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September 8, 2020

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 5

Toolbox for Terrible Times: Managing Helplessness and Hopelessness

Episode 5

How do we get through the pandemic without losing our minds? Lisa offers parents four distinct tools to help ourselves and our children through these challenging times. The specific tools are “feeling with” children, supporting healthy psychological defenses, having the right words for painful emotions, and finding ways – like using humor- to rally when we’re feeling down. Reena gets emotional talking about what a teacher did to prepare her students for the first day back.

September 8, 2020 | 25 min

Transcript | Toolbox for Terrible Times: Managing Helplessness and Hopelessness

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 NINAN: So I feel like today I just need some reassurance from you and I don’t know how you get out of a spot when you feel like you just can’t get up again, and I’m realizing so many parents feel this way about not being able to get up and it’s such a critical time, back to school, and then I found this email that a mother sent to us from the south, and by the way the emails have just been incredible coming and we’d love to hear from you, and in this email that I’m going to reach you I’ve changed some of the details, the personal details but not the gist of the email, just so this person is not able to be identified. The mom writes this: ‘I’m the mother of an only child. He’s a 9-year-old boy. I’m also a teacher wading through the challenges of online teaching. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I’ve been consumed by work for over a month. My son comes to school with me every day and has his own workstation. He does his online classes with his teacher as I teach my kiddos online. I’ve been an awful mother lately. I feel I’ve neglected him, didn’t shield my stress from him and haven’t given him the outlet of play lately at all. How do we parent and work through this pandemic when we’re all in each other’s presence 24/7. How do we take healthy breaks while showing support for one another? How do I share my teacher time with my mom time? I’ve been an educator for 20 years and I’ve never had trouble separating the two until this year. Thank you, Dr. Lisa.

LISA DAMOUR: Okay so this is heartbreaking. I’m moved by the letter. I’m also– we’re all in this place of dipping in and out of how incredibly difficult this is and that letter takes us right into the heart of it. There’s a straightforward question she asks at the end, just about how do we take a break, we’re together all the time? And that in some ways feels like relatively easy to answer around just probably just saying you know ‘Kiddo, I love you like crazy. I know you like me and we were not meant to be together 24 hours a day so let’s each have some alone time and just really make it no big deal.’ But there’s something else here that’s bigger about how this mom feels like she’s a bad teacher, a bad mom has not taken care of her boy in the way that she wants to, can’t see the exit strategy for this hard time and clearly feels worried and guilty about what this is like for her son.

REENA: Totally. And I think for me personally as a parent reading this email it makes you see what teachers are also juggling in a way that I want them back in school five days, you know, get them back in the classroom and then you’re seeing from a vantage point of what this teacher has been going through and the guilt she feels for her own child

LISA:  Yeah I mean it’s not like most teachers can just devote themselves entirely to their students, though they want to, many of them have their own kids and families they’re trying to take care of without all of the infrastructure that makes work possible for adults, and I think just the loss of that infrastructure warrants 14 hours of lengthy discussion which we want do here. I want to say to this mom that there are ways to get kids through your irreducibly painful times that we know this in psychology that it happens in development sometimes that kids are put in positions that we would never want them in. It can be things like a very hard divorce or the death of a parent you know that we we’ve never done COVID before as psychologists, but we’ve done other protracted, difficult to brutal circumstances and we know how to buffer it for kids. And what I’m thinking about here is something I learned in my training when kids are in really difficult circumstances is if you can solve the problem solve it. Right? If it’s a fixable thing, fix it right. So it can be something in a divorce, for example, where the kid is forgetting to bring their toothbrush back and forth, okay just by two toothbrushes right like that that’s the easy answer. So if you can,fix it. If you can’t fix it, maybe the parents are an ongoing disagreement or you know obviously we can take it to COVID, so much of this can’t be fixed. The solution, which seems small but goes far is that the child needs to feel that somebody gets it. How it feels for them to be in this situation. That we are feeling with the child and making that clear goes surprisingly far toward helping make difficult situations bearable for children.

REENA: So what would you say, Lisa, that really looks like?

LISA:  So what it looks like is that we’ve voiced what we imagine their experiences. So in the case of this mom the actual solution, besides doing anything she can to shore up and take care of herself in any other way which I’m sure she is trying to do, would be for her to say to her son ‘This really is crummy. I do not like this and I cannot imagine you like it very much either sometimes. You must sometimes feel tired of being with me all the time. You must notice that I’m stressed and that must not be very fun for you to see me feeling stressed. I can’t make it all right right now, but I want you to know that I’m trying to get what it’s like for you right now.”

REENA: So you’re really validating what your child is feeling and why is that so important?

LISA: Because then they’re not alone. There’s something for a kid about feeling like, all right this situation is not good but the grownup gets it and the grown up wants me to know that they know that I’m going through a hard time. Something about that empathy and company is supportive to kids and actually strengthens our relationship with our kids and I don’t think we should underestimate the power of that right now.

REENA: Part of the reason I’m so emotional that kids are are back to school, but a couple days before they started my son’s teacher sent this video and said I’d love for you to share this with your child and I clicked on it and she was saying you won’t be able to see my face but I’d like you to be able to see it before you start. Here I am without my mask and then she puts her mask back on but you’ll be seeing me like this and sometimes I’ll be wearing this face shield and your desks that are usually grouped together they’re actually gonna be spaced out, look take a look here’s what it looks like and then she knocks on something and I realize it’s a plexiglass and she goes and just so you know my desk is also going to have a plexiglass. Here’s what the plexiglass looks like it’ll be around my desk it’s just to protect me and to protect you and to keep us all safe but we’re gonna have an awesome year we are going to learn so much.

LISA: Oh, Reena

REENA: I’m so emotional today because I just I think so many parents feel a sense of hopelessness.

LISA: Yeah, so watching that video that your teacher made, your son’s teacher made was upsetting. It was actually very hard to see you know and even though I imagine she was being sort of chipper and upbeat through it.

REENA: But I also thought it was wonderful, like I just thought wow my son really is going to have a wonderful year. She thought this through. I never would have thought you know a teacher might want to consider showing their face because they’re not gonna be showing their face through the day. I I thought wow how well thought out. But it did make me sad, like why am I so upset about seeing that?

LISA: Well I think this is probably a moment where there’s a little bit of grace in that what the implications and ramifications are different through the eyes of adults than the kids. I mean we will look at this are like holy moly like this is just a mess right? That a teacher even has to make and send a video like this, I mean we sort of thinking much broader scope. I don’t think it necessarily lands for kids like that, I think they’re like okay this is a game plan, and you know what she did is wonderful and that gets to something else that we have I would almost be like in our toolbox for terrible times, righ,  I mean I think that that’s really what we’re getting at here is what’s our toolbox for terrible times? So one thing is we feel with kids. We talk with them about things we strongly suspect is very hard for them, and we give voice to and make space for that conversation. The other thing is we prepare them. We let them know what’s coming. Wnd and here, again, I’m gonna you know dig again to you know my experience as a psychologist again to my past here around what I know from very hard times for kids and one of the examples that comes to mind is sometimes if it’s necessary or an option for a child to attend a funeral you know there’s always this question of like, should they do it? And the wisdom on this that has been handed down to me through the field is tell them everything that’s going to happen. Tell them what they will see. Tell them what it will be like if they walk in and say it’s in a church. What will they see when they walk in the church? What will the other people be like? Where will things be? If there’s a coffin and where will it be? And so it may seem strange that the best thing we can do for kids in hard times it’s actually to give them a full and detailed preview. I think some parents feel like, we’ll just deal with it when we get there, but if we can do what your teacher didn’t like, okay kids here’s what class is going to look like when you come in. It’s not going to be what you remember. The desks are here. I’m going be wearing a mask. This is my plexiglass. it really lets kids marshall their emotional resources and their forces to, I hate to say it, but kind of brace themselves for the novelty yeah, and the bracing helps. It helps them to not have the problem of surprises. So often in life like, if there’s one thing people really don’t like. it’s bad surprises. So there’s bad, and there’s bad surprises, you can get rid of the surprises piece by giving kids a pretty detailed account of what to expect, and they do so much better when they’re confronted with that.

REENA: I feel like my son is when the teacher lottery this year with this teacher and I showed him the video. At the end I said ‘You know, what do you think?’ and he said ‘Do you think she’s going to be strict?’ That was his reaction. But I get your point about you know exposing them to what it might be like can help them deal with it and and know what to expect.

LISA: Yeah and it’s interesting. We actually use the term intellectualization in psychology. Like we talk about a wide range of psychological defenses which are effectively filters. They filter emotion. And sometimes when people say ‘defense’ they mean it in a bad way like ‘Oh that person’s being defensive’ you know or there are some defenses that really mess with reality like repression where you just forget that something occurred. But there’s a lot of really healthy defenses that just let us confront the day to day and not be overwhelmed by it, and intellectualization is one of them, and so what she’s doing is she’s getting rid of the possibility of bad surprises and encouraging your son and his classmates to like use their minds to get ready for what’s coming, you know, as opposed to just having it hit them with the full force visuals of walking into a strange space and that’s a real gift from that teacher.

REENA: I truly feel like it was such a gift and I’m just surprised even going through the session of how it affected me as a parent. You mentioned psychological defenses, how do you use it to get through hard times?

LISA: Well it’s largely what we would call an unconscious process. That it it happens outside of our awareness, and the way that defenses works is  sometimes were helped to use them right as your your son’s teacher did of like ‘Hi kiddos I’m here to teach you about your new weird classroom’ which is basically doing. And other times, and I was also thinking about this as you are reading the letter, what defense is also do is they’re almost like emotional circuit breakers that if we’re having a pretty powerful emotio,  usually a defense will kick in once it becomes if it starts to get to a place where it’s gonna feel overwhelming. So it may be that we think like holy moly like this is really rough what’s going on and I feel really sad for my kids and I can’t believe we’re doing this and I can’t believe we might be doing this for weeks if not months. And what happens is that we’ll often notice that our mind shifts to something like practical or philosophical we’re like okay but what are we having for lunch or you know maybe my kids will learn and grow through this and that shift into a different posture where suddenly the emotion feels a little dried up is just healthy psychological defenses. The circuit flips, the emotion cools off, we move into a more you know kind of rationalizing place or intellectualizing place. Even humor, I mean humor is probably the most adaptive defenses and you know we’re like well at least we will get through these leftovers because everyone’s eating them for lunch, you know whatever yeah and so I think in our toolbox were terrible times, I like literally just made that up, I think you know we also have to remember we all come equipped and our kids come equipped with psychological defenses that do help to kind of filter through you know filter some of what’s coming at us.

REENA: Huh. You know we talk about this feeling of helplessness. Why is it so important to name what you’re feeling, for instance, feeling helpless that sense of helplessness?

LISA: What you just said, this is the core of what psychotherapy does. It’s such a funny job to be a psychologist because my job is to help people find the right words for what they’re feeling, and we don’t know why. There’s this magic that happens, that when you have the right word for an emotion, somehow the emotion feels more bearable. And I can’t even tell you why that works that way, but you just said helplessness, which I think is exactly at the heart of a lot of what people are feeling, helpless and hopeless at times, and in my years of work I will tell you I think helplessness is one of the least bearable emotions. Right if we’re like guilty really well then we can imagine we might fix it or if we’re lonely maybe we can find some company, but I have to tell you people do not like to feel helpless. None of us enjoy it and one thing that can be useful is just to call it what it is. To just say I feel really helpless right now. I feel helpless to fix things in the broader world and I feel helpless to make life at home what I wish it were. And naming that can be useful and having the right word for it can be useful.

REENA: Is it uncommon to go from helplessness to hopelessness?

LISA: I think people can get there. I think people can feel like this is so big and so out of my hands and so unclear when the end date is that I think I’m watching people struggle to rally in these moments. I think so, I think so.

REENA: What’s the difference between helplessness and hopelessness?

LISA: I think hopelessness is sort of like man I can’t do this right now and hopelessness might might be more in the department of like this is never going to be okay. They’re probably fraternal twins. They have a lot in common.

REENA: So if you feel, Lisa, what do we do if you feel like you’re falling into some sort of a pit of despair.

LISA: Well, there’s a clinical answer and then there’s a more garden variety answer. So the clinical answer is if you or your kids are just feeling not just sad but depressed, you know persistently down and struggling to come out of it, call your physician, you know, call a mental health clinician in your area. That is treatable. We can take care of you, that’s deserved. But I think a lot of people are like well I’m not there, but I feel terrible or, you know, frustrated and helpless all the time. I actually have a story. It’s kind of it’s kind of a funny story.

REENA: Well you did say that humor is a coping mechanism.

LISA: Okay, so here’s what happened. Last fall, I was speaking at a school and I was hanging out with the head of school, who is this really nice guy, this big tall lanky guy, and somehow the conversation came around to the question of like what’s your dream car. Like somehow we got onto that topic, and he’s like, my dream car is a Fiat Mini. I always wanted a Fiat Mini, he said finally my kids went off to college and we could have a smaller car. And so I went down to the dealership and I picked out this Fiat Mini, and then I had my wife come look at it, and he said she looked at this little car and she looked at me and she said ‘You are a grown ass man.’ And eh said so I don’t have that car I have this SUV I don’t even like, so this cracked me up so much. It was so funny, I actually met his wife later that night and I gave her the nod, I was like yeah good job. So I come home and I tell my daughters that story because just cracked me up so much. So then about three weeks later, I had the honor of giving the pediatric grand rounds down at Cleveland Metro Health’s hospital. So I live in a suburb of Cleveland and the Metro Health Hospital is in this really especially windy and difficult area in Cleveland to get to, and I have no sense of direction. I really am deeply impaired when it comes to spatial relations and getting around places and actually that’s something where I feel really helpless and hopeless about that.

REENA: What? Really?

LISA: Yeah, I get lost going to places I’ve been a lot of times, even navigating on my phone, I don’t trust it because I don’t call myself. I mean it’s really harrowing for me in its own weird way. So it’s on the morning and my daughters are still home, they hadn’t gone to school yet, and I’m like oh you guys, I have to go down to Metro Health Today. I’m sure I’m going to get lost and also the parking situation is really complicated down there. And I was like, I hate this like maybe I’ll take an Uber you know trying to be on time for my talk. I don’t want to mess it up and I’m having this mini meltdown in the kitchen. And my younger daughter, who I think was 8 at the time, she looks at me and she goes ‘Mom, you are a grown ass woman’

REENA: That is really funny.

LISA:  She says, ‘Drive yourself down to Metro’ And I was like Oh my gosh, she’s right. Like that was actually useful and that’s actually what I needed in that moment. I was sort of having this like swivet like I can’t do this, I can’t do this, and she was like ‘Pull yourself together.’ So it’s become actually a running joke in our family, you know, that we’ll offer empathy and you have to use it really delicately and of course not all families are gonna use ‘grown ass’ with their daughters like I do, but then sort of say, okay but you’re a grown ass woman, which is also very funny thing to say to a very small now 9-year-old.

REENA: That’s great. And so what would you say is the takeaway from soemthing like that?

LISA: I think the takeaway is that we can have really opposing emotions in sequence. That you can go from, I can do this, I can’t do this, this is to much, this is too much, to sort of rallying yourself. The kind of like, slap, slap, get yourself together, and being like okay, I can’t do it and I’m also gonna ask woman, like I’ll figure this out. And I think I think that that sense of emotions coming in sequence one after the other is really important because I think sometimes the discourse in the conversation around emotions is like, you feel this, and I’m like what do you feel this one minute and then that the next minute and that we need to embrace the idea that we aren nimble emotionally and occasionally get stuck in a terrible rut, but often can throw things in reverse back out figure out how to get ourselves to a different place, and if we ever needed to harness that power, like, now is the time to do that.

REENA: Oh I love that that. That is a great story. That was a story I needed to hear today. Fantastic. So, grown ass woman, what’s your parenting to go?

LISA: My parenting to-go, grown ass woman, is gratitude actually, to sort of again back to our toolbox for terrible times. We do have really good research in psychology showing that practicing gratitude does increase well being. So when things are looking pretty dark and things are looking hard, there is true benefit in stopping for a minute and thinking, okay, I don’t like a lot of this but there are still many things that I am grateful for and then making yourself name them, and embrace them. So, Reena, what are you feeling grateful for you?

LISA: You know, as hard as it is to have the kids around 24/7 I’m so grateful for the little moments where I really get to see them grow and be with them in a way that I knew if I was taking the train at 7:30 in the morning to New York and back at 8 p.m., I would not have been able to witness.

LISA: Yeah, no, that’s beautiful.

REENA: So what are you grateful for, Lisa?

LISA: I’m grateful for my family, and I do like actually being together as much as we are. I’m really grateful for coffee. One of the things in life that I just I love it so much. And I’m grateful, this is gonna sound corny but I really mean it, for our listeners who are sending in such heartfelt questions that are letting us get to very difficult topics, that are not easy to take on, and yet we’re here to try to be helpful and so we’re really glad that people are telling us the truth and giving us the hard stuff, so that we can try to unpack it.

REENA: I didn’t think co-hosting with you would turn into a personal therapy session as well,  but you’re just that good.

LISA: All right, grown ass woman, see you next week?

REENA: See you next week.

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.