Staving Off the Kids' School Holiday Blues

Kath Heiman — 20 February 2020
Kath shares a few tips on working through your kids' unexpected holiday unhappiness next time they have a few weeks off school.

I don't know about you, but the run up to school holidays can be exhausting. At the end of last year, the sheer volume of pre-Christmas social activities, school recitals, kids’ birthday parties and end-of year work deadlines was extraordinary. And with our nine-year old seemingly on a Christmas Day countdown for the entire calendar year, the crescendo of anticipation on Xmas Eve was nearly unmanageable. Waking up every hour from 11pm onwards, it was a wonder that Santa managed to stuff presents in her Christmas stocking without being caught red-handed.

As adults, we all deal with periods like these in our own ways. If we’re lucky, we can ride the wave, confident that the frenetic pace and unpredictability will pass. But it seems it’s not so easy for kids. And I don’t think I’d fully appreciated this fact until the last summer holidays.

Faced with an irritable, whining and complaining child, I was beginning to wonder whether I’d collected the wrong kid on the final day of school. And it was pretty hard to reconcile. After all, what was there to complain about with the prospect of weeks and weeks of holidays stretching endlessly forward? I’d give my hind-teeth for that sort of freedom.

The answer came from a brief survey of other parents who were all experiencing the same phenomenon. Apparently, “kids’ holiday stress” is common and is caused by factors like fatigue, a break in normal school routine, an inability to be with friends and over-commercialisation. Tick, tick, tick — this all sounded about right.

The question was what to do about it?

Funnily enough, the solution came from the same kid who’d recently been pushing my buttons. “Let’s go camping!” With this, our daughter drew up a columned list and instructed us to write down what we individually wanted to see and do. With plenty of commonality between us, and our littlest crew member’s focus on ‘nature swims’, a destination naturally emerged. One that would combine swimming, fishing, swimming, bushwalking, swimming, chilling and swimming.

And then something magical happened. Within 48 hours of being in the Great Outdoors, the complaining stopped and our daughter’s natural tendency to happily get involved returned. From helping around camp, to standing by a stream with a fly-line in hand, to tramping along nature trails and being the first to spot a deer among the undergrowth, I was camping with the kid I hoped we’d raised. As long as the day began and ended with a dip in a waterhole, she was happy.

After five days, we returned home. But the whining didn’t come home with us. Our daughter’s positive and relaxed attitude remained largely fixed for the duration of the school break. Which left me wondering what it was about the trip that had generated such a positive outcome? Had we inadvertently stumbled upon a cure to a widespread psychological condition affecting children across the country?

On reflection, I reckon there were a few contributing factors:

  • All of us had been involved in planning the destination and we balanced everyone’s needs.
  • We didn’t plan to do too much.
  • We established a daily routine around swimming.
  • The trip had a very short lead-in time so there was no opportunity to generate unrealistic expectations.
  • We did some things as a full family unit while on other occasions one adult separated for a bit of ‘time-out’ — whether exploring or simply chilling.
  • Without technological devices to distract, and home projects to generate busy work, we allowed ourselves to settle back and simply ‘be’. 

And it was good.

I reckon it’s no coincidence that we found our happy place under an awning by a mountain stream. Any number of child psychologists will tell us that reducing kids’ holiday stress involves elements such as sticking to routines, involving kids in decision making, scheduling downtime and getting some exercise. But there’s nothing that requires these things to be done within the confines of the family home. Get outdoors and the good vibes can multiply.

I know I’ve still got a lot to learn about being a parent. By the time I’ve achieved sufficient expertise to fully understand what my daughter needs and what my role requires, she’ll probably have flown the nest. So I’ll rejoice in the little wins.

And I’ll try to remember this latest lesson when my daughter starts whining at the start of the next school holidays. 


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