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August 24, 2020

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 1

Parenting During a Pandemic

Episode 1

How can you tell when your child is not coping well during this Covid-19 pandemic? Dr. Lisa breaks down what to watch for in a child’s behavior. How much screen time is bad for a child’s brain? She also explains the term “learned helplessness.”

August 24, 2020 | 25 min

Transcript | Parenting During a Pandemic

REENA NINAN: In this episode we are covering parenting in a pandemic.

LISA: Reena! How are you?

REENA: I am picking up strands of sparkling glitter and all sorts of weird byproducts from my 8-year-old’s birthday party. She had this Zoom birthday party. I thought I’d really figured this one out and then I realized it was a disaster. I had these girls, four girls come by and pick up these beautifully wrapped little gifts. They were these unicorn eggshell things that you fill with soil and they’re supposed to sprout. At first I thought it was marijuana but it isn’t.

LISA: Cool. Not cool. I mean cool in other ways, but not for an 8-year-old’s birthday party

REENA: Not for an 8-year-old’s birthday party, but it’s supposed to be a little garden and I thought they’d Zoom. They’d be far away from each other but still able to kind of socially interact and make this and that could be her birthday party.

LISA: So they like came over to pick this stuff up and then they went back to their respective homes with their new gardens

REENA: They went back. They were able to say hello and hung out for a little bit, they were so excited it was sort of the first time they’d seen each other in six months. And five minutes before the Zoom, I find my daughter, who is the sunniest person in the world, you can imagine, crying. And she said this was not the birthday party she had planned. And I have to tell you, I was a little angry because I’ve got this Zoom call for her set up. I’ve got another work call for myself set up that I’ve got to deal with and I needed to get her down there, but I realized, I mean, what do you do in a moment like this when your nerves are frayed and I just acknowledged her sadness, you know. This isn’t what any of us wanted.

LISA: No. Okay, first of all thank you for mentioning right off the bat though that you were angry. I have to tell you that not only am I a psychologist in the pandemic, I’m a mom in the pandemic too. You know, I’ve got my two girls and they’re 9 and 16 so we cover a lot of developmental ground, and I’m not proud of this but it is definitely the case, especially under pandemic conditions, that sometimes if one of them’s upset I feel this huge divide appear in me that part of me that part of me is like ‘Oh Honey, oh no, like what’s wrong, let me help you.’ Another part of me is like ‘Oh come on. No, please don’t do this.’

REENA: I’ve reached the ‘Oh come on, don’t do this’ almost every time and I have to catch myself now because I am so over it, Lisa. I’m so over it.

LISA: I know I know, but I’m just I’m so glad you just said it and I’m right there too. So, okay so you said you went with the ‘Oh honey’ side. You contained the other side, good job. And then what happened?

REENA: It really helped. You know, acknowledging to her that she’s right, you know, this isn’t what we wanted and but we’re trying to do the best we can we’re hopeful that maybe next year it might be a much better social birthday party and and you know what Lisa she went down she did the Zoom I could hear the laughter, the girls had a great time, the moms were awesome. They all showed up initially with these beautiful gifts for her wrapped, and my whole point was just to get them together. It brings tears to your eyes to see how the other moms were also trying to create a sense of normalcy for the 8-year-olds, you know, and the girls loved it and it’s been amazing. It’s been amazing, you know, seeing her together and having this little garden grow. But it’s hard, you know, it’s hard acknowledging what my big worry was. That night I thought what am I not doing as a parent and acknowledging and taking care of as I’m trying to keep my head above water and I feel like I’m drowning. I kept telling all my friends how ‘Oh my gosh she’s thriving under quarantine. My daughter is doing so well’ and then I realized what if she isn’t?

LISA: You were worried that maybe she wasn’t as okay as you thought she was.

REENA: And what are the signals? What do I need to watch out for? That, okay the harm could be non reversible at this point.

LISA: Well, I just want to start right there. I’m not worried that anything you’ve described so far makes me think you have reasons to worry that there is you know it irreversible damage being done to your sweet girl by the pandemic, but I know parents have a lot of the concerns you’re sharing, which is you know, I’m working so hard to make it okay. I’m holding myself together best I can. I’m sometimes doing backflips to make things nicer for my kids because I’m so worried about the conditions we’re under. How do I know if what I’m doing is actually working or going to effectively protect them, right? That’s where we’re at right now, is how do we protect our kids from this? And I think you know when I size it up as a psychologist, there’s a couple ways that I would take on that question of, when would I worry? And should you worry? And so what you describe is that she became upset, you gave her empathy and then she was okay. She bounced back. She had a good time at the party and it sounds like she was okay for several days thereafter. Is that about right?

REENA: That’s absolutely right.

LISA: Yeah, so that to me is certainly not only not grounds for concern. That does not sound to me worrisome. It actually feels like evidence of your daughters excellent mental health in that moment because one of the things that we’re up against as a culture is that an inaccurate definition, not helpful definition, of mental health has sort of taken hold over time, and it’s this idea that we’re supposed to feel calm and happy all the time. And that’s not true. The real definition of mental health is that you have the right feeling at the right time and you’re able to weather it. And so what you’re describing is that even though it was a nice birthday party, the truth is, nobody wants a Zoom birthday party, right? I’m going to turn 50 this fall and I’m like ‘Nan I’m going to turn 50 on Zoom? Like really? That is so not what I had in mind for my 50th birthday party.

REENA: No Way.

LISA: And she got upset and so for me I’m like there she is! She’s having the right feeling at the right time. That’s a good thing. But it’s also coupled with the other good thing which was she was able to get through it. With your good help, she was able to get through it. So nothing there is concerning. In fact, everything there is just what we would want to see happen. I do think, like okay but then there’s the question right and this is probably in your mind of like well when would you worry then? Right, if this isn’t the grounds for concern, when would you worry? And is that something you’ve sort of thought about?

REENA: When do you need to be concerned? It’s so interesting to also hear you say that being upset or being frustrated or mad, you know, maybe even depressed in some moments like there’s an acceptable window when that’s an appropriate response and I never looked at it that way.

LISA: I think that’s right and I think another way to put it would be it’s kinda weird if people aren’t upset right now.

REENA: Right, you’re absolutely right.

LISA: That would probably be grounds for concern if somebody’s like this is awesome. Let’s keep doing this for a really long time. We would definitely think something was not working as it should. But I do know that there are families where maybe the kids are not bouncing back. You know that they’re upset and they stay upset, and that for me means that they’re not meeting that second part of the definition of mental health, which is that they’re able to get through it. Since the pandemic began, I’ve become very preoccupied with coping, which is this whole department in psychology of you know research that we do that I’ve known about for a long time but it’s really come center stage for me lately in terms of thinking about you know when we’re under chronic stress conditions, which at this point everybody is, we instinctively just are coping. And that’s good, except for not all coping is good. There’s bad coping and good coping. And so bad coping are things like being really awful to be around or for grown ups are teenagers like drinking a lot or using, and good coping are things like finding happy distractions and you know reaching out and being close with people who make you feel better. And so the other thing when I’m wondering like what are the flags that we want to be looking for? I think we’re gonna be looking for bad coping, when kids or grown ups really get into patterns where they’re doing that kind of thing.

REENA: So much of this reminds me when I, during the Iraq war, would rotate in and out. We did six-week rotations in Iraq and you didn’t realize what the stress was that you’re under when you’re covering a war zone but every time the plane would land back in London, you know which is where we spend a couple days, it’s like you can literally feel the stress dissipating that you didn’t even know you were taking in as you landed somewhere that you know there wasn’t gonna be an IED exploding. And sometimes I think about the pandemic here, there’s no trip to London. There’s no safe point where I’m like, I’m out of the battle zone, and you’re under this pressure that you don’t even realize you’re under. How do you know when you’re not coping properly?

LISA: Okay well first of all, you’re such a badass. I love that story. I just have to stop on that for a minute like this is what I love about you. You’re just this incredible woman who also has this incredible work that you do and have done and have been in situations that give us a really good yardstick for talking about stress actually.

REENA: My mom would say that was a lapse in good judgment during my twenties on those rotations into Iraq, but nonetheless it did get me thinking about dealing and coping with stress, and how sometimes you don’t even realize the pressure you’re under and there is no safe space to where I just get to this beach house or I you know I make it through the end of the month and we’re done.

LISA: Right, well and I think something that you’re talking about here that’s implicit is that part of the problem with this pandemic is that there’s no end date right if somebody could come to us today and say ‘Okay here’s the good news you just have to make to January 15.” That would change everything. And I wonder if part of why you were able to manage something like you know covering war zones in Iraq is that you had a sense of you know I have to hold it together for just this long and then I can you know I can I can be all right again. And so it’s interesting to think about. we don’t have that benefit right now. How do we get through it? And I’ve become much more aware than ever of the loss of things to really look forward to. So we can’t look forward to an end date but I also feel like a lot of us, and our kids especially, have lost those you know like ‘Oh this vacation’ or ‘Oh, this nice dinner party we’re having’ or those kinds of things. And so when we’re trying to get through something, that helps, and increasingly my own family I’ve created these artificial things to look forward to. I’ve brought the horizon much closer in terms of stuff we can look forward to that can’t be messed up. So it’s simple and small things like, there’s a really lovely bakery in our community and it’s really an indulgence to go there because the stuff is so good. And so I started to, every 10 days  or so, I’ll say to my family like ‘Well, I don’t I pick up from On the Rise’? you know ‘We’ll pick up a bunch of my stuff from On the Rise this weekend’ and it’s tiny but I think we’ll need that like we need something we’re holding on for or something we’re looking forward to or some sense of a joy or a reprieve that’s coming while we’re waiting for the big change that takes us back to something much more familiar than this pandemic.

REENA: It’s so interesting you know to hear you say that you’re holding on to something because I feel like I can’t even imagine that day when I can walk into a restaurant without a mask or do grocery shopping without a mass that when you can’t even see the edge of the horizon anymore it just can be so overwhelming

LISA: This is hard, this is hard. I mean I’ve practiced for 25 years and you know no one’s gonna be surprised to hear me say like ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’ I mean this I’ve never seen anything then this pervasive, this difficult, but I think we’ll get through it. Our kids will get through it, and one of the things that’s helping us get through it around here and I’m guessing maybe around your house: screens. How’s it going to screens at your house?

REENA: I’m so glad you mentioned it because I’m very embarrassed if I were to tell you the amount of time that my son is spending on Fortnite and Netflix and Apple TV. It’s a little bit embarrassing. All rules of engagement – there are no rules, let’s put it that way.

LISA: There are no rules. The rules are gone.

REENA: Out the window.

LISA: Oh man. It’s so funny when you mention Fortnite. And I do think we want to talk about screens and like what should parents be doing or not doing, but one of the questions that people have asked me a lot is like how are kids doing with their social relationships? And what I’m saying back is really the kids who are crushing this are the 9-to-15-year old boys who have these games that they play that involve interacting with their peers over the video games because they were doing that before the pandemic and they’re still doing it and they’re as happy as can be.

REENA: Oh my gosh. I never looked at it that way. So, you’re actually saying the fact that these boys, my son’s in that age range, that that’s not such a bad thing because it’s a sense of normalcy from pre-COVID to current day

LISA: It’s how they were socializing before. They’re like ‘Great, just more of it.’ Whereas the rest of us are trying to figure out how to have Zoom wine nights. The boys are like, and it’s almost all boys, boys are like that’s great. More Fortnite, more time with friends. So around here the way it looks is I try to keep a lid on it. My 16-year-old is busy enough with other stuff that she doesn’t spend a huge amount of time on screens, and she’s as far as I know and I and I truly believe this to be true, she’s like really reasonable in terms of her use of social media. She’s not someone I worry about too much in that department. My 9-year-old is a lot harder because I’m not able to entertain her as much as she needs to be entertained, and she’s got nothing else going on. No camps, no day camps. Playdates are tricky and she’s being so good. She’s reading a lot and she’ll go out in the backyard and play on her own for a little while and she’ll go down in the basement to play with her crafts, but there comes a point in the day where I’m busy, my husband’s busy. She’s done all the things she is supposed to do, and I like fine watch TV. I just I can’t tell her no and it feels like the least I can offer her at that point.

REENA: So when would you say too much is too much? Like is there a point where it really starts to practically melt your brain and reverse progress that’s made on math and science you know? When am I absolutely doing great harm?

LISA: Okay, probably not yet. I think you’re probably okay. So here’s my big guardrails on screen time. Number one is like what are they looking at? So if you want to melt a kid’s brain, show them porn. Like that is horrible for children. That is a terrible idea. No one’s going to do that and your kids shouldn’t be looking at it. So there’s stuff like that, any amount of that is too much of that. The rest of it, okay like what are they looking at? So Fortnite, yes it’s violent. I know people have questions and concerns about that. When we look at the psychological science on on violent video games the truth of the matter is and and this is hard for me to say, there’s no slam dunk that they’re horrendous for kids I mean I like it it really depends on who your kid is and how violent they are normal life you know I mean it it there’s a lot of you know measures of this. But your kid likes Fortnite. It makes him happy. My hunch is that your son is not running around being violent in other ways. Is that a fair assumption?

REENA: Absolutely right, absolutely right.

LISA: Okay so Fortnite? Probably no problem at all. Then there’s like the benign stuff kids watch that’s dumb, but not harmful. And then there’s like cool educational stuff kids are watching or kids are using their screens to have meaningful friendships and meaningful connections. So for me, the first question is, is what they’re looking at on the screen harmful to them? In and of itself harmful? And I was a latchkey child. When I think about the hours I spent watching Gilligan’s Island. I have watched so much television that was actually so much dumber than what my kids were watching. I can actually relax a little bit because I’m like  well what they’re watching is much more clever than anything I ever got to see. So there’s that. And then I think the next question is is it getting in the way? Is it getting in the way of things that they’re supposed to be doing in the name of normal development like sleeping, helping out around the house, learning something right this summer even if it’s how to bake, which is actually no small thing. Are they physically active? Think through things like, what’s the list of what healthy developing children need to do, and if kids are doing those things, right now screens are a huge comfort. And and we need happy distractions. That’s actually one of the key findings in the psychology of managing chronic stress, which is where we’re at, you need to be able to take mental vacations. Our kids need it. We need it, and a really easy mental vacation to take is to watch a really absorbing show, or get lost in the game. Not only is that not not harmful, it actually may be protective at this point as we find ourselves moving into month six of this pandemic. People are going to need as many mental vacations as they can take.

REENA: It’s so interesting to hear you say about these breaks that you need to take. You know I’m just wondering at what point, how do you get past it? You know? Not knowing and end date, it’s still so hard right?

LISA: It is so hard. I wish, I wish I had the ‘Oh, you want a formula for getting past it? Here it is’

REENA: That’s what I’m asking!  You’re absolutely right.

LISA: I want it too. Here’s where I’ve arrived, though. I don’t feel despairing or hopeless even though I don’t have that formula, and I wish I had the formula. Where I’ve arrived is, well first of all, we have to be really really deliberate about taking good care of ourselves and our kids. And a lot of taking good care of our kids is actually taking good care of ourselves. So we need to be getting good sleep. We need to be physically active. We need to be eating well. We need to be watching how much wine we’re drinking. We need to do the things that we know matter. Especially over time in terms of being able to sustain ourselves emotionally and physically. So we need to do that. I think the other thing that gets us through it is not to fall prey to something called learned helplessness, which is this interesting finding in psychology that, that sometimes when people are in situations like the one we’re in, where so much is out of their control and bad, they can they can actually slip into a posture of like ‘There’s nothing I can do about anything,’ and and that’s actually a place we don’t want to go, that kind of like ‘I’m gonna get in my bed and pull the covers over my head and tell me when it’s over.’ Like I know we all feel that way and you certainly have your days, but I think we want to try to steer clear of a sense of total helplessness, and really make a point of focusing on ‘Okay well what can I control? Of all the stuff that is out of control that I don’t like, I have to accept and let go of a lot of it. What in this can I make better for myself, better for my kids make it nicer, make work, make taste good?’ You know I think that’s where our energies need to be.

REENA:  At the beginning of quarantine back in March when all this started and we thought we might be hunkered down for two weeks, I felt I’ve got a list of things that I’m going to get through all these books I wanted to read, all that the closet that I wanted cleaned out that I haven’t been able to do for a year, and none of those books have been read, closet is still a total mass, and I feel like I’m struggling like I need to be productive and work my way through this as a coping strategy, but some days, Lisa it’s just even hard to get out of bed, let alone take care of the kids.

LISA: I know I made the list too I mean, kind of this frantic list making actually have them around somewhere, like all the books I’ve been meaning to read all the stuff I was gonna clean it was also closets it was cleaning out the basement washing the windows. I have made some progress on one of the books but the list was probably had six or seven books on it. I think first of all I have found and I’m wondering if you found like I’m surprisingly busy in ways that I did not expect to be, and it’s not like I’m doing wonderful productive work. It’s just that things are so hard they just take so long. So there’s that’s. This is something I’m really glad or we’re talking about, which is when when things spin out of control you can want to exert tremendous control and I think that is something we want to be wary about because to get through this pandemic you know the goal is not going to be to see how productive or disciplined we can be or our kids can be. I think the way we’re gonna get through this pandemic is to focus on the goal of coming out the other side of it psychologically intact. And doing what it takes to get there.

REENA: So if you had to put up billboards across America with one message, one message about this pandemic to everybody in America, what would it be?

LISA: I think it would be something like, be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with your kids. We’re going to find our way, but this isn’t going to be easy, and we’re going to have to be really kind to everyone, ourselves included.

REENA: Great advice. Really great advice, and sometimes not so easy to take.

LISA: No, this is a tough one, this is tough one and I’m really glad we’re talking about it. Because I think people can feel alone, you know. I think it’s easy to feel alone and under hard times that  go on for a long time. That’s the last thing that the absolute last thing anyone wants to feel.

REENA: So Lisa, what’s your parenting to go?

LISA: When our kid is having a meltdown, you know those huge emotional eruptions, it is so easy to want to jump in and make it stop. And I think often the way we try to do that is we start offering solutions and suggestions. My parenting to go is that so often that is not what kids are really anybody wants. They mostly just want to know that you get it, and that you empathize. And they may at some point be able to take suggestions, but usually not off the bat so my advice is that when you have a kid of any age who is having an emotional meltdown, hold yourself steady, listen intently, and then offer empathy. My favorite words are ‘Oh honey that stinks.’ It is amazing how far that gets in helping kids feel better.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does 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.

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The Emotional Lives of Teenagers Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents