify obstacles, including smartphone use and proximity at bedtime or caffeine consumption.” 

Curb Their Phone and/or Social Media Use 

Technology can be a gateway to a child’s weak spots. Many popular apps can lead to unhealthy thoughts, feelings and behaviors in youth. While it’s okay to allow your children to spend some time on their phones or social media (if they want to), do be mindful of how much time they dedicate to surfing their apps. They shouldn’t be using their devices to the point that it prevents them from having face-to-face interactions with their friends and family members. 

“Let your children know that just because social media is there doesn’t mean they have to engage day after day,” says Magee. “Teach them to monitor their emotions and stress levels after being on social media for a long period of time. They can learn to notice if it contributes to procrastination or leads to feelings of guilt, inferiority or nervousness. Any of these signs suggest a change is needed.”

Prioritize Family Time 

Even though summer schedules can have everyone going in different directions, be intentional about connecting as a family several times a week. This is a powerful way to work on the tool of relationship-building. Schedule cookouts, movie or game nights, a weekend at a zoo or an afternoon in an escape room. Carve out time to have real conversations and be sure they aren’t one-sided. 

Asking open-ended questions and really listening to the answers is a great way to engage with children and teens. Examples include:

  • If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do? 
  • Who is the person who has most influenced your worldview? 

You will find their answers illuminating, and, further, it opens their mind and helps them discover insights about themselves that will guide them as they grow and mature. 

Get Them Moving Every Day 

Encourage your child to get up off the couch and head outdoors for some physical activity every day, which increases blood circulation, improves mood by releasing endorphins and helps them stay in shape. They could go for a walk, run or bike ride. Encourage them to play a pick-up basketball or touch football game with friends or siblings. 

Act Now if Your Child Needs Professional Help

If your child is suffering from a mental health disorder like anxiety or depression, an eating disorder, substance misuse or addiction or any other problem that is damaging their quality of life, take action immediately. Therapy helps, and the sooner your child begins working with a professional, the better off they will be. 

“It’s never too early for parents to give children the tools they need for a lifetime of health and joy,” concludes Magee. “Children should adopt healthy habits well before they reach college age when their independence increases drastically. If you’ve got middle or high schoolers at home, right now is the perfect time to lay the groundwork that will serve them both now and throughout life.” 

David Magee is a best-selling author who hosts The Mayo Lab Podcast with David Magee, which helps students and families find lasting wellbeing. A changemaker in student and family mental health and substance misuse, he is also the creator and director of operations of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi. 

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