Trauma Doesn't Take Summer Vacation

Ned Breslin

Hotly contested basketball games are noisy affairs. Kids running up and down the court, parents cheering for them and their teammates, and parental guidance regularly flowing to referees who are, truth be told, just trying to keep some order. Whistles blow, balls pound the floor and kids yell out plays while coaches roar with delight and dismay at the performance of their teams.

The mom who sat next to me heard none of this. Instead, she stared across the gym and, it appeared, gazed right through the walls into the stormy Colorado day.

It was not that she was uninterested in her son Brian’s playing. She is a great mom who, together with her husband, has been on the front line of his healing from a traumatic series of events that rocked her son and their family. Her loving presence is one of the main reasons her son is healing so dramatically. She and her husband have managed to accomplish all this while holding on to their jobs and continuing to support their son’s sisters, a balancing act that is re-enacted in so many households across the country.

She is worried, in January, about the summer.

Her son has made immense progress at Tennyson Center for Children. He has caught up on his schooling and is an emerging leader who supports other kids as they process their trauma. The advances he has made on his healing journey are profound. We are working to reintegrate him back into public school and envision that happening during his next school year.

Mom is not concerned about Brian’s reintegration into school next year. She is preoccupied by her growing fear of the impending summer vacation, when her son will not be at Tennyson and his progress may be undermined.

She knows that trauma doesn’t take a summer vacation.

Summer learning loss is a widely accepted phenomenon. For example, student achievement scores decline over the summer, particularly in math, but also in reading. Kids lose momentum as the rhythm of school is interrupted in June, July and August. Kids do not completely backslide, but there is a sense that school work completed in the previous academic year needs to be reintroduced and reinforced in September.

Importantly, we see this at Tennyson as kids who make significant emotional progress with their healing often return in the new school year with clear evidence of backsliding. Our data suggests a doubling of behavior-related incidents in the immediate two months following summer vacation (compared to the end of the previous school year), as emotional triggers that had receded are closer to the surface. Behavioral outbursts that had been better addressed at the end of the year re-emerge as school restarts. Kids clearly struggle over the summer, and parents like Brian’s mom can sense this possibility.

On top of that, Brian’s pause in therapeutic schooling means that the family has to re-imagine everything that seems to be working now. Brian’s mom knows her boss is not thrilled with the idea of her working from home on a regular basis, and Brian’s dad travels quite a bit. Brian’s siblings are younger than he is. None are ready to play a lead role with both parents out of the home. Brian enrolled in a day camp over the winter break, but he was simply not ready for this leap. Brian’s parents pulled him out of camp quickly, and Brian’s mom got a glimpse of what her summer would look like, as she had to take valuable and already limited PTO to stay at home with him through Christmas.

I have heard this story from many parents who all share similar concerns over summer vacation and consistently wear that subtle deer-in-the-headlights look that we see so often at Tennyson. Great parents in a difficult bind, with therapeutic camps out of their financial or logistical reach.

Tennyson stands in the gap with families on this issue, as we have done in other areas of a fragmented child welfare system filled with potholes and chasms that mean far too many kids and families get overlooked. We have successfully eliminated wait lists through our No Kids Waits initiative, and we have launched countywide support programs in Weld and El Paso counties to help localize solutions and stop the flow of kids experiencing trauma from leaving their homes and communities for services in far-off Denver.

And, we are here to ensure healing continues over the summer when school is out.

At Tennyson Center, our staff maintains engaging and effective programming through the summer months to address this challenge. We employ trauma-informed, experiential learning techniques such as our “Challenge by Choice” initiative that combines therapeutic support with Outward Bound-style adventures; horticulture through our healing garden and theme-based instruction like sports, electronics and others. Our Acute Skills for People with Emotional Needs (ASPEN) program also maintains meaningful programming in the summer for kids with autism spectrum and intellectual/developmental disorders.

We stand with families across Colorado committed to their kids’ continued progress.

We will work with Brian’s mom and the hundreds of other parents whose kids need support over the summer so that their children and family remain on course.

Trauma doesn’t take summer vacation. Neither does Tennyson Center.

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