Why Teens with Depression Need Structure During Summer

Unhappy teen hugging kneesMost teens look forward to summer, school is out and the good life begins. Teens with depression, however, face a real challenge during this time of year. Assuming that your teen’s school environment is positive or neutral, summer presents some real pitfalls when it comes to depression:

Isolation- School provides teens with opportunities to remain connected with other people. Relationships allow folks to gain support, provide an object of attention outside oneself, provide opportunities to contribute to the well being of others, practice social skills and check one’s potentially negative view of self against a more realistic barometer. Many times teens with depression have a desire to isolate because it feels safer and easier. The problem with this approach is that it makes the situation worse- spending too much time alone may lead someone with depression to focus on their perceived defects without a reality check. Lastly, school also provides teens the ability to make healthy comparisons- the struggles others have reinforces the fact that we are not the only people with problems- in fact we may be better off than most.

Free Time- A key component to depression is a lack of motivation. External expectations can provide a teen struggling with depression the sort of motivation they may not be able to muster up on their own. Depression feeds off of free time; it reinforces the distorted belief that a teen has no purpose or value because their ability to self motivate and initiate activity is impaired. It also stirs up feelings of guilt, shame, frustration and anger about having accomplished nothing in a given day. School provides teens with a purpose, an agenda and the opportunity to look back on the day with a sense of accomplishment- concrete evidence that their time was used productively.

Lack of Stimulation-One key to keeping depression at bay is stimulation- attention and focus away from feelings and thoughts that reinforce a depressed mood. School provides teens with the ability to remain distracted on productive activities. It gives teens natural opportunities to push away negative thoughts and feelings because there is other work that requires their focus and attention.

Considering all the secondary benefits that school can provide to a teen with depression during the year,  teens and parents should look to carefully plan the summer so that the rug isn’t literally pulled out from underneath. Some natural and inexpensive ways to replicate the benefits school provides a teen include:

Schedule- Create a daily to-do list, even if some of the tasks seem minor. A list can act as a reminder that the teen has a reason to get up and get out. It also provides an opportunity for a teen to look back on the day and feel some sense of accomplishment.

Daily Physical Activity- It fills time, improves mood and is another opportunity to accomplish something.  Joining a local gym is ideal as it also allows for social opportunities and relationships built around common interests.

Employment/Volunteer Work- One effective tool against depression is the act of being useful and helpful to others.  Employment or volunteer work can provide abundant opportunities in this area while providing structure, stimulation and social interactions.

Strengthen existing commitments- If your teen is part of a faith community, for example, they may want to consider increasing their involvement either through activity within the community, structured prayer and reflection or taking advantage of opportunities within the community to learn more about their faith. If time with extended family took a hit during the school year, plan large family events (either celebratory or task oriented) to solidify relationships.

Stay focused on academics- Teens with depression and anxiety can benefit from keeping one foot in their schoolwork. It can make the start of the school year less overwhelming while adding structure and purpose to a portion of the day or week. Consider the possibility of creating a summer study group through the summer to add a social component and incentive.

Leisure- It’s important that time be set aside to blow off steam and that there are concrete activities built into this time. Leisure should be given the same priority as the other items listed above and should be social in nature.

Down time is Important- There is such a thing as too much structure or activity – going to this extreme leads to avoidance and burn out. It’s important that teens have time to unwind and be by themselves as long as it’s one part of many.

A thoughtful well planned summer can assist teens with depression not only avoid the dip that a lack of structure may cause, but actually help them make gains in managing their illness.

© Copyright 2011 by John Migueis, LCSW, therapist in Summit, New Jersey. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Patrice

    Patrice

    July 11th, 2011 at 11:44 PM

    All kids and especially the one’s with depression need some outlet or require being involved in something or the other during their vacations…It let’s them stay occupied and keeps them away from their problems.
    I remember in my teen years,waiting for summer but when it finally arrives there is not a lot to do and it gets boring. But once I started with different activities to help keep me occupied it was a relief.

  • Caroline Y

    Caroline Y

    July 12th, 2011 at 4:36 AM

    Teens of all ages can benefit from this type of scheduling.
    They think that kids need all of this free time but they don’t.
    They do not thrive in this type of freedom. They need structure and regiment.
    I am not saying that it has to be like the military but keeping them active and involved is crucial to success.

  • molly

    molly

    July 12th, 2011 at 2:56 PM

    @caroline:I agree with what you’re saying a hundred percent.children do require to be occupied and not sit with nothing to do in summer.make them do something they like.it’s not necessary that you send them for a course that is related to academics.if your child is interested in sports then let them go for a related course,just keep them occupied.

  • Steven

    Steven

    July 13th, 2011 at 4:40 AM

    We have always tried to find things for the kids to do all summer, not because they are depressed but it makes the transition back to school in the fall so much easier if they have not been allowed to be lumps on a log all summer long.

  • Chase T. Stanton

    Chase T. Stanton

    July 14th, 2011 at 1:32 AM

    I completely and utterly disagree with this article. When I was in school, I looked forward to summer because I wouldn’t have to deal with a bunch of idiotic classmates day after day and I could do things according to my own personal schedule, not everyone else’s.

    I liked being able to do what I wanted, when I wanted, and that I didn’t have to do it with anyone else.

  • Joni A. Mason

    Joni A. Mason

    July 14th, 2011 at 1:46 AM

    Wouldn’t it be better to take all that free time and find out what is making them depressed, why they are depressed, and how to make it so they aren’t depressed? Kids shouldn’t be depressed at that age. It’s the most carefree time of your life. Or it was mine anyway.

  • Edward Kane

    Edward Kane

    July 14th, 2011 at 6:23 PM

    I am going to laugh when it becomes evident that the reason the teens are depressed is because they have absolutely no downtime from anything whatsoever. Give them some space and ask what they want to do instead of treating their summertime like a vacation at a boot camp.

    I bet you all goofed off in the summer when you were kids! For Pete’s sake, let them do the same. You’re only young once.

  • John Migueis

    John Migueis

    July 15th, 2011 at 2:04 PM

    I truly appreciate everyone’s replies. I am not suggesting that every minute of an adolescent’s time be taken up, however depression demands activity. Folks who suffer from depression tend to isolate, in fact the vast majority of teens and adults I work with claim that getting out of bed is in itself a chore. The more one isolates and remains inactive the more the thought distortions typically associated with a depressive disorder kick in. Ask any teen with depression or anxiety and they will tell you that they typically feel worse when they spend the day alone and not doing anything. Typically folks with depression don’t feel like doing anything due to a lack of motivation and feelings of worthlessness, this becomes compounded when they act on these emotions. Most folks with depression will tell you that once they get going the intensity of their depression subsides and they feel better about themselves and how they spent their time. This is the primary reason that most intensive treatment programs are highly structured and involve a great deal of group work.

  • D. Allison

    D. Allison

    July 15th, 2011 at 6:05 PM

    Improving your mood won’t cure depression. You need to resolve the cause itself. Once you have truly taken care of WHY your child is depressed, you can start fixing their mood.

    I don’t understand. Why doesn’t a single bullet point even suggest finding and resolving the problems?

  • John Migueis

    John Migueis

    July 16th, 2011 at 7:04 AM

    Hi D- thanks for your feedback. The article was not intended to cover the treatment of depression in it’s entirety. Obviously therapy (which will uncover events thoughts and behaviors that compound depression) and pharmacological interventions (which seeks to treat the biological aspects) may be necessary. The article simply wanted to provide guidance on social and environmental factors and interventions that folks could use outside of professional services to combat symptoms. I’m really glad the article brought up so much discussion!

  • John Migueis

    John Migueis

    July 16th, 2011 at 7:13 AM

    Sorry, I neglected to state that Depression is in fact a mood disorder. Improving mood is not only a legitimate goal but should be a primary focus. Please keep your questions and comments coming!

  • Steph K.

    Steph K.

    July 17th, 2011 at 4:11 PM

    Kids get depressed over things that are unavoidable too like having to go to school. You can’t do anything about that without either homeschooling them or breaking the law by allowing them to not attend at all. Of course you need to check if there’s a problem like bullying going on.

    They know they have to go because it’s the law but what needs to be stressed to them is how lucky they are to have the right to an education when so many less fortunate children in other countries do not. Education is the key to a successful life.

  • John Migueis

    John Migueis

    July 18th, 2011 at 4:01 PM

    Steph, thank you for your contribution! The issues you present are timely and salient. There is much that can be done with school anxiety. Schools are becoming much more open to accommodating youth with needs in this area. Schools are also becoming more aware of and open to intervening when bullying exists. Parents can be effective advocates for their teens and it may not take the extraordinary amount of bureaucracy and paperwork one would expect. I hope to cover these area more in a future article.

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