Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Therapists say summer break is the perfect time for children to learn skills for their mental health

Stuffed animals create a sense of comfort for children
Stuffed animals create a sense of comfort for children participating in play therapy at the Bridge Healing Center in St. Cloud.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

We’re well into the official start of summer, and teenagers across Minnesota have a break from their jam-packed school schedules. Between homework, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs, many teenagers don’t have time for much else during the school year — which makes summer the perfect time for those things that get sidelined. Like therapy, for example.

A therapist joined the show to explain why summer therapy for teens can be beneficial. Lexi McMullen is a Moorhead-based family therapist at The Village Family Service Center.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: We are well into the official start of summer, and teenagers across Minnesota have a break from their jam-packed school schedules. Between homework, extracurriculars, and part-time jobs, many teens don't have enough time for much else during the school year, which makes summer the perfect time for those things that get sidelined, like therapy, for example.

Here to explain why summer therapy for teens can be beneficial is Lexi McMullen, a Moorhead-based family therapist at the Village Family Service Center in Moorhead. Lexi, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

LEXI MCMULLEN: Thank you. It's very nice to be here.

CATHY WURZER: It may feel like adding therapy sessions into a kid's summer vacation defeats the purpose of the break from the usual grind. Are you seeing more parents and teens ask for help this time of the year?

LEXI MCMULLEN: I do see that. I do see that there's definitely a demand for needing support in the summer. I think just with the pressure of school and academics is reduced, and students are just really able to target their goals and make progress over the summer. They feel empowered to kind of enter the next school year with some more skills.

I think summer, too, also just gives them a chance to focus on themselves. And they can kind of reflect from the school year on what went good or what could have gone better. And then they have that 10 to 12-week time in the summer to just really hone in on what they need for themselves and build resilience and use those skills in the fall.

CATHY WURZER: Do parents initiate this or do kids?

LEXI MCMULLEN: I think it's a little of both, but I definitely-- I work with a lot of school-aged kids and teenagers in the high school. So I see it come from the teens a lot, where they're like, hey, I could really use someone to talk to, or I'm struggling and I just want this space for myself. And then other times, it is the parents as well, whether it's maybe teachers that kind of clue them in, or the parents see them maybe struggling where they reach out for services for their kiddos.

CATHY WURZER: For folks who don't have a young person in their lives at the moment, at the moment-- maybe they've been away from the scene for quite some time, and we hear about how many young people are struggling nowadays-- what are some of the common things that you help kids face?

LEXI MCMULLEN: I would say, just even looking at the caseloads that kids have in school these days, it's changed a lot from generations before. So I think just even the stress management concept that us adults can relate to, but you look at the caseload of academics and extracurricular activities, and a lot of kids have a job. And so they're trying to balance all the-- for one, in their teenage years, forming their self-identity and exploring who they are as a person, and then also balancing friends and family and work and academics.

So I think a lot of times, that's just very overwhelming, especially these days, too. I see a lot of high schoolers taking some accelerated classes, some college courses. So they kind of have this full caseload of having to balance all that. And that's overwhelming.

That can be anxiety producing and take a toll on their self-confidence and their self-esteem if they feel like they're not keeping up with their expectations or their parents' expectations. So I think that's a common one, is just that support for stress management and anxiety, depression, that sort of thing.

CATHY WURZER: And expectations can be kind of skewed by what you see on social media, too, right, and what you think your friends are doing. So I'm hearing that anxiety is a big deal for these young folks.

LEXI MCMULLEN: Absolutely. I think the stats show-- I mean, like, one in three have struggled with the up and down mood, the anxiety or depression. So I think that's one that is a big one. So I think just learning kind of how to manage riding the wave, I like to say. Like, the ocean's not always a storm. There's going to be calm waters.

But how do we kind of get through these rough waters, you know? And sometimes, that is school-related. Otherwise, it's other family and friends and the other stuff that contributes to that. So I think that is a big one, is the anxiety piece.

CATHY WURZER: I mentioned social media. Do you suggest to your clients that they might want to kind of lay off a little bit on the social media during the summer to just kind get themselves, as you say, do some self-care and don't keep comparing yourself to other folks?

LEXI MCMULLEN: Right, I think there's a lot of open conversation on the impact of social media and just kind of even gauging where the client sees. Does it have an impact? Because sometimes there's little awareness on like, oh, yeah, I have this expectation of how many likes do I have on this platform or whatnot? So I think having open conversations about the purpose of social media, yes, to connect and but what it tends to do for many. And sometimes it's the adverse stuff that I think is important to talk about openly.

CATHY WURZER: I think some listeners might think, wow, having young kids go to therapy during the summer just sounds like something that's not in their realm of experience. But I'm wondering, those of us who are of a certain age probably think, gosh, I wish I would have had therapy as a young person. You know? It might help you as you get into your later years. What advice do you have for young folks for the benefits to starting therapy when they are young?

LEXI MCMULLEN: Sure. Well, I would say, again, with the summer, kids and adults, too, just thrive with routine and consistency. So it can be a stressor when we have summer come, and then there's this change or disruption in our schedules. So that's just another kind of benefit of just engaging in therapy in the summer, just to kind of help navigate that and kind of build it as part of our routine.

And I think so therapy alone can just be a structured thing, a structured time that somebody has for themselves to kind of build on what their goals are. And that might be communication, expressing and sharing their feelings, or emotional intelligence of just being able to manage their moods when they have it, especially during the teenage years, which is one of the more difficult times. But I think anyone can benefit that.

And if you don't learn those things at a young age, you're not just going to miraculously know them as an adult. So I think that's where some of the stigma has changed on we all could just benefit from support on our well-being. Just as equally as important as our physical health is, our mental health is key as well to support that. I think research shows those that have a strong mental health are more successful. So it's definitely something, young and older, at no matter what age, is an important thing to support.

CATHY WURZER: Well, Lexi, thank you. Thank you for giving us some background and giving us some hints. And I appreciate the conversation.

LEXI MCMULLEN: Absolutely.

CATHY WURZER: I know you're busy. Thank you.

LEXI MCMULLEN: Thank you so much.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to Lexi McMullen. She's a family therapist based in Moorhead, Minnesota.

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