Behavior Analyst, Chris Messina, discusses parenting pitfalls to be aware of in order to help protect your children’s mental hygiene during coronavirus and lockdown measures.
Pitfall #1: Don’t double down on kids and try to over-compensate for what is perceived as missed time.
Many parents feel that they need to set hard rules and push for increased accomplishments in order to make up for lost time in school and around peers. This includes rigorously tracking academics, skills, and lessons, such as music or languages.
Rather, take stock of your child’s mental wellness right now. They may very well need the opposite approach for these coming summer months.
Connectivity is key for children. Create a game plan with your family and discuss what levels of exposure with other’s you’re comfortable with. Plan for events where kids can see their peers while recognizing public health advisories. This may also be a time to relax rules with technology regarding Facetimes, messaging, and other apps that allow kids to stay connected and social with each other from afar.
Pitfall #2: Don’t treat lock-down, especially during school months, as an extended summer vacation
It’s very possible that this spring was not simply a one-off, as it’s becoming more apparent that this situation may not be over anytime soon. Many parents are relaxing their rules and treating this time as an extended summer vacation, such as: ultra-late bedtimes, sleeping past lunchtime, unlimited time on technology, loosening the reins on any kind of real structured day.
The primary way to address this as a family is to generate a weekly schedule by collaborating with your kids, which allows you to roll out your week ahead and have some structure. Get creative with ways that your kids can invest their time this summer. With kids experiencing an abundance of anxiety and depression, they may not generate these ideas organically and by themselves, and may default to phone time, bedroom time, or isolation. Therefore, it’s important that parents advocate, encourage and brainstorm with their kids.
Pitfall #3: Don’t forget to be intentional and check in with your child; simply being at home isn't enough
Most kids communicate their feelings through behavior over words. Signs that your kid is experiencing anxiety, depression, loneliness, or lack of stimulation may be expressed as agitation, physical aggression, sourness in behavior, or mood swings.
To combat this: make sure that you are regularly checking in with your child. Give it the time, listen to their thoughts, get a pulse for where they are and how they’re feeling. Oftentimes, if parents initiate the conversation, and even open up about their own concerns and vulnerabilities, they can create momentum and children will follow suit. Don’t wait for your kids to initiate these conversations- they may be uncertain about how they feel, and initiating mental dialogue may not be in their behavioral or emotional repertoire.
Divorced parents who are struggling with co-parenting during unusual and difficult schedules, research collaborate problem solving. This is an approach and a tool to help develop effective communication and problem solving skill for the well-being of children.
Welcome to Modern Family Matters, a podcast hosted by Steve Altishin, our Director of Client Partnerships here at Landerholm Family Law. We are devoted to exploring topics within the realm of family law that matter most to you. Our discussions will cover a wide range of both legal and personal issues that accompany family law matters. We strongly believe that life events such as marriages, divorces, re-marriages, births, adoptions, children, growing up, growing older, illnesses and deaths do not dissolve a family. Rather, they provide the opportunity to reconfigure and strengthened family dynamics in healthy and positive ways. With expertise from qualified attorneys and professional guests, we hope that our podcasts will help provide answers, clarity, and guidance for the better tomorrow for you and your family. Without further ado, your host, Steve Altishin.
Steve Altishin 1:12
Good afternoon. Welcome to our Facebook Live broadcast. Right now I want to welcome Chris Messina. Chris Messina is a certified board Behavior Analyst, and we're going to talk about your child's Mental Hygiene and the pitfalls that you can fall into. So Chris, let's start off with you. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Chris Messina 1:38
Sure. Thanks, Steve. So yes, I'm technically a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, which is essentially a Behavioral Therapist, and I work with children and families who are struggling with a whole host of behavioral challenges. And ultimately, what a behavior analyst does is we look at the functions of behavior and the variables in a child's environment that are maintaining behaviors that we don't want to continue seeing. So my job is to figure out how do we modify a kid's environment? And how, as the adults in their world, do we teach them lagging skills that will help them learn a whole new set of behaviors?
Steve Altishin 2:20
Well, Chris, that kind of brings back the concept that we talked about of mental hygiene. Now, we all know that the Coronavirus pandemic has put a tremendous emphasis on practicing good hygiene habits. I mean, we're disinfecting everything in sight, including groceries, or using hand sanitizer everywhere, and we're washing our hands after every activity. We're changing and washing our clothes, it seems like multiple times a day, every time we come in from being outside or wear masks in public. We're social distancing. And these are all great ways to prevent us from being infected physically, but what about mentally? This seems to really also be affecting us mentally, so how can we help ourselves from being infected mentally, especially our children, during these times?
Chris Messina 3:11
Right? Hey, that's a great question. You know, in the way that you've just defined the physical hygiene, we're taking really proactive steps to try and avoid negative outcomes. The same applies for Mental Hygiene. So being proactive as parents is going to go a long way, ideally, in preventing some concerning long-term negative outcomes emotionally for kids during a really, really uncertain time. So I'd love to speak to some of those pitfalls that you referenced earlier, and look at what are some likely traps that we might fall into as parents during this time period? And what can we potentially do to avoid those? And then if we've already fallen prey, which is possible, what can we do to correct for those?
Steve Altishin 4:01
Well, that sounds wonderful. I mean, for the last three months, it seems to me kids have been locked up at home, trying to finish the school year, and in many cases, they're locked up in their home with their parents who are working remotely from home. And now it looks like we're already planning for next year's school year. I mean, that's got to be difficult.
Chris Messina 4:20
It is. It's tremendously stressful as a parent, I can attest to that. So the first pitfall that I would anticipate, and I have seen in my practice and it's a natural tendency, is for parents to scramble and kind of play make-up for what they perceive as, and in reality was, missed time. Missed academic time, kids were homeschooling and weren't having the sort of full breadth of education that they would in school. So I think as parents our tendency would be to say, “How can I double and triple down in terms of makeup work, online classes, tutoring throughout the summer?” And while that may be perfectly appropriate for certain kids, and they can absolutely handle that, a lot of kids that I'm seeing cannot manage those demands given their current levels of anxiety and just overall stress given what's going on. So even though we probably feel like it's the right thing to do as a parent to kind of make sure that they're tracking academically or with other skills and lessons and music lessons and whatnot, I would caution parents to really take stock of their child's mental wellness right now. They may very well need the opposite approach for these coming summer months.
Steve Altishin 5:47
Are there any kind of specific opposite approaches, you know, ways you can help relieve that?
Chris Messina 5:53
Sure. Well, I mean, at the core of what's causing so much stress and anxiety for kids is obviously isolation, as it is for adults as well. So I think that as a parent, my tendency feels like, I want to limit technology time, I want to make sure that the time is being spent in a more productive way. I actually think the kids need a reasonable amount, but maybe more than you're comfortable with, amount of time on technology to do facetimes, and zooms and texting with friends, because that connectivity is the single thing that I feel is going to keep these kids happy and well during this time. So maybe flexing your muscles a little bit with tech would be a really prudent thing to do this summer. You know, I think when this all began, everybody was, at least in my circle, pretty excited about doing family game nights on zoom, and all sorts of get togethers with relatives from afar, and I think we've probably all exhausted ourselves. And if we can circle back and look at ways to maybe increase exposure, let's kind of go back and loop back to where we once were. And I think that making careful decisions, with which your family is comfortable in terms of exposure to other people, is obviously critical. But you know, it's summertime, there are ways to connect with other people outside in ways that will make you still feel safe. And I think we need to do a whole lot of that if we can.
Steve Altishin 7:24
Finally, we can now sort of get outside we can sort of be together. Are there things we can do with some actual physical connectivity that can also help to sort of bring us back into the real world?
Unknown Speaker 7:41
I mean, sure. I've seen all sorts of creative things as I drive around neighborhoods. I see people having parties across the street, I see children engaging with one another from across yards. Obviously, we want to follow safety protocols, but I do think that we need to prioritize the connectivity that kids absolutely are going to need this summer. And kind of look at where we're at with our own anxiety about exposure. So we don't want to make ourselves uncomfortable. We don't want to be unsafe. But I think we have to keep coming back to the benefits that these kids will accrue from repeated exposure to peers.
Steve Altishin 8:24
Right. I totally see where that makes sense. You know, it's now summer, school's out. So you know, a lot of parents are saying, “Well, now we just need to get through until September; that's my our plan, just get through till September”. Is that really the case?
Chris Messina 8:43
Well, as an educator as well as a therapist, I think that we all know that this is not over anytime too soon. That whatever the school year coming looks like will not be typical, as we've known in the past, right? So I think we do need to buckle up and get ready for uncertain times for a longer period than just the summer. So pitfall number two that I have seen this spring, even when we weren't certain what was coming in the fall, which is concerning already, is that a lot of parents with whom I work are kind of behaving and allowing kids to adopt the mindset that we're on a permanent summer vacation. That this spring was unusual. So, ultra-late bedtimes, sleeping past lunchtime, unlimited time on technology, loosening the reins on any kind of real structured day was sort of what I was observing in a lot of households. And that can be really, really problematic for a whole host of reasons.
Steve Altishin 9:47
How the heck do you, as parents, change those habits? Because those habits can get ingrained really quickly.
Chris Messina 9:53
Really quickly. And I see that already. So we have this kind of unusual scattered spring with kids at home. Now it's summer. So with a lot of families, kind of anything goes in summer, which I don't totally recommend either unless you're on a vacation and have made that choice intentionally. But I think that the primary way to address this is to, as a family, in whatever format makes the most sense for your family, generate a weekly schedule. So on Sunday afternoon, you know, kind of roll out the week ahead and be realistic, right? Sure, summertime, days are longer, kids can stay up later, I get that. But you know, a 10-year-old staying up till three o'clock in the morning on their iPad, that's not good practice. So I would say, let's be creative. How are we going to keep these kids busy during the summer when there are very few camps and a lot of folks aren't even opting for camps this year?
Steve Altishin 10:50
I was just going to say, setting the schedules are great. It definitely kind of helps people become more ready for what's ahead. And the whole uncertainty thing that's going out right now, to me, seems like a big part of the problem. Nobody knows what's going to be the next day or the next day or the next day. So when you're setting schedules, are you talking about the mom and dad are getting together and setting it and then going to the kids and saying, "here it is", or is this a time to have some collaboration with kids?
Chris Messina 11:26
This is absolutely a time for collaboration with the kids. I'm pretty sure that would not be well received, depending on the age of your kid. I work a lot with teenagers, that's not going to fly. But I do think that the entire family unit will run more smoothly if we are getting up at a reasonable time, having somewhat regular mealtimes. You and I had chatted in the past about the idea of dressing for the job you want. I'm thinking now that this is sort of “dress for the day you want”. I have a joke with my colleagues that we are oftentimes in our pajama pants from the waist down because we're working virtually, right? It's actually, in my opinion, not a great option for how to conduct your summer. Staying in pajamas all day, I feel like it kind of breeds laziness so we don't feel really inspired to get up and move. And in the long term, what concerns me about long days, lazy days in pajamas is that the return and transition back to real life, whatever that will look like, it will be that much harder, because we have many, many months ahead for these behaviors to take root. So undoing concerns me in the future.
Steve Altishin 12:40
Oh, yeah, in the absence now of camps, summer camps, the other social gatherings, I believe we talked about kids who are in music or theater in the summer and all of these things that they get to go to which keeps them active but may not have that now. Or again, maybe they can. Are there ways that that remotely and, again, with some sort of physical closeness, kids can replicate some of those things that they're losing?
Chris Messina 13:14
Right. So I think as parents, we've all been bombarded with emails about virtual camps and virtual options for lessons and things, which, for most kids feel less than ideal. But some of them are worth looking into. I think that there are ways to access some healthy activities online for sure. And I think we have to get creative. You know, if we're comfortable with our adolescent child being a dog walker for folks in the neighborhood, maybe that's an option. Maybe we encourage our kids to put together a flyer and they can safely do something like that. I know a group of girls with whom I work are starting an Etsy shop and they're going to be making pet food. So things that potentially are not ways in which we would typically spend our summer, I think we're going to have to be creative. And I think we're going to have to work with kids. And to your point, do we just roll out plans and then enforce it for the kids? No. But I do think that kids stress levels are so high right now. And I'm seeing an abundance of anxiety and depression, not surprisingly, that I don't know that independently they are going to generate these ideas. I do think we need to advocate for them, maybe offer some suggestions as parents because I'm seeing kids kind of default to phone time, bedroom time, isolation time, so I do think we need to encourage them.
Steve Altishin 14:40
I remember when our kids during the summer would put together kind of random little musical plays. And there'd be you know, eight or nine of them, they’d do it in the backyard. At that time, they were fairly close together, but it seems to me things like that. I believe you said your kid is in choir, and maybe could do a concert in a backyard where everyone could be 10 feet apart. It seems like that could be helpful, not just the day of the event, but in terms of planning and looking forward and kind of getting back into being excited about doing something.
Chris Messina 15:25
Right. Again, I think if we're creative, and if we're open, and I think at the core of this conversation is the idea that keeping that mental hygiene always top of mind will help us as we make tough decisions as parents. Because there are no easy answers, right? We're all confused. We're all uncertain. But I think if we keep remembering that isolation, while it may feel the safest physically, is not going to be the safest long-term mentally. And I just think that parents, especially of our adolescent kids, I find that ages 12 to 17 feel really at risk in my practice, that we really keep reminding ourselves daily, “these kids have got to have some way to connect”. So, yes, we're scared. Yes, we have our concerns, all of that totally valid. But also with them, what are we going to do?
Steve Altishin 16:21
So what sort of things, I know that you work with kids all the time, what sort of input or feedback are you getting from kids? I mean, what are their complaints? What are their desires right now?
Chris Messina 16:34
Well, that's a great question. In fact, most kids, not surprisingly, communicate through behavior. That's why I do what I do. Right? So their communication isn't verbal, the way that maybe an adult might sort of express themselves during this hard time. So what I'm seeing in my practice is a really sharp increase in agitation. For kids who were already maybe a little bit physically aggressive, I'm seeing tremendous spikes in physical aggression. But even for kids who are not, just in general, kind of a little bit more of a sourness in their behavior, because they're bored, they're lonely, they're unstimulated. They're scared, right? So they are not coming to me and sharing those emotions, the way I just expressed them to you. They're showing me. So my advice to parents is this: make sure that on a regular basis, you are checking in with your kid, and not just a 'how ya doing'. Give it the time, listen to your child. In whatever way you can elicit information from your kid, do so. Get a pulse, where are they at? Because what I'm finding is, if I initiate the conversation, and I start to talk about some of my concerns, I can get some momentum and kids follow suit. But I'm not finding kids initiating these conversations because they're uncertain about how to do so right now.
Steve Altishin 17:55
Wow. So parents working from home, it looks like they don't just have this naturally covered better than parents that are not working from home. It sounds like what you're saying is it's not enough just to be at home and to be there, but just sort of being there as a sounding board isn't maybe enough. I mean, it's not just "all good" because the parents are home with their kids.
Chris Messina 18:30
Right, right. I mean, sure, there are benefits. I think there's increased quality time at home, they're more of these connected nights, game nights and movie nights and all that because we're all home. However, I think a pitfall that I've seen and frankly I experience myself is that the lines become very blurry when you're home, your kids are home, you know, during the spring home school period. I think we are so busy and so exhausted that it feels like "I'm here. They know I'm here. And they will come and get me if they need anything". Now, I'm not sure about everybody else's kids, mine come and get me when they need food. But they're not coming to me when they need emotional support. Because again, that's not really in their sort of behavioral repertoire at this point. So it isn't sufficient for us just to be present. I think it can feel like it is; "I'm here. This is great, right? They know I'm here". I think we need to be really intentional. I think we need to be checking in frequently. And I think we need to, as I said earlier, help to motivate, incentivize, plan, whatever, some interesting, different things that they can do this summer, because I truly think that they will default to what's comfortable, which is "in my bed, on my phone or on my TV, and I'm isolated". And that worries me.
Steve Altishin 19:46
That makes complete sense. It's what I think everyone is sort of feeling: that people need to be more willing, even though they're already being challenged by 50 things going on, and everyone is saying, "Well, I'm already strapped and I'm stressed". So it's really challenging, especially for parents who work from home where their kids are home all day. I mean, that's something I think we all can agree to. But can parents who sort of fall into the susceptibility, or fall back on: "Well, what about me? I just can't do anymore" do? What's your answer to that?
Chris Messina 20:35
Well, absolutely. You're going to have to dig deep. I think we are all absolutely exhausted, totally spent, and we're worried and concerned. Living with uncertainty is incredibly anxiety inducing. So I think we have to acknowledge and find our ways, hopefully adaptive ways, to deal with our stress, whether it's a job or a cup of tea at night. Find your stress management. And frankly, it's a great opportunity to talk to kids about how we as adults manage stress, right? We can model for them, during a time, hopefully some really positive ways to manage that stress. But I think that despite the exhaustion, and despite the desire, guilty as charged, of wanting to kind of just say," I think I'm done and I'm over it", we have to double down and triple down on our efforts.
Steve Altishin 21:27
Circling back on that and having to double down, being aware as a parent of your kids is, as you were saying, really important right now. And you also said that a lot of kids don't express themselves by words, but by their actions and behaviors. Can we elaborate a little bit on that, like what kind of behavior should the parents be looking at that possibly might be an indicator of things that are not being told, but maybe are going wrong?
Chris Messina 22:02
Great question. I think because anxiety is sort of paramount throughout all of this, let's talk about what does anxiety look like for different kids. And surprisingly, what I have found and observed in my work, is that anxiety doesn't look the way that maybe we would typically think, like maybe a child who's tearful. or looking for affection, things like that. Which certainly some kids do present that way. During a time of such extreme stress, what I'm finding, and what I've always seen with kids, is that they present, like I said earlier, with anger, with agitation, they're very snappy. I'm seeing lots of mood fluctuations. And so that concerns me; an inability to regulate, an inability to sort of access the light-hearted, joyful way that they maybe were three or four months ago. So that to me is a big flag and you know, every parent knows their child. And if you're not aware, let's start paying attention to: what are those cues from my kid that their anxiety is taking over? Typically its aggression and sort of excitability.
Steve Altishin 23:10
Obviously, the parents are sort of the first line of promoting good mental hygiene for their kids. And I want to kind of circle back to that. As parents, we teach our kids physical hygiene, we teach them to brush their teeth every day. You know, we teach them to take a shower, we teach them the things that are habits that they can get into. Are there mental hygiene habits or routines or ways that parents can model to help their kids?
Chris Messina 23:46
That's a great question. Two thoughts. So the first thought is, as a parent, a quick exercise you might really benefit from trying is this: grab a sheet of paper or open up your phone, jot down the ways in which you manage anxiety. It's an interesting exercise as a parent, because I think it's really easy to find and adopt not so healthy ways to manage that are maybe quick fixes. So let's get real with ourselves as parents about "how do I manage", right? The second thing is, and I cannot overemphasize this when talking with kids, no matter the age: be vulnerable with your kids. I think as parents, it feels like we are the folks who should have all the answers, right? And I think letting kids know, "I'm not sure", or "I'm struggling too", and "you know what, here are some things that I've done historically to manage stress, but I'd like to try new ways". Talk openly and think aloud. I think kids absolutely benefit mightily when we are vulnerable and let them know: "I'm not sure but let's figure it out together", rr "maybe we can try some new ways" or "do you have any ideas for me about things that are working for you?" Right?
Steve Altishin 24:55
That makes so much sense. What a lot of people, as we talked about, have a hard time doing is listening, and listening to each other. As you pointed out, you're thinking while you're hearing somebody, what your response is going to be, or what your retort is going to be.
Chris Messina 25:19
Or what your shopping list is going to be! Or how foolish this person is for what they're saying. Our children need to be validated. No matter what your child says to you during this time, even if it sounds preposterous, and you're thinking, "What's this kid saying?"-- validate, empathize. It'll go a long way. Yeah, listening is a biggie.
Steve Altishin 25:42
Are there any particular touchstones or activities or behaviors that a parent might see in their children where they say, "Hey, this is more than just for me, but I think it's time to consider having my child see a therapist"? Or what sort of indicators might be out there?
Chris Messina 26:07
Yeah, you know your child's baseline. And if you see behavior that is pervasive, that's not the sort of fluctuation that we're seeing with stressors. You know, I'm agitated today. I'm sad tomorrow. But then I have a couple of good days. If you are seeing pervasive. consistent changes in your child's behavior, it's a little hard to answer, right? Because I don't know the baseline of the kids that we're talking about. But you know as a parent, what's your child's typical affect? If it continues for any extended length, I would say virtual counseling is abundant right now and probably a great idea for kids who are open to it.
Steve Altishin 26:40
Well, again, we don't really realize how much kids want boundaries and kind of leaving them on their own isn't necessarily the right way to do things.
Chris Messina 26:56
No, and I just cannot overstate the importance of having a schedule and having a plan. It will reduce your anxiety and your child's anxiety. It will make what is so uncertain feel a little bit more certain for your kids. And that is what they are desperately craving right now, is some semblance of certainty. So let's give it to them. And can I make one final recommendation for an approach as we talk about how to negotiate plans and schedules? I would highly recommend that parents look at collaborative problem solving, which is something you should go online and explore. It is an approach that will allow you to more-effectively manage what will be many, many months of ongoing conversations about how to manage this time.
Steve Altishin 27:37
So, again, the many, many months- I think that maybe what we need to do as parents is to get out of the sort of feel-good optimism of "next month it's going to be different. We've just got to get through one more month". It's always nice to have to just get through to the next one. But in this case, it sounds like some long-term planning is just as important as short-term daily planning.
Chris Messina 28:09
Yeah. I think collaborative problem solving can certainly help in many of the instances in which I work with divorced families. So I would strongly encourage folks to check that out because I'm seeing a really heightened reverting to some not-so-healthy behaviors with co-parents right now during this time.
Steve Altishin 28:30
Well, that makes sense because it seems like the anxiety of one feeds and accelerates the anxiety of the other. I mean, somebody has to start trying to manage their anxiety. We should be the one to start, because otherwise, we're just making it harder for the kids to manage their anxiety.
Chris Messina 28:55
Yes, this is not the time for increased bickering between co-parents.
Steve Altishin 28:59
And that leads into Landerholm Family Law. We're a family law firm. We work with parents going through divorces and even in the best cases of divorce, there's anxiety, there's all of these things going on. And it would be really important, it would seem to me, to kind of address that. So are there any other ideas about divorce clients that you would want to give to them? Because they may be having their own issues, and not really paying as much attention to their kids. What would you just say to them?
Chris Messina 29:45
You certainly can't force an individual to keep the children as the core focus. I mean that would be lovely if we could, but I can certainly remind folks, this is about the kids, right? So if we always keep the objectives clear that we are troubleshooting or problem solving or creating plans for these children, then we can hopefully eliminate some of the background noise. Because it's a waste of time and energy and it's not going to produce the results you want. So I think that it's time to maybe check our egos at the door a little bit more regularly if we can, and make sure that we are always looking at what these kids need.
Steve Altishin 30:23
Yeah, thank you. I think all of this is helpful. Any last statement you want to kind of emphasize? You've already emphasized several great ones, but I don't want to leave you out there if there's one more thing you want to say.
Chris Messina 30:36
Just that there are no easy answers right now. Right? Parents come to me and they ask all the time, "How do I motivate my kid? How do we do this?" So the "how to"-- we certainly don't have time right now to address all of that, but I am happy to share all of my knowledge with folks who are potentially interested in learning more.
Steve Altishin 30:57
That really is cool, thank you very much. I hope everyone has enjoyed this Facebook Live and found it helpful. And for people who were not able to tune in in real-time but have follow up questions, or people who are here and have follow up questions on what Chris was saying is, feel free to email any of them to me at [email protected] and Chris and I will be happy to answer your question. Also, you can email me if you have any family related topics that you would like to see us address, legal or otherwise, or if you're interested in being a guest on our podcast. So until next time, everybody. Stay well. Stay safe. And stay sane. Thank you.
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