Summer’s Here! Now what?

Alice Cooper’s iconic song “School’s Out” has the tendency to elicit one of a few specific emotions, especially during the months of May and June. For children and teenagers, the song prompts a sense of overwhelming joy and general youthful jubilance. No more school, no more books, no more bedtimes or alarm clocks, and no more homework- who wouldn’t be excited about that? For most parents, on the other hand, that song (along with a strange shift in their child’s behavior right around the end of school) can elicit pure, unadulterated angst. What the heck are you going to do with your kid(s) all summer? Sure, many families will split up the summer with a couple of well-timed vacations to Galveston or some beautiful Texas lake where hopefully the kids will completely wear themselves out and maybe you’ll get a few minutes of peace. But what about those in-between-vacation days when no day camp is scheduled, the overnight camp you signed them up for 3 years ago doesn’t start for another few weeks, and the caffeine your kid had at the end of school party a week ago STILL hasn’t worn off yet? I’ve compiled a list of tips, ideas, and general guidelines to help parents stay at least somewhat focused during these crazy summer months.

First- the general guidelines. Research on brain development has regularly shown that routine matters. For kids, this can apply to nearly every aspect of their lives including having a consistent bedtime, gathering the family for meal times, Saturday morning waffles, or 10 minutes of TV time before bath, book, and bed. Concerning regular bedtimes, researchers at the University of London followed 11,000 children from when they were 3-years old to the age of 7 to measure the effects of bedtimes on cognitive function. The research showed a significant negative impact on test scores in math, reading, and spatial reasoning for those children who had consistently irregular or late bed times. I realize that maintaining a consistent bed time is much easier said than done, but even having lights out at midnight is better than waking up the next morning and realizing your teenager is still on the couch watching the 28th episode of Breaking Bad on Netflix. Let’s be honest- every hour of sleep counts. Speaking of watching TV for hours on end, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children should watch no more than two hours of TV per day after two years of age, and none before that. Can we just take a second to think about that? Studies all over the world have shown that more than 2 hours of television viewing a day is a valid predictor of poor performance in vocabulary, math, and motor skills development later in life. How many hours a day does your child watch TV? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure those Baby Einstein videos are less brain-frying than Sponge Bob but allowing your child to watch it all day long? Probably not the best idea. So what are you supposed to do instead?

Here I’ve gathered some fun– and more importantly, time-consuming– ideas for entertaining the kiddos during the summer months. We can go ahead and assume that you know about (or have already tried) simply turning on the sprinkler in the back yard and letting the kids go wild. Depending on the age of your child, pulling out the sprinkler just may do the trick. However, for older children, fighting off boredom may prove to be more difficult. Here’s where a little work can go a long way. No, I’m not suggesting that you try to get your 15 year old a sales internship that you think will prepare them for their future career (unless they are passionate about it, that is). What I’m suggesting is this: does your teenager love animals? How about volunteering at the local animal shelter? Could your garage benefit from a thorough spring-cleaning? Have your teen set up a garage sale- and promise him or her a portion of the cash! Perhaps your hallway bathroom needs a new paint job or maybe you’ve always wanted a small vegetable garden in the backyard. Planning out and building a vegetable garden can teach the kids about agriculture, healthy eating, and the value of getting your hands dirty. Not to mention the satisfaction of literally experiencing the fruits of your own labor! Stuck inside on a rainy day? A disco party (complete with mom or dad flicking on and off the overhead lights), putting on a play or musical (don’t forget the video camera), or a trip to the IMAX at the planetarium are just a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing. This is a perfect time to create life-long memories with your family- so get outside, have fun, relax, and don’t forget the sunscreen!

If you need some more fun ideas, check out this website of 50 summer activities for the kiddos!   http://kidsactivitiesblog.com/13269/50-summer-bucket-list

The Mind-Body Connection

If you suffer from symptoms such as headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain or weight gain, your initial thought is probably not “I should evaluate my emotional health”. But in fact, our emotions have significant effects on our physical body. Psychological studies prove that our minds and our bodies are intimately connected. Therefore, good mental health can improve physical health and poor emotional health can cause a decline in physical health.

As a family physician, I would estimate that about two-thirds of my office visits are partly due to stress-related symptoms. What’s more, I have noticed that my patients with physical symptoms caused by stress-related issues almost universally have an extremely difficult time accepting that the root cause of the problem is mentally related.

For example, I have had numerous patients experience chest pain that, despite repeated testing, does not have a physical identifiable cause. Even with multiple visits to the emergency room, EKG’s, lab work and other testing, no cause for the chest pain is found. When I ask them about stress, 99% of the time they are anxious, depressed, or going through an extremely difficult time in their life. Yet generally these patients are reluctant to accept that the stress, worry and anxiety in their life are causing their physical symptoms. It often takes multiple visits, numerous tests and a lot time in discussion on how mental health can cause real physical symptoms. This phenomenon is called somatization – an unconscious process through which psychological distress is converted to physical symptoms.

What we don’t hear very often is that stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: 1) heart disease 2) cancer 3) lung disease 4) strokes 5) accidents and 6) Alzheimer’s. This is partly because the body does not distinguish between physical and psychological stress. Research shows that those who repress their emotions suffer more physically. One specific study shows that cancer patients who chronically avoid expressing their feelings die sooner and in greater numbers than those who freely express their emotions. The ways in which emotions are managed is one of the most relevant but least examined issues in medicine today. Despite all the evidence, unfortunately annual physical exams generally do not include an adequate assessment of emotional and mental health.

But, there is good news! You can take control of both your mental and physical wellbeing. The first step is to recognize the warning signs in order to prevent poor emotional and physical health. Symptoms such as memory problems, diarrhea or constipation, frequent colds, loss of sex drive, inability to concentrate and others could be a warning sign of poor emotional health. Once you recognize these symptoms, spend time reflecting on whether your emotional state could be contributing to these symptoms. Then, seek help from a medical professional, either a counselor or your physician. It is important that you express to your healthcare professional all of your symptoms including your emotional state. With ample insight into your overall health, you will assist your healthcare professional in properly diagnosing and treating you.