A Successful Summer

Worried about managing your child’s ADHD over the summer? Learn why power struggles and vacations from medication are not the answer – and planning fun activities is key.

boy with ADHD playing with his dog and a soccer ball in his yard, having a successful summer
boy with ADHD playing with his dog and a soccer ball in his yard, having a successful summer

Children with ADHD thrive on structure, and few things provide more structure than school. So what’s a parent to do after the academic year ends? How can you make your child’s summer fun and productive?

If you plan wisely, there’s no need to worry. Here are the most important things to consider.

Time for a “Medication Vacation”?

Many parents I work with tell me that they want their child to discontinue ADHD medication over the summer. When I ask why, they typically offer the following rationale: Medication helps control my child’s behavior at school, and since school’s out, there’s no need for meds.

That sounds good. But the truth is that school is not the only arena where medication is helpful to kids with ADHD – far from it.

A couple of summers ago, one of my clients, 10-year-old Josh, took a trip with his parents and sister to visit his grandparents’ farm. Josh, who was severely hyperactive and impulsive, had been doing well on medication. But once school let out, Josh’s parents decided to take him off meds (without consulting me). So, during the 10-hour drive, Josh’s old behavior problems quickly resurfaced. “Mom, he’s touching me,” complained his sister. “Dad, he took my book.”

[Free Download: 20 Secrets to a Smarter Summer]

Josh couldn’t stop wiggling, and he insisted on frequent stops to get a snack or simply to get out of the car to play. After the umpteenth stop, Josh’s dad told me later, he was tempted to have everyone else jump in the car and leave Josh behind.

Problems continued at the farm. Yes, he had a blast watching the animals and jumping into haystacks with his cousins. But mealtimes were a trial. No matter how often Josh’s grandparents reminded him to sit quietly, he fidgeted and interrupted whoever was talking.

The kicker came one afternoon, when Josh’s cousin ran breathlessly into the house. “Hurry!” she shouted. “Josh started the tractor, and he’s trying to get it to move.”

Poor Josh wanted to behave. But without his medication, he couldn’t. A vacation that should have been fun for everyone turned into a disappointment.

The moral of this story? If your child’s off-medication behavior makes it hard for him to be around others and participate in certain activities, it’s better that he stay on medication throughout the year.

[Should You Consider an ADHD Medication Vacation?]

Avoid Power Struggles

With school out for the summer, parents are often tempted – and encouraged by their kids – to ease up on the rules about bedtime, television time, and so on. Watch out. As I tell parents, once you start negotiating with your child, you begin a tug-of-war that you will inevitably lose.

Let’s say your child asks if he can stay up past his usual bedtime. That seems like a reasonable request, especially since there’s no school in the morning. “All right,” you say, “you can have another 10 minutes.” But when those 10 minutes have passed, what happens? Your child wants another 10 minutes. Before you know it, it’s an hour past bedtime, and you’ve wasted the evening on a nasty power struggle.

Rules are rules. As the parent, you are in charge. There’s no need to explain yourself or to negotiate. If your child resists doing something you’ve asked her to do, be firm. Say, “I didn’t ask you if you wanted to do that. I said to do it.”

Find effective ways to enforce the rules – such as using a reward system. It can take a while to learn how to do this, and you may need help from a mental-health professional. But it is time well spent.

Don’t Withhold Helpful Information

You probably do a pretty good job of explaining your child to his teachers. But during the summer, kids interact with many “new” people, including camp counselors, relatives, sports coaches, lifeguards, and babysitters.

By telling them what gives your child trouble, you help them head off all sorts of unpleasant incidents.

Two years ago, I helped an anxious 12-year-old get ready to attend sleep-away camp for the first time. Samantha suffered from separation anxiety and panic attacks; she and her parents worried that she would be homesick (even though a couple of her friends would be attending the camp at the same time).

With the permission of Samantha’s mom and dad, I phoned the camp director and explained the situation. She chose for Samantha an especially empathetic counselor, and asked the camp nurse to speak with Samantha and teach her some relaxation techniques. She also arranged for Samantha to talk to the camp director if the nurse was unable to help. As a last resort, Samantha would be allowed to call home to speak with her parents (something campers generally weren’t allowed to do).

Once Samantha was told about these arrangements, she felt reassured, and she had a great time at camp. Knowing that people were ready to help her if she needed it calmed her down.

Does your child feel anxious? Is he aggressive with playmates? Does she resist following rules? Think twice before keeping it a secret!

Choose Appropriate Activities

Summer camp – sleep-away or day camp – can give your child opportunities to hone his social and athletic skills. The key is to find a summer program that offers activities your child can enjoy.

Does poor hand-eye coordination make it hard for your child to play baseball, soccer, or tennis? Find a camp that focuses on swimming, hiking, canoeing, and so on. If your child has trouble relating to peers, and has few friends, he might do best at a camp designed for children with ADHD. If he needs help with academics, you might find a camp that combines fun activities with daily tutoring sessions.

No matter what, make sure that your child has time to relax. Kids can’t be expected to go to school for nine months, and then spend the summer doing more schoolwork. Give them the break they need – and deserve.

[Choose a Summer Program for Your Happy Camper]