We’re not talking about the warm-weather sunshine. Here’s how to set the temperature for family emotions through a nontraditional summer.

illustration of thermostat set to coolShare on Pinterest
Illustration by Alyssa Kiefer

We include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Here’s our process.

Since we were kids ourselves, summer has spelled freedom, loose routines, and relaxation. It’s pool parties, barbecues, and beach days. It’s basketball and art camps and road trips to visit cousins and grandparents.

But, this summer, of course, everything is different. Because of the pandemic, you’ve been working from home while watching your kids — i.e., rereading the same email for 20 minutes while trying to braid Barbie’s hair.

Everyone is restless from being cooped up since March. When you do venture out, you worry about your kids’ safety. And if your child’s camp or day care is up and running, you might be getting used to all sorts of new rules and restrictions.

In short, the summer of 2020 feels downright depressing — and frustrating, as you’re trying not to lose it. But while this summer is different, it can still be fun (for you, too!), and you can cultivate strong connections with your family — and thankfully, none of this requires you to become some Insta-perfect parent who shuns screen time. Here’s how.

Currently, your household is a tornado (monsoon!) of emotions: You, along with your kids, are feeling irritable, sad, and deeply disappointed. That wonderful summer you dreamed of or planned for doesn’t exist. On top of that, your kids are bored and confused and miss their friends.

Instead of dismissing these totally understandable feelings (and lost opportunities), name them and help your kids identify their emotions, too, says Bri DeRosa, mom to two boys and a content manager for The Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit initiative at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Psychiatry Academy. And give yourself and your kids extra grace, she says.

In stressful times, tantrums tend to increase, notes Janine Halloran, LMHC, a therapist and author of the bestselling book “Coping Skills for Kids Workbook.” Even though it’s tough, this isn’t the time to be a “thermometer, fluctuating with your children’s moods,” she says. Instead, “be the thermostat and set the tone in your house.”

So, when you start feeling upset, take several deep breaths, or walk around. Tell your kids you need a moment, and put on some calming music, repeat a soothing mantra, or do your favorite yoga pose.

Halloran tells her kids that all their feelings are OK — what’s not OK is hurting themselves, others, or property. Instead, she encourages finding healthy ways to express emotions, such as drawing about them or stomping their feet.

Structure gives kids stability and predictability—precisely what they need when their worlds have turned upside down. While each family’s schedule will look different, use small activities to anchor the day, says Natasha Daniels, LCSW, a child therapist, mom of three, and author of the book “Social Skills Activities for Kids.”

For example, every morning, write out the day’s plan on a whiteboard. In the afternoons, play outside. At night, do a puzzle or play a board game. Or have one family activity each day.

Either way, Daniels stresses the importance of brainstorming activity ideas with your kids to make sure everyone’s preferences are considered (which includes your opinions, too!).

With everyone at home, the laundry and dishes have quadrupled, and there’s never (ever!) enough to eat. Think about what you can delegate to your kids, spouse, or a professional — or drop from your list altogether.

For example, Halloran suggests getting weekly takeout from local restaurants. “Plus, if you go pick it up, you can get a few minutes in the car by yourself!”

Rituals are stabilizing, particularly when life is so shaky. They also give your family something fun to look forward to. Ask your kids about the daily or weekly rituals they’d like to enjoy this summer.

The Family Dinner Project suggests family breakfasts and at-home picnics — which can be special without requiring much time or energy. For instance, start your days with a dance party as everyone makes toast with peanut butter, banana slices, and granola.

At dinnertime, take veggie wraps on the back porch, and play a memory game — closing your eyes and trying to remember the details of your surroundings — or use these conversations starters: If you went back in time 100 or 200 years and could only bring three things, what would you bring? You have a sailboat big enough to sail around the world. Where will you go? (There’s more recipe suggestions and conversation starters in their book, “Eat, Laugh, Talk!“)

While TV is typically seen as a connection killer, watching something together can actually be a great source of together time. Halloran suggests discussing a show as you’re watching or throughout the day.

If you have the energy, DeRosa says, make a meal and play a game that matches the theme of your movie. Here are some great ideas around family history. And if you don’t have the energy, take heart: “Nobody’s kids are going to be ruined for life because they had an ice cream appetizer in front of some Netflix during a pandemic,” adds DeRosa.

According to Halloran, this could be anything from starting a garden to trying out a different meal to building Legos. “You may find a new talent, or decide that it’s something you never want to try again!” Regardless of what you do, this is an opportunity to refresh quality time for everyone.

While your travel plans have likely stalled, it may be possible to safely explore nearby new-to-you activities and places, such as hiking trails and ponds, says Halloran. Also, look for other safe outdoor adventures, like farms with pick-your-own fruits and veggies, she says.

Since regulations and concerns vary widely and change rapidly in current safer-at-home climate, be sure to consider what is feasible and open where you live before setting out.

To bolster your connection with older kids, ask them to pick a book, podcast, or movie to enjoy together — or all of the above, says Halloran. “For example, if your teen is a huge Harry Potter fan, you could read the books, listen to Harry Potter-related podcasts and watch the movies, and talk about similarities, differences, what you enjoyed, which may lead into deeper dives of conversations around different topics related to Harry Potter.”

It never fails — as soon as your laptop comes out, your kids need you. If your kids are older, Daniels suggests putting a color-coded sign on your office door: green means “I’m free”; yellow means “I’m busy but you can come in”; and red is “I’m in a meeting.”

If your kids are younger, have them play independently by using a visual timer to break up the day into blocks, says Halloran. “Start with small sections of time, then [add] 5 minutes to help increase their tolerance for longer stretches…”

It also helps to have special toys and activities that only come out when your laptop does, Halloran adds.

Because kids usually don’t realize they’re listless, shifting to another activity can reduce irritability and difficult behavior, says Daniels. She recommends setting up a craft, going outside, taking a bath, or watching a movie.

This summer, try not to feel the “pressure to turn into the world’s most fun, magical parent who tries to compensate for what your kids are missing out on,” DeRosa says — which will further exhaust your already frayed nerves!

Remember that kids are resilient. And you can use this less-than-stellar summer to teach them that life doesn’t always go smoothly. But you have each other — and TV and Fruit Loops.

And while this might not seem like much, it shows your kids how to ride the tide of ever-changing circumstances and find the good in tough times. And, thankfully, there is a lot of good.


Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, is a freelance writer and associate editor at PsychCentral.com. She’s been writing about mental health, psychology, body image, and self-care for over a decade. She lives in Florida with her husband and their daughter. You can learn more at www.margaritatartakovsky.com.