Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

Questions about anxiety #4: How can I manage anxiety during holidays?

Recently, I asked you to ask me questions about anxiety and promised to answer them on my blog. You’ve asked me lots of great questions, some of which I’ve answered already, and I’ll get to them all but one of them is urgent because it’s about the summer holidays. (Please do keep your questions coming, adding them to the comments beneath this post.)

Jay’s question perhaps isn’t one that the majority will have thought of but it does raise interesting points about the value of routine, which is naturally lost during the holidays.

Jay asked:

“How can we help manage anxiety in the upcoming summer holidays (parents and children)? My little one has suspected autism and has meltdowns which causes the family anxiety, and my eldest is a teen so that is tricky too. Weekends can be tough and am worried for the holidays. Any tips?”

Anxiety and holidays

Holidays are supposed to be for relaxing and they are very valuable for that. They are medicine for body and mind. But when we’re anxious, we don’t necessarily switch off just because we’re told we can. Some people – looking at me – find it harder than others.

Holidays can sometimes fuel our anxiety. Why?

  • We are less busy so our brain bandwidth is less occupied and has more space for worry
  • We know it’s a finite amount of time and each day that passes is one less day of holiday
  • It’s unrelaxing to feel we have to relax but we can’t
  • We might see other people doing exciting or wonderful things and we’re not
  • The things we are anxious about don’t go away just because we’re on holiday – in fact we have more time to focus on them
  • We have to find things to occupy ourselves, rather than having the structure imposed

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THIS?

Routine is key

I mentioned routine, and this is obviously the key, especially for someone with autistic traits. As most people know, one of the traits of autism is not so much a liking for routine as a need. People with these traits are bombarded and often overwhelmed by sensory and other input which occupies so much of their brain bandwidth (attention) that it is very difficult also to manage new activities, demands or ways of doing things. So, routine and structure become really important ways of reducing the sense of overwhelm.

I’ll come to the detail of creating routine in a minute. But first, how does this work for the teenager who doesn’t have autistic traits?

You might think that what a teenager is most likely to relish is no routine at all, the ability to drift through the day with no expectations, acting on impulse and going with the flow. But in practice for most people this is not a happy state of mind, or at least not for long. We might enjoy a day of drifting and relaxing but would soon find that the absence of any structure was unnerving and discomforting.

Biologically, we need routine. Our sleep cycle depends on all the routines leading up to it, from the moment of waking in daylight, through meals and the up and down rhythms of our circadian cycles. If you remove all these cues – the daylight/darkness/waking/sleeping/getting dressed/eating/exercising – you leave a brain in limbo. You also have a brain that is on alert, not sure what’s happening next. These elements might be subliminal – not consciously noticed – but the brain notices.

So, for both these family members – and, I argue, for everyone! – we need some routine. But what kind of routine and how we make it happen will be different.

(Note that this image was created by a 17-year-old girl for herself – for a holiday where she was revising for exams, granted, but still.)

For the younger child / person with autistic-type needs

The routine needs to be:

  • Detailed – as detailed as possible
  • Repetitive – of course, that’s what “routine” implies but this child may need a much more obviously repetitive routine than others
  • Explicit – written down in a chart (or shown with illustrations, as a poster)
  • Personalised – to include whatever the particular needs of that child are
  • Agreed – depending on the age and ability of the child, they need to feel it is theirs, not imposed
  • Achievable – it needs to work not just for the child but for the whole family, including you. So your needs must be within it.

For the teenager (bearing in mind all are different)

The routine needs to be:

  • Lacking in detail – you need the basic structures of a getting up time, meals and a going to bed time, but everything else can be vague, such as “a family trip” or “outside activity” and lots of blank spaces and free afternoons
  • Varied and fluid – with lots of spaces for their own choice and lots of opportunities to change the planned activities
  • Agreed – it needs to be completely negotiated, otherwise it won’t happen
  • Explicit – if it’s not written down somewhere, it won’t happen
  • Rewarded intrinsically – you don’t need extrinsic rewards (such as prizes) but the teenager needs to feel good about the routine; they have to feel there’s a reason, that it’s going to make them feel better. But you could have extrinsic rewards, too – just don’t go over the top. The reward could be a desired trip or more time on gaming, or whatever.
  • Achievable – of course. Don’t set too high a target or set yourself and them up for failure

Wish-lists

Each family member could say what things they’d like to do at some point during the holiday. This is aimed more at the teenager than the younger child, though it might work for them, too. The items on the wish-list can then be inserted into the routine. For example, each afternoon one of the elements of the routine could be an item from the wish-list. Encourage your teenager to select varied things, some physical, some outdoors, some for rainy days, some alone and some with family or friends.

Don’t forget your wish-list! And family members must commit to accommodating at least some of the wishes of others. For example, if your child says they’d like to watch a film with the family, the family need all to agree to that.

Suggestions (and you’ll see that some are less “worthy” than others – that’s intentional!):

  • Trips as a family
  • Meals out / takeaway
  • Making a cake / cooking a meal for the family
  • Learning new things
  • Reading
  • Picnic
  • Seaside / zoo / farm / boating pond / fishing / swimming
  • A morning with mum or dad and just one of the children
  • A pyjama day
  • Long walk
  • Practising something so that when school starts they’re better at it – any physical skill / musical instrument
  • Learning a song or poem by heart
  • Ice cream / pizza with friends
  • Friends to the house
  • BBQ
  • Shopping
  • Ways of earning money
  • Moving furniture round in bedroom
  • Sowing seeds/growing something
  • Playing a game
  • Creating a game
  • Anything they’ve always wanted to try

Achievement – getting it done

Is there something your child or teenager needs to do before the end of the summer? You might have to do some prodding to get this information – and you might even need to ask someone else… But it’s really important to get it done sooner rather than later. this is quite likely to cause some conflict because you are asking them to do something they’d rather not do. You’re being boring, bossy, adult. But they will feel better when it’s done.

Choose your moment to discuss this. The moment is not when they’re busy watching a video or on their phone or otherwise having fun. be very firm. the message is along these lines: “This is something you have to do and you will feel better when it’s done. Let’s break it down into small tasks and see how you can make it easier and better. All I want you to do know is show me your plan for getting this task done. Then we can see what it involves and I’ll be able to stop annoying you about it. What you don’t want is this to be hanging over you all holidays. So, let’s make this easier for everyone.”

Give them praise every time they tackle even a part of it.

But remember: this is their task, not yours. At some point you might need to say, “I don’t want this task to spoil the holiday and cause stress. I know you will feel so much better if you just get it done. But I’m not going to push you any more – it’s totally up to you. I am still here to help you any time you ask but I’m not going to ask about it again. You can do this!”

And then don’t ask about it again!

Something to look forward to

We all need that. you might have something planned, such as a holiday, or you might not. If you haven’t, I think it’s really important that each family member has something they’re looking forward to.

Do talk to them about it. If money is tight, there are still things you can do. And remember that your teenager might prefer to spend time with his friends – that’s completely natural and fine!

Acknowledge fears

It’s highly likely that children and teenagers are feeling anxious in some way about the next school term. It’s very important to acknowledge that these are real anxieties, as well as being normal and natural. I have written here about supporting teenagers approaching a new school year.

The summer holiday should be a time to forget the worries and stresses of school but it’s hard to forget completely. And as the holiday progresses the fears can grow. Your teenager might not express them clearly and may instead be irritable or low.

Talk. Or, rather, listen. Don’t dismiss the fears – hear them and provide robust, supportive responses such as:

  • “You can do this”
  • “If that happens then you/we can do….”
  • “You dealt with that so well before”
  • “You learnt a lot from that experience”
  • “It could be so much better than you fear”
  • “Good things will happen, too!”
  • “Each year you get a bit stronger and wiser”
  • “We are here for you if things go wrong and when things go right”

I hope that has given you some ideas to think about. Good luck and I hope that you find lots of enjoyment and fun in your holiday!


Do check out the Parent Guide to Anxiety which I wrote for the wonderful HappySelf Journal people.

Don’t forget you can pre-order No Worries from any online or physical bookshop or you can order the Gift for a Teenager NOW

 

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.

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