School's out and the summer holidays are here! If you're a parent, this can be a mixed blessing - while it's a wonderful time to spend with your children, it also means increased pressure to keep them entertained all day, every day, as well as possibly adding to the daily balancing act of work and childcare.
As Accredited Counsellor Jan Baker says: "The thought of the school holidays looming can be enough to turn what should be a fun and relaxing family time into a stressful six weeks. While children might look forward to long sunny days, with no homework, and a few late nights, parents can soon feel under pressure to keep their children amused, and spend extra money that they don't have, causing stress to escalate further."
But the summer holidays don't have to be an ordeal. We asked RSCPP therapists for their advice on making the most of summertime with the kids, without letting it take its toll on your mental wellbeing.
"While looking after children can be stressful at the best of times, stress is often compounded by high expectations," says Registered Counsellor Corina Voelklein. "These could be expectations you have of yourself as a parent, or that you feel others - such as your children, partner, or the school - have of you during the summer holidays."
She adds: "You may want to make things fun and educational. You may want to have a special time with your children now that you have taken time off work. And even just trying to complete your regular tasks with your children around may seem impossible."
Corina's advice is to manage your expectations and take the pressure off yourself until September brings a return to normality. "It's about recognising that being with your children 24/7 is bound to be more tiring than your usual routine," she says. "It's to be expected that you get less done and have less energy." Being compassionate towards yourself and your own limitations is a great way of reducing the stress and allowing you to enjoy the time off with your family.
Similarly, Jan says, "many parents feel guilt if they are not constantly providing entertainment for the children, but simple ideas such as going for a walk, to a free museum, or a water fight in the garden can be just as much (or more!) fun as more expensive ideas, which often disappoint and are over quickly."
It's often the quality time with our loved ones that sticks with us the most, so don't feel guilty if you're not jetting off on an exotic holiday or planning a full six week itinerary of day trips.
Registered Counsellor Kate Palmer adds: "If you're working the holidays can be even harder, what with juggling childcare and your children's wants and needs. On top of all that, you may very well actually want to enjoy the time you do have off!"
She adds: "I believe the key to getting all of these sometimes conflicting pressures and pleasures in balance is to work on not expecting too much of yourself. If you try to experience the moment by moment reality of whatever it is you are doing, you set a good example for your children, as well as allowing yourself the best chance of not getting caught up in expectations and guilt."
Getting yourself organised and having a plan in place for each day can be a great way to keep stress levels at a minimum, whether you're working and managing childcare, or off work with the kids. Registered Counsellor Brenda Silverman says: "It's important to try to make it as pleasurable as possible in small ways - maybe plan something nice to do at least once a week, which will give them something to look forward to."
She adds: "Get friends and family to help you out and, in return, you do the same for them. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it and, if you are in a relationship, get your partner to help. Is there any paid holiday due? If family is nearby and willing, ask for help. If they're further away but still willing, perhaps an overnight stay might be helpful."
Another way of minimising stress, she says, is getting your kids involved in the planning and running of your home during the holiday time - perhaps even with the promise of a bit of extra pocket money. "If you can encourage your children to do specific tasks, depending on their age and capability, then washing-up, dishwasher duty, laundry, and other constant jobs can be off your hands for a month or so," she suggests. You could also try switching to online grocery shopping for six weeks, leaving someone else to pack and deliver your weekly order.
Brenda also suggests incorporating relaxing activities into your plans with the children, to help keep your own stress levels down - which could be as simple as getting outside for some exercise. "Fresh air and activities will help with stress and sleep so, if you can, either go to your local swimming pool or leisure facility, or even go for a picnic at a park with a playground. It's good for them and good for you too," she says.
And, while it is important to plan ahead and keep yourself organised, Brenda also recommends letting the small things go. "Will the world really end if you run out of something for a day or two, or you end up eating your evening meal much later than usual?"
As well as keeping the children occupied, don't forget to arrange some 'me time' as a parent, says Registered Psychotherapist Esmee Rotmans. "This could be going for a run early in the morning, booking in for a massage, or an evening out."
She adds: "Don't feel too pressured to do too many things. Some down time is relaxing for everyone and helps alleviate the guilt and pressure to do, and allows you to just be in the moment." The school holidays shouldn't be entirely about the children, and they'll pick up on your stress too if you're not taking good care of yourself.
"Take time to prioritise your own needs during the holidays, and not just the needs of your family," reiterates Chartered Psychologist Alex Fowke. "Your psychological wellbeing is like a bucket, and the summer holidays can act as a huge leak, which drains you of your ability to cope with stressful situations. Schedule time to yourself to do something nourishing, plan it, and put it in the diary," he adds.
Remember too that even children run out of energy eventually and need some time to rest. "A quiet afternoon reading or watching TV is ok too," says Jan. If they're feeling worn out, or anxious about going back to school, they may appreciate a bit of down time just as much as you.