While your average child may be thrilled by the end of the school year — anticipating lazy days and sleeping in, the prospect of summer break isn’t quite that pleasurable a version for parents. And if you have a child with emotional or developmental issues who is challenging in the best of times, nothing calls on whatever extra powers you might possess more than the long break that lies ahead.

While most kids do better with structure and routine, those with mental health issues are especially dependent on the predictable “safe zone” that school provides. Without it, they’re more prone to increased behaviors. For the parents who care for them, “vacation” can be anything but.

Here are some tips to help keep your child on track so summer can be as rewarding as possible for everyone in the family:

Maintain your schedule. While you may never be able to duplicate the structure school provides, nor is that realistic – it is helpful to mirror the school year’s sleep and wake schedule as much as possible. It can be very tempting to allow your child to stay up late and sleep in – especially on weekends, when you want to do the same, but in the long run, sticking to the same schedule pays off by keeping your child more comfortable, and hence more cooperative. 

Make it visual. Kids who thrive on predictability benefit from posted schedules that outline what will happen throughout the day (i.e. 7 am: wake up, go to the bathroom, get dressed… 8 am breakfast…) Depending on your child’s developmental level simple pictures may also help. Granted, you are the expert and know what works best for you and your family. Find a rhythm that works and just stay consistent.

Make plans. Try to schedule activities, as early as possible, and keep your kids in the loop. This can mean anything from “we are going to visit Grandma and Grandpa for the afternoon” to having a set routine, weather permitting, you’ll go for a walk, the playground, or the pool. Scheduling one “activity” for the day offers kids a center of gravity, in a sense, around which the rest of the day can be structured. 

For children with special needs, it can be tough to arrange playdates. Don’t be afraid to use that google search bar and search for some local meet-up groups. 

Get outside. Home can become a safe cocoon, especially for children with sensory issues who can become overstimulated by extra sights and sounds, as well as those who have trouble with social interactions. But, no child should spend hours in front of their screens – which tends to happen when parents throw their hands in the air due to exhaustion. Physical activity and some good ole vitamin D are good for the soul – not only for the kids, but for the parent as well. 

Maintain — or create — a behavioral system. Children and teens, especially, may act like they want to be in charge, but the truth is they feel safer knowing exactly what is expected of them and the rewards that result from their good/desired behavior. This is never truer than during the seemingly boundless – and boundary-free summer break. I would encourage you to choose two or three of the most desired positive behaviors to nurture with consistent and positive reinforcement, and try to ignore as many of the negative ones as possible. 

For younger kids, a sticker chart or puffballs in a jar can be great visuals – as well as immediate reinforcement — to visually see the reward for the desired behavior. Let them help decide what they want to earn. Maybe 5 stickers or 5 puff balls allow them 5 extra minutes on screens or an extra book during their bedtime routine. Be sure to involve them in the process and be consistent with whatever system you decide. 

Find support and give yourself grace. Parents of kids with developmental, emotional, or behavioral difficulties often feel isolated and lonely. Heck, any parent can feel this way. It can be difficult watching some of the neighborhood children set off for a camp you can’t afford, or that you don’t meet the requirements to attend; not only are those kids cementing friendships that may have already formed during the school year, so are their parents. Don’t feel bad booking a sitter and taking time for yourself – self-care is critical for your mental and emotional health.

If you can’t afford a sitter, close friends with or without kids can also provide good company and support for parents, even if mom or dad is still doing the supervising. It is always nice to have an extra adult or even an older child around to help keep an extra eye on yours. And give yourself grace, you are doing a great job.