Apathetic, Cranky, Frustrated: Dealing with Kids’ Distress About School
What should parents do when their kids are fed up and unhappy about school? Psychologists are witnessing the rise of emotional distress in children as they try to manage their disrupted academic year. Stress is processed in different ways by different children - some become anxious and sad, and some act out. How do you get kids to pivot from bad behavior? Dr. Lisa decodes how to identify and work through emotional distress. For Children Everywhere: https://www.modestneeds.org/
September 29, 2020 | 29 min
Transcript | Apathetic, Cranky, Frustrated: Dealing with Kids’ Distress About School
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 8: Apathetic, Cranky, Frustrated: Dealing with Kids’ Distress About School
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: The stories, the news stories around the world, talking about coronavirus now up in Europe, skyrocketing in India. I know we kind of had a sense this could be coming but adding to that, trying to get the kids learning and back in school, it is a lot to juggle.
LISA: It is, and I think, I know a lot of schools have found ways, managed to get kids back in the buildings, and when you see those numbers you feel like, oof, it might be short lived. This may not last nearly as long as we want it to.
REENA: And you know, everyone’s trying to figure out what’s next, and it’s always the uncertainty that’s kind of hard to stomach, right? When you don’t know what could be coming?
REENA: We got this letter, I want to read to you. It says, ‘Your podcast has been a true tonic for us. You’re hitting all the nails right on the head. ast week I thought of you when I checked my fourteen year old daughter’s grades and immediately riddled her full of questions about her missing work and overall poor performance. Her response was simply vile. She’s the only girl of my four kids and her emotions are off the charts, hostile at times, punching her brothers, saying mean things to them, and her response to school work, it’s all virtual, was to condescendingly say quote “It’s stupid, mom, and I don’t want to do it.” Basically that’s her response to a lot of things these days. What can I do to meet this behavior with some effectiveness? I tried talking to her about choices and consequences, and even a mini pep talk, and she looked me dead on and said, quote, “I don’t even care, mom, just leave.” It’s so disappointing to see her apathetic and mean. I was in tears once alone thinking how her life is so nice. How can she be so crappy? Help.’
LISA: Oof. That’s an emotional roller coaster in two paragraphs. I mean there’s a lot happening there.
REENA: Where does this mom even start, Lisa?
LISA: Okay, so putting on my psychologist hat. Here’s the first thought I have. When we think about kids in emotional distress, there are two terms that tend to come to mind right away for psychologists. They are internalizing and externalizing, which is basically where they point the distress. And so internalizing is how we describe things like becoming very anxious or becoming very depressed or withdrawn, basically collapsing in on themselves. And so that’s one form in which we see distress. And then there’s externalizing, which is basically acting out, and being really hard on the people around them and you know beating up on your brothers and telling your mom it’s all dumb, and she’s you know not being helpful, and so this girl, and it’s interesting that she’s a girl because we tend to associate internalizing with girls and externalizing with boys, this girl is using externalizing behavior to express her distress. The challenge is it’s hard to empathize with externalizing behavior. It’s hard to feel a lot of empathy for a kid who’s being so icky to be around.
REENA: It just turns you off. It just completely turns you off.
LISA: It does. It does and it’s easier in a way when your kid is sad and weepy or down or nervous to find you know the the tender comforting side of ourselves as parents, and you have to go the extra mile to summon that when your kid’s being really a pill, and like this kid taking it out on everyone around her, but the key in taking it back to those terms is to remember it’s about distress. And actually kids are in distress right now. I am seeing it clinically and my colleagues are seeing it clinically. This is, I mean we’re not that far into it, and I think that’s part of the problem, people like we are not that far into it and it’s all ready really taking it out of us, but we’re seeing kids who are internalizing, collapsing in on themselves and I am also hearing what this mom is talking about about kids at home being pretty awful, beating up on you know their siblings, beating up on themselves sometimes out of sheer frustration, and so the place to start is to recognize, and you know this is a very small but an important first step, this kiddo’s in pain. This is discomfort and distress however she happens to show it to her mother.
REENA: The kid is obviously in pain. You talk about going that extra mile to find the tenderness. How do you get everyone to walk off the ledge and come down at this point?
LISA: That’s interesting to use the idea of being on a ledge. You know getting into these really tense and hot moments with kids, which is what happened in this in this email where the mom describes, that she saw that the girl had been handing stuff then, they got into a really testy conversation right away, and if we think about ledges and we think about what you want to do with ledges. You want to back away from them. You probably are not going to have much success having a really deep intense conversation when everybody feels like things are so precarious. A first step, in any interaction like this, is to not try to get very far when everybody’s really mad. So iff the first step is to find some tenderness for this kiddo regardless of how she’s acting, a second step would be to stand down actually to say, look I’m in a bad place, you’re in a bad place, let’s cool off and come back when we’re both ready to have this conversation. That would be a good maneuver at this point, not saying it’ll work but it would be a good thing to try.
REENA: So you let people sort of cool off. When do you revisit it? And do you run the risk of people just feeling like you’re ignoring them, or do you feel the cool off time is important and then how do you regroup and come back at it again?
LISA: I think if you just retreat, which is something we see sometimes what people do in conflict, they just go to their corners and wait for the discomfort to die down but they never come back and actually deal with the conflict. I think if you do that it does feel fundamentally dismissive or that you know the parent’s not taking the kids seriously, and we don’t want to do that. But to re-engage or to lay the table for re-engagement in a way that could be successful. We could imagine saying things to kids like, look you’re mad, I’m mad. This is not going to go well if we keep talking. Can we check back in a half an hour? Can I catch you later today? Can we make a plan to talk later when we both have a chance to get ourselves to a better place? So you could even, I mean this is corn, but I would recommend it, pick a time, ask the kid for a time, make it clear that you’re not walking away, you just want to have a much more successful conversation they’re having at the time.
REENA: Whether it’s a kid or another adult, I just feel like everyone’s nerves are just so fried right now, and any sort of semblance of patience is truly in short supply. How do you, when you reach this breaking point and everybody’s angry at each other, you say to retreat, figure out a time, and then when you have that conversation, what’s important?
LISA: That idea of not showing up for the conversation when you’re already at your breaking point I think is really well said. And I’m so aware, as I’m watching myself navigate my days and then as I’m around people who are getting through their days, that I feel like a lot of times we’re we’re like vessels that are filled to the absolute brim with frustration or distress, and we walk around you know barely not spilling, and then you know you open your kids grades and you see that she’s not turning stuff in, or you just mom says you know, I tried to give her a pep talk and she still was really salty with me, you give it your college try and it goes badly, and I think and I’m watching this happen to myself and other people that people then overflow. People are then really frustrated even around things that maybe a year ago this time they just could have tolerated because they were already at their limit as a result of six months of pandemic living and all of the challenges that come with it, so part of what I would say between the moment of the hot conversation and the I’ll see you later we’ll have this conversation again, would probably be something along the lines of deliberately lowering the water level, you know going for a walk outside, going and exercising. I think a lot of people are finding that a workout as their best friend right now just in terms of taking down their overall tension. So it’s probably not enough it as we think it’s through just to say, I feel too intense you feel too intense let’s talk at four. You need to do something between that moment and four to get to a place where you can actually have a really meaningful conversation. But it might be a really hard conversation and you want to come in not your limit already.
REENA: I want to go back to the meanness, Lisa, that she talks about, the hitting, the acting out. What advice do you have for parents who are experiencing that? What is really effective in getting them to stop that behavior?
LISA: Well the first thing, just to name it, so it’s okay for a kid to be upset. Hitting, name calling, those are totally over the line, and I would not want a parent to dismiss that behavior as like, well she’s upset so she hit her brother, it’s like yes she’s upset and no she can’t get her brother. And I am sure this mom and parents everywhere have made those rules. No parent says like, sure go ahead and hit your brother I don’t mind, but that doesn’t mean they always stick. But I think it’s really critical that we have empathy for this girl side by side with parameters that mean something at home. So for sure the mom could say like, you are over the line, you cannot go after your brothers that way, you can’t talk to them that way, you can’t talk to me that way, I think those should be words that are ready in every parent’s mouth. In my experience, kids find it pretty weird when grown ups don’t draw those lines. It’s pretty frightening to kids if they are allowed to do stuff that they know is unacceptable, and grown ups don’t step in or say something or punish them, and I’ll come back to the question of punishment. I think for kids if they’re like okay I just hit my brother and you didn’t do anything, it can give them the sense of like, okay who are the grown ups around here? How out of control are we going to be allowed to be? That’s pretty scary, so go ahead and draw that line.
REENA: That’s a good point.
LISA: We’ve got this in our families, right, where we’ve got kids tangled with each other. What have you heard from other parents or from your experience about what to do in that tense moment?
REENA: So my kids will always tell me what doesn’t work is raising your voice, and sometimes I don’t even realize that I’m raising my voice or the tone. They always tell me, we have a thing in my house, ‘Mom, tone,’ It’s something that I obviously would say to them, and they have no fear about throwing it back to me.
LISA: Of course. Of course. This happens all the time, all the time in parenting. So I think they’re right. I think it’s almost impossible not to raise our voice or to be perceived as having raised our voices. The goal, this is the theme that we’ll return to over and over again. You know the goal is verbalization. The kids can have any feeling they want. They cannot use their bodies to show it. We talked about this in the in the podcast about social behavior, and so this fourteen year old can be really mad at her brothers, she can be really annoyed with everybody in the family, but what needs to be said here as a parent is to say, you can be angry with your brother you can’t hit him. You can be frustrated with me, you can’t call me names. And to really articulate what is and is not acceptable, and then I mention punishment. Some kids can pivot on the spot. Most kids can’t, and so a very effective way at many ages, probably not deepened adolescents, but certainly younger ages, is to say, leave until you can come back and do what you’re supposed to do. Leave until you can come back and use your words, tell us how you feel as opposed to show us, and that leaving, that asking a kid to separate themselves is really appropriate because the way the world works is it if you’re acting like a jerk, nobody wants to be with you and it’s really important that our kids learn that at home. And so that idea that you can’t be in our presence and conduct yourself that way is a good thing to establish as a universal rule, and to help kids feel uncomfortable with themselves when they’re acting in ways that other people will not want to be around.
REENA: What are some other options? Is it good to get them to problem solve? Do they feel good about it? Do teens just get turned off by that? What what works in that mindset?
LISA: You can’t make a teen do anything. This is a fundamental rule, but you can sort of do the on the write your own ending, like I’m going to give you options, you get to choose, and so another thing that this mom might try with his teenage daughter is to say look, you can tell me how much you don’t like school, you can tell me how much you don’t like your brothers, you can be utterly pleasant to be around or you could ask for some space. These are the options. Anything outside of that is out of the question.
REENA: And so you’re giving them choices.
LISA: Absolutely give choices, and I actually really do like, for snarky teenagers or when teenagers are feeling snarky, I like the option of saying, okay you can be polite, you can be super fun, or you can say that you need some space. Full stop. Those are the choices, and those are fair because sometimes the kid just needs space, and to put that on the menu to say, you’re allowed to excuse yourself in a polite way, gives them that room.
REENA: That is so good. That is so good to know that you can be given those options, and that it’s okay to be honest with them about it.
LISA: Yeah, You know it’s funny, Reena, I hadn’t thought about this for a long time, but I just was reminded of it. I had a teenage boy in my practice and he had done something that made his mom mad, and she was upset with him, and he stormed off, which made her really upset and he got in more trouble for storming off, and the boy, when I was meeting with him, he he told me something, which really he taught me something, I was like, well so what happened? Why’d you walk out? And he said, I was afraid I was going to hit her.
LISA: I was like, Oh, good job buddy, walk away, and that I think was when I started to appreciate that teenagers actually need permission, and probably guidance, on how to exit a conversation that’s not going well without getting in more trouble. I think sometimes that’s what happens is that the parent feels like it’s being disrespectful and the teenager, consciously or not, is like, get me out of here before I do or say something that is going to make this so much worse.
REENA: Wow. That is so powerful, like giving somebody an out to exit a conversation. That thought has never thought thought has never occurred to me ever. Conflict happens, I want to deal with it and move on, and you’re saying that might be the worst thing. Give people an out, and then reevaluate when cooler heads prevail.
LISA: Yeah, yeah, and I think not all grown ups can keep their head in a conflict, and it’s harder for teenagers. They run intense, and so they probably more than grown ups need permission to engage one regulated, is what I would call it.
REENA: You know, I want to circle back to this letter. What do you make, Lisa, of the complaints that this mom about, you know, the disengagement from school? It’s just so hard, especially for those parents out there who have any component of remote learning, just staying on top of it, trying to do your work. I mean I want to be disengaged from learning. I don’t blame them, but we can’t.
LISA: Well we can’t. The reason, I think, I have devoted my life to teenagers is they tend to be very clear eyed and I love that I love that about them. I mean they just see things, they see things, they see right through grown ups, which not all grown ups love and when this girl is saying, school’s really dumb, I don’t see the point, I don’t think we should dismiss that entirely. I think there’s probably a decent chance that a lot of what she’s doing feels tedious or is tedious, she may be doing a bunch of busy work, I think no matter how hard schools have worked, and they have worked so hard to figure out how to move school online, it’s not perfect and I know schools would be the first to say it, everybody’s trying to adjust and figure this out. But even the same work that might have been boring but tolerable in school, and I have nothing against boring work, I actually think there’s a lot to be said for some busy work, and boring work in school, but it’s a lot less boring if like there’s that cute kid in class who you get to look at every once in a while or if you get to choose your jeans because you know who you’re going to see and you know third period passing period, all of that stuff that makes the tedium that is school, even the best school, bearable, now that’s gone.
LISA: And so when this girl is like, it’s dumb, I don’t want to do it. I think a reasonable reaction would be like, yeah I bet. I get it. I hear you. And to start there and and that may give some relief just the sense that, you know can you get it, which goes very far, and then what’s really cool with teenagers is if you’re like, yeah that does look dumb, I totally see what you’re talking about it. They’ll often then say, oh except for this one class actually it’s really fun. And once we aren’t fighting them on what they don’t like, they are often then able to take a rounder view of the whole thing, but when we say no it’s great I’m sure it’s fantastic. They entrench themselves in a disagreement about that particular point and you don’t really get to have the broader conversation.
REENA: That’s so interesting. I want to also, it kind of hurt my heart reading this, but I want to go back to the mom’s sadness. The sense that this girl’s life is actually so nice and she doesn’t appreciate any of it.
LISA: I know. The image of this mom getting time to herself and just feeling weepy about her daughter is painful, and I also think it’s not uncommon right now where parents are doing their best to parent through really, really, I mean just miserable circumstances. I just I don’t even wanna try to downplay them at all, and then having only moderate if minimal success, I think a lot of parents are getting to themselves and getting some time to themselves and feeling pretty weepy, and I guess it’s true that this girl’s life, I trust the mom’s report is on balance, a good one, a loving one, I mean she’s got a mom who loves are so much is going to write to strangers to ask for help.
REENA: Kudos to the mom to that too, for seeking help, I think that’s so important at this time
LISA: Absolutely. I guess, the way I like to think about that is this. Complaining and gratitude don’t live on the same plane. So I sometimes complain about my job. I love my job and I am grateful for my job. Those are two completely different things, Reena, you know what I mean? Like what have you complained about that of course are grateful for it?
REENA: I’ve complained about having to do so much more laundry than I’ve ever had to do and I don’t have any gratitude over laundry, but in exchange, because of the situation we’re living in, I am so grateful that I’ve got all this extra time with my kids to hear and ask about things that I never would have even known was going on in their lives and so every time I do all these extra loads of laundry, also because I’ve been anal retentive about how germs are are passing through their clothing, and I have too much wash everything.
LISA: Do what you’ve gotta do.
REENA: Do what you’ve got to do, that’s helping me cope, but I also realize, as I’m doing all the extra folding laundry, that you know it reminds me of how limited this time is. Having this time with them, that I’ve never had before, and I’m grateful for that.
LISA: And so they can live side by side, or your complaints by the laundry don’t cancel out your gratitude for all the other good stuff that’s going on. And I think sometimes grownups will be very quick to equate the two, you know, like when a kid is complaining about how tight their braces are, the grown ups like, you’re really lucky to have braces, we couldn’t afford braces when I was a kid, and the kid’s like, no I get that, and my mouth hurts. It’s happening at the same time. The other thing I just wanna say to this mom and to all parents right now, talk to your school about what you’re seeing at home. You know the challenge for schools right now is they don’t get the observations. They don’t get to give the work and then watch the kids do it and see how the kids are coming along with it in the ways that you get to do in a classroom, so schools are a bit in the dark, especially for kids who are remote, and what I would say is all schools want to know how it’s going. All schools really care about what’s happening at home. What I would also say is assume best intentions when approaching the school. They are doing something for the first time and have given it such a huge effort to get right, and they know they are still having to iterate and make changes. Ao reach out to the school if you have observations you think the school would want to know, but I would also say to all parents, reach out in the spirit of, hey I don’t know if you guys are hearing this from other folks, here’s what we’re seeing in our house. What are you hearing? What can we be doing on our end to make things better? Do you guys have any suggestions for what could change to help this feel more manageable for her?
REENA: You know on the topic of things being more manageable. I really took to heart what you said about having gratitude and I think even people who are unemployed. When I traveled in the Middle East, I went to Gaza often which is completely isolated from the outside world, and I the vast majority the people there live under the poverty line, well under the poverty line, and they’re run by the militant group Hamas, and that’s a large reason why, the significant reason why it’s cut off. I’ve always been amazed, Lisa, when I go into the homes interviewing people, they have nothing, like completely bare cabinets of food very often, and they’ll always offer me tea, and they don’t even say, hey do you want tea? They bring it out and it’s very rude by the way to not take it, and even though they might not live be living in the best of circumstances, you drink it politely, and I’ve always been moved by people’s generosity in absolute poverty and squalor, and it got me thinking, got us both thinking, about how folks at home, if you feel down, can help. And we wanted to highlight, I love this idea you had, highlight an organization each week that folks might want to consider donating or helping out, and the one we’re gonna choose this week is called modestneeds.org, and it is a place where you can hear people’s personal stories and decide to donate and they say was founded in 2002, it’s a nonprofit they don’t take any government money, and they want to provide short term financial assistance to individuals, and families. People who might not have the ability to seek financial means that they need and they’re trying to promote compassion and generosity. We don’t get anything from them. They don’t even know that we’re plugging them in this podcast today, but if you’re looking to feel a little better and even your worst of times help someone out, check out www.modestneeds.org. Their motto is small change a world of difference, and I always feel good when I help someone out. It just makes such a difference for me personally.
LISA: You know, what you’re describing is supported by data. That when we help other people we feel better ourselves, and then you know actually thinking back to this mom, separate from the child complaining, not connected to it, not saying you’re being ungrateful let’s go give money, on a completely different moment our conversation, the mom might say, hey I was looking at this website or I was looking at this local group, think with me about where we might want to donate as a family. I want to get your input too. So involve kids in this, but not in a way to try to cancel out their complaints, but as something separate altogether.
REENA: I hadn’t thought of including the kids, what a great idea. So on that hopeful note of helping each other out, what’s your parenting to go this week, Lisa?
LISA: So my parenting to go, grows out of a part of the question we didn’t get to, which is that this mom looked at the girl’s online gradebook and then rolled up on her with a whole lot of criticism about what she found in the online gradebook, which is understandable. The one thing I’ve learned about teenagers is that they have two sides. They have an immature, not turning stuff in, kind of disrespectful side. And they also have a mature, thoughtful, philosophical right-doing side, forward looking side, and in my experience the side of the teenager you speak to, is the side that shows up for that conversation. So it’s easy to, Monday morning quarterback this, but when the mom approached the teenager already angry, it’s not a surprise she got a defensive response. When this opportunity presents itself again, which it probably will, that’s when a parent might say, hey I was looking at your grades. This isn’t like you. What’s going on? And invite the more mature side of the teenager into the conversation.
REENA: Sometimes it’s good to find a more mature side of the adult when patience is on short supply as well. I’ll be the first to admit it.
LISA: That is true. That is true.
REENA: Thank you so much, Lisa, I’ll see you next week.
LISA: See you next week.