Why Teens with Depression Need Structure During Summer

This article was originally published on goodtherapy.org on July, 11 2011

Most 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

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