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December 15, 2020

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 19

How Will the Pandemic Affect my Child Long-term?

Episode 19

We like to think that time can heal a lot, but when do we need to worry about the pandemic’s lasting impact on our children? Lisa introduces us to the concept of “ordinary magic” – protective processes that happen at home which can shield children from persistently difficult circumstances. Lisa and Reena discuss the research on resilience and what it teaches us about kids who thrive during hardship and how parents can help. Resources on resiliency: Check out Reena’s show on YouTube “The Rebound” for stories of how people have made it out of their hardest moments @itstherebound: bit.ly/381xcAf “Ordinary Magic” a book by psychologist Dr. Ann Masten. https://www.guilford.com/books/Ordinary-Magic/Ann-Masten/9781462523719/reviews For Children Everywhere – Blessings in a Backpack mobilizes communities, individuals, and resources to provide food for elementary school children across America who might otherwise go hungry. Donate at www.blessingsinabackpack.org

December 15, 2020 | 25 min

Transcript | How Will the Pandemic Affect my Child Long-term?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 19: How Will the Pandemic Affect My Child Long Term?


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: I just can’t believe we’re entering the tenth month of this pandemic now.


LISA: I know. I know. One of the things I think about, I bet you think about this too, I remember in the middle of March when everybody’s like, okay three weeks, just like we’re going to hunker down, we’re just going to ride this out. If somebody had told us in March


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: that we would be here now still, I don’t even know what I would have made of that information.


REENA: Yes. Some things are best left not told in the moment.


LISA: You don’t want to know.


REENA: And imagining that like not having toilet paper was the worst at that moment,  it was like the worst of our fears, and so it’s just hard even thinking ahead, like we’re hopefully trying to emerge but we know the next three months are going to be tough.


LISA: Yeah. They’re going to be really tough and we’re coming to terms with it. It’s a tough one.


REENA: Yeah. We got a letter from a mom who, sort of talking about the lack of optimism and and how do you push forward in this? And she says: ‘Dear Lisa, I feel like I should be optimistic about the news that we will have vaccines next year but I’ve never been more sad and unable to motivate. My kids were lucky enough to go to school this fall but have now shifted to remote learning. My husband lost his job and while we are not living paycheck to paycheck, it is affecting us. Basic things I find hard to finish. But my biggest worry is how will quarantine affect the development of my children? Beyond their school work, what are they missing that they will never get back? How can I make up for us being locked in? The sadness, the feeling that we are never getting out of this moment. I worry they pick up on my sadness. What should I be looking out for? I’m so grateful for your advice each week. It really has helped me get through this fall. Thank you.’ There’s a lot in here, you know?


LISA: There’s a lot, and it’s interesting, Reena, I’m starting to hear this question all of a sudden about what’s the long term impact? And part of me wonders if it is not a coincidence that we can now ask that when we start to see where the exit might be. You know that even though the vaccines, like we know it’s going to take time, I almost wonder if people didn’t feel like he could really ask this question until we knew that there is a real end date and we can see it somehow, you know, on the horizon. We still know, though, we are in this for at least a year in total, and I think we’re realistically in it for a year plus several months, and we do need to be wondering what this really means for kids.


REENA: So when you’re looking at it from a psychological standpoint, what you have to worry about, you know, I think about even the kids who are starting their college their freshman year, they’re not going to get that back. We don’t know how many more years this could affect us and the things that happened this year that could have long term effects. What are they? Some kids have lost parents.


LISA: Yeah, I mean, so there’s like some huge stuff, and I have to say earlier in the pandemic I was like, oh kids are resilient, like, they’ll bounce back. It’ll be okay. And I still think that’s true for most kids but, I mean let’s be honest, I mean, this is going to be many many months well over a year. There will be material impact and for some kids it will be big obvious stuff like there will be kids who do not go to college because of this, who were on a path to go to college who do not go to college. That is huge. You know that’s beyond the scope of what I can address as a psychologist but we have to say that, right? And there will be kids whose life circumstances are dramatically altered, bluntly damaged, right? Either it’s the death of a parent, or the death of both parents I’ve heard about in some horrible situations. There are things at that scale. They’re hard to even comprehend but I think we have to really acknowledge them before we even get to the more, you know probably more likely broader generic things that we want to think through also.


REENA: So can you name it? Can you say what are the specific things that you really feel you just can’t say, oh time’s gonna heal that one.


LISA: Yeah, yeah. I can. I worry about mental health disorders. I worry about more kids, more teenagers having diagnosable depression. I worry about more kids, more teenagers meeting diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorders. So not just sadness. Not just expectable healthy anxiety, but having it go to a degree where we would say, okay this is not normal and expectable levels of mood disturbance like we are now into pathology. We are now into something that’s grounds for concern.


REENA: When you look at this, what’s your response mechanism? Like what can we do to help in these situations?


LISA: Well if we think about like what to do if we were worried that our kid is depressed or anxious, you know, I think do not pass go, do not collect $200 like go right to your pediatrician, go right to your health care provider and get help, and I just I want to say this to you know over and over again, we can treat depression. We know how to help. In terms of anxiety, it’s so important to always remember that avoidance feeds anxiety, so parents can head off an anxiety disorder if they don’t let their kid avoid the things they fear. So kids don’t start with full blown anxiety disorders. What often happens is they’re frightened of something and then they avoid it and then the thing they’re frightened of feels even scarier and then they’re more likely to avoid it and then it blossoms into a full blown anxiety disorder. And this is one, Reena, I think about this a lot, when we come back together and it’s time for us to live normally, there are going to be a lot of kids and also plenty of grown ups who need help not avoiding the world. You know we’ve done it for so long.


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: So another thing we can do to actually prevent long term trouble is at the first opportunity when it is safe to re engage, we’ve got to do it. We’ve got to help our kids do it, even if we are tense about it because if we continue to avoid when we can engage again, then you are basically setting the stage for an anxiety disorder.


REENA: You know this mom in this letter says she just wants to know, what else am I missing beyond your academics? What should we be concerned about for the needs of our children that’ll help them function better in the coming years?


LISA: There are things beyond academics. I think we should rest on academics for a minute though, right? Because, okay you know, if we’re thinking about, what does this mean for lots of kids? So the good news is it sounds like this mom feels like the academic piece is not the big problem, you know it’s not the thing that’s driving her concern, and that’s good and actually I want to rest on that for a minute because schools are doing amazing work even in the pandemic. Kids are learning even in the pandemic, and that’s amazing. Like that actually is an incredible thing and in one of the things, sort of as an aside I was in touch with a friend this week I haven’t talked to for awhile and I was like, hey I haven’t heard from you. Just wanted to check in. How are you doing? And he wrote back and he’s like, ah it’s such a hard time in the country but honestly I’ve had an incredibly productive year. And I thought that’s really good for him to to say that and to feel that and I think that’s actually true for a lot of people, that they’re like I have worked a lot this year and gotten a lot done, and it helped me a bit to hear him text that to me or read that text because I think when things are so hard, it’s easy to feel like, ah man like I just feel like I crushed by all that we’ve done or all we’re trying to do and that reframe really helped, so the reality is a surprising number of children have had an incredibly productive school year, and we should actually celebrate that for a minute. Like that’s a big deal.


REENA: True.


LISA: Okay, but so then who do I worry about in school? Plenty of kids. I worry about kids who really don’t do well online and there are plenty of kids who just for whom the online environment is not effective. I worry that kids who we’re missing learning disorders and not picking up learning disorder diagnoses that we would pick up under normal conditions, and we would intervene and get that kid shored up in their learning. I think we’re going to see kids who missed several beats because of a, you know, a missed diagnosis or delayed diagnosis. And then, you know, we just have to think about it really in broad scope, you know, there are kids who just don’t go to school now, right?


REENA: That’s right.


LISA: Where they just can’t access school or the pressing needs of daily living crowd out school. Like they’re just in the hierarchy of what needs to be addressed, school is low. So so glad for this moment school’s not a pressing concern. If we think broadly, I think for plenty of families it is, and I think if we think as a country, we’re probably going to see the academic impact of this for years.


REENA: That’s really troubling. When you talk about resilience, and by the way for people looking for stories of resilience and hope check out my show on YouTube called The Rebound. These are stories of how people made it out of tough times, I’ll have more details in the show notes. Resilience is so important. When you look at the research, Lisa, what do you see? What does it tell us about resilience, and how are people able to be resilient in tough times?


LISA: So okay. This is really powerful. What we know about resilience in kids. kay so I know we’re worried about long term effect on kids, but there is some research that is really really promising, and I want us to think about that. So in psychology we actually don’t have any pandemic research because the last pandemic was when psychology was a baby field we were doing giant research studies, but what we do have is that starting around the 70s there started to be a lot of interest in studying kids under chronic stress conditions, and then noting that when they look to kids under chronic stress conditions, which is you know we talk about the pandemic in terms of chronic stress, the chronic stress that we’ve studied are things like, you know, really intense poverty or ongoing maltreatment. I mean like really really difficult circumstances, and in some ways more difficult than what a lot of families are contending with right now, and what they found in that research when they were looking at kids under those conditions is that they always were able to find a handful of kids who were okay or like thriving, like actually thriving, and you’re looking at the kids circumstance and you like, you have no right to be in as good a shape as you are, like what’s the story, like what’s the deal? And so there’s just this fabulous body of research trying to answer that question and the summary of the question, like the headline on the question, it comes from a researcher named Ann Masten, who’s a psychologist, and she wrote a paper where she talked about the fact that these kids benefited from what she called ordinary magic, like ordinary magic, things that happened at home protective processes that basically shielded the kids from the broader strain, from the big stressor that was sort of otherwise dominating their lives. And it’s so cool because that’s actually what we’ve learned in the research is that if you want to see kids be resilient in the face of long term stressors, right? Like that’s the question we’re asking right now, it basically comes down to what the parent does to basically guard them in that context, and when she was talking about ordinary magic, Reena, there’s three things. Three things that she was like , his is what the parents are doing that got kids through, and it wasn’t always apparent maybe it was like an aunt or uncle or some loving grown up. So the first thing was they were nuts about that kid, like that kid had love. They had an adult who was like had like, I love the term like an irrational attachment to that kid, right? And and this is what every kid needs is some grown up who’s like, kiddo the sun rises and sets on you, right? And so what we find is that almost like, you know , I’m getting this vision from the Incredibles, you know, like when Violet puts up the shield, you know, like it’s like a force field, like irrational attachment creates a force field around the child, even in the context of other stuff going so wrong. So the first thing, the first, you know, kind of ordinary magic process that we want to focus on is having a really good working relationship with your kid. You know like really being in there and just enjoying them as much as you can and providing that warmth, and having fun with them, even in the pandemic, is not only fun but we know is connected to buffering over the long haul.


REENA: So when you’re saying buffering, it’s not shielding them from the reality of what this is, like turning the news off, like we can’t talk about coronavirus numbers, you’re saying like creating shield with love and warmth that envelopes them could really help them be resilient?


LISA: Yeah. And the data tells us this. I mean that’s what’s so cool about the studies is like, okay well they didn’t study a pandemic but they definitely studied some pretty long term ugly business, and usually long term ugly business that went for the duration of a kid’s childhood, right? So we’re not even talking like, you know, let’s say a sixteen month yucky, right? Like we’re talking like you know an entire childhood.




LISA: Okay then the second thing, when we interview these kids, we’re like okay kiddo, you seem to have come out in surprisingly good shape, like what’s the story? They were like, I had something that I was doing that felt meaningful. Like I felt like I had a sense of purpose.


REENA: Purpose.


LISA:  Exactly. And whether it was like they were really serious about school, or they were really serious about a sport, or they were really serious about religion, or they’re really serious about something but they felt that they were about something bigger. They felt that there was something that they could work at and control and it was important or valuable and if you think about in a way, you know, it’s like the pandemic is all around us and it feels so out of control all the time, I have found my work to be really centering and protective for me.


REENA: To have something to focus on and move forward.


LISA: Yeah, and to get to the end of the day and be like, okay the numbers in my community are terrible, but I didn’t accomplish this.


REENA: Yes. Yes.


LISA: So it works for kids the same way, right? Like you know I don’t get to go to school, but I just read a book, right? I mean the same thing. So, you know, helping kids to be about something.


REENA: Even if it’s something as simple, you know, my son loves flag football, you know, and so they play flag football. Or whether, I know video games, not so great, but you know he’s been getting better at doing this and focuses on it and does it every day. Is it ideal? Would I rather have and do something else? Sure. But he feels okay. And my daughter is obsessed with baking, she just loves to cook like gingerbread, every week it’s some sort of new project, but you’re saying having them throw themselves into something that they find meaning can help them create that shield essentially.


LISA: I think so. I mean being able to get to the end of the day be like, look what I did. Right? And then sometimes it’s super fun stuff, which is wonderful, and baking’s so fun because you have like, ta-da there’s the product. I made that happen.


REENA: That word is great.


LISA: I also think you know having them do things that they know are important, right? So it may even be things like helping around the house. To say to a child, listen, you’re 13. Your sister’s 9. She needs you. I’m going to ask your help. I’m gonna ask you to, you know, she doesn’t like when I sit with her to do her homework but if you’ve got time I need you to sit there to do the homework with her. We don’t always lean on our kids in that way, but if fair.


REENA: Yeah I’ve been doing it all wrong. Why did you guys not take out the trash today? Nobody unloaded the dishwasher. I’m losing my mind.


LISA: Give them jobs. Even little kids can have jobs. My younger daughter, she doesn’t have enough chores, I can tell you that, but one of them is we call her our toilet paper Santa like it is her job to deliver toilet paper to all the bathrooms in the house, right?


REENA: That’s a good job.


LISA: It is a good job, like toilet paper Santa, we’re running low. That’s her job, right? So you can definitely build from there. We need to be building from there.


REENA: So what would your third thing be?


LISA: Okay so the third thing is a sense of like predictability and control. Like a sense that they know what’s happening at home, that life within the house feels reliable and predictable, and so that’s where we just have like, when we get up, you know, we brush our teeth. When we take our showers, you know, when we sit down, do school, and when we do our homework, you know, eating together as a family or having a routine around dinner, or having a reasonable bedtime routine. But you know this is good for kids under all conditions, but especially when the rest of the world feels so uncertain that sense of, okay but here I am in my two-foot world, and I know what’s going to happen.


REENA: Things are changing, especially with winter coming. What do you worry about from a social standpoint?


LISA: So it’s very developmental, what my worries are. So I will continue to say, I will persist in saying that probably fifth grade and younger I don’t worry that that much, you know, that those kiddos are still like, eh mom and dad are pretty cool, like you guys can be my friends, right? Okay middle school, Reena, I have to tell you I’ve just, it’s so clear to me it’s so hard to be a middle schooler in the pandemic because you’re so anxious under normal conditions about where you fit in and then one of the things, and I hate saying this, but I’m seeing it as kids’ anxiety ramps up about their social connections in middle school and where they fit in, I’m hearing about, I’m witnessing more icky online behavior among middle schoolers, and a lot of it is like a gang up, you know like a whole bunch of kids will decide to like fire a friend.


REENA: And then they doggy pile on.


LISA: Yeah and you’re just like, man like that is the worst glue, right? Like that you’re trying to make glue in the relationship by all of us being against that person and I’m like I get it that you kiddos need glue right now, but like, come on.


REENA: Right.


LISA: And I do think most of that will sort out but it’s exquisitely painful to be excluded in middle school.


REEA: Totally. Everyone knows that feeling.


LISA: Everyone knows that feeling, and you know it kind of leaves a mark. I hate to say it but it kind of leaves a mark and everybody knows it. And so I think we’re going to see more of that, you know, which doesn’t mean they’re not going to be okay and they’re not going to thrive in high school, but I think we need to be realistic that we probably are going to have a cohort of sixth, seventh and eighth graders who have a little bit more of a cringy feeling when they think back on middle school.


REENA: But you do have to intervene sometimes and be aware because it can be so nasty sometimes, right?


LISA: It can be so nasty. And check in with your school, gets some help because, and I hate saying that I’m seeing more of it. I am totally seeing more of it.


REENA: Wow. I can understand that because everyone’s online now.


LISA: Right. Yeah and they’re just anxious, and so they’re like, hey let’s have a gang up, right? And it’s just not good. Okay then for high school I’m less anxious, again, right? So middle schoolers, I’m like eeh, high school, usually they’ve got things kinda sorted in terms of their friendships and I actually had a high schooler say to mem it was actually a high school senior say to me, you know, I just sort of feel like this is accelerated the process of clarifying for me who I’m going to stay in touch with. And you know.


REENA: So astute.


LISA: Yeah it was really astute and sort of pulled away from the mix of it all. I’ve got my people. It’s very clear to me who my people will be after high school, and I thought that’s really cool. So in terms of long term social trajectory, I think elementary school kids are going to be fine. I think most high schoolers are going to be fine. Keep an eye on your middle schoolers. This is a really rough passage is what I would say.


REENA: So to wrap it up, Lisa, I’m just kind of curious, what can we as parents do to buffer all this stress. How can we help without getting in the way, right?


LISA: You’re probably going to get in the way and that’s okay. What you’re going to do is you’re going to produce the ordinary magic, like that is really where it’s at. You are going to be Violet in the Incredibles and you are going to try to create that force field around your child, and that is a force field that is made up of you really being crazy about that kid, you giving that kid meaningful things to do with themselves, even in a pandemic, and you creating an environment that feels there’s like there’s a controlled one and a predictable one. That’s what we know we’re not making this up.It’s so good that we don’t have to guess. We know that that is what prevents long term problems.


REENA:I love some mom posted on Instagram this week. My kids are thriving because they’re actually surviving a pandemic at this point. Putting into perspective what really matters. I love this ordinary magic and I’ve got to rethink how to get them to do the dishwasher unloading. My strategy clearly is not the right one. So Lisa, what you have for us For Children Everywhere.


LISA: All right. I have Blessings in a Backpack dot org. This is an organization that is a long standing organization that has worked to get meals to kids on the weekend for kids who typically get their meals at school. So they’ve been around for a long time. They have significantly expanded their efforts under COVID because a lot of kids aren’t going to school. So blessingsinabackpack dot org, specially thinking about the holiday breaks coming up even for kids who are in school. I think that’s where we want to be focusing our attention this week.


REENA: That’s a great cost to put your money towards. So Lisa, what about parenting to go?


LISA: Okay. It is work to make ordinary magic. So as much as I am sold on that idea, I promise that’s the we want to go. You can make ordinary magic if you are not taking good care of yourself. So what we need to do as parents if we are going to buffer our kids, if we are going to shield them from the pandemic, we have to be good to ourselves. We need to be getting enough sleep. We need to be taking some time for ourselves. We need to be getting activity and talking to the people who sustain us. So if you feel like your kid is having a hard time, my advice to you, actually go take care of yourself, so that you can do what needs to be done. Children do not do better than their parents are doing. Really, really this is about adults taking good care of themselves so we can take good care of our kids.


REENA: Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put on your child.


LISA: Yep absolutely.


REENA: Thanks so much, Lisa. And for more information on some the things we talk about the podcast be sure to check out our show notes and also follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at asklisapodcast.



The advice provided here by Dr. Damour and the resources shared by her AI-powered librarian, Rosalie, will not and do not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.