Podcast: Gearing Up Your Kids for a Mentally Healthy Summer

Jenn talks to Dr. Lisa Coyne about how to help our kids and teens take care of their mental health over summer vacation. Lisa shares ways to check in on our loved ones without being intrusive, explains the importance of putting on our own oxygen masks first, and answers audience questions about how we can all safely and happily enjoy our summer.

Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry, part-time, at Harvard Medical School, and is a senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute (OCDI Jr.) at McLean Hospital. Dr. Coyne is the author of “The Joy of Parenting: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Guide to Effective Parenting in the Early Years,” a book for parents of young children.

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Episode Transcript

Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.

The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.

Hi folks. Thank you so much for joining us wherever you are, whatever time it is where you are, to talk all about kids’ mental health in the summertime.

I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Jenn Kearney. I’m a digital communications manager for McLean Hospital, and I am with Dr. Lisa Coyne today.

And for so many of us, we equate summer break with being just that, it’s a break. It’s a time for sunshine, play time. If you’re in New England, finally nice weather, no homework. And I’m sure you can think of some of your own favorite qualities about being off from just about everything.

But one of the things that’s important to know is with all that reprieve and the release of the pressures of the school year can lead to unstructured free time. And as a result, there might be some challenges of maintaining good mental health once the things that we’ve become used to start to get uprooted.

After that initial thrill of freedom that we all feel fades away, we might notice that our kids and even sometimes ourselves we’re complaining, we’re bored, or even worse, maybe getting angry, feeling anxious or even depressed.

So, today, Lisa and I are going to talk about how parents and guardians can help their kids stay mentally healthy while they’re on vacation mode. And by the way, the tips are great for kids, parents and guardians alike.

Before I start throwing all of the questions at Lisa, I would like to formally introduce her. If you are unfamiliar with her, Dr. Coyne is a psychologist and a senior clinical consultant for the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute at McLean Hospital, which we lovingly refer to as OCDI Jr. So you might hear that throughout the hour.

Lisa: You will.

Jenn: She is also the author/coauthor of several phenomenal books, including one that lives permanently on my nightstand called “Stop Avoiding Stuff.” So, Lisa, hello?

Lisa: Hello, how are you?

Jenn: Good morning. It’s so nice to see you and it’s just so nice to see like the bright sunshine behind you as well.

Lisa: Appropriate for our topic today, I thought.

Jenn: 100%. So, I just want to get started by asking you right off the bat, why is summer break good for kids’ mental health?

Lisa: Oh my goodness, I’m glad you asked that, because I was thinking, what am I going to say about this? And I think that one of the things that is really important for kids’ growth and learning, their social and emotional growth is unstructured time.

The caveat or the sort of paradox here is that when I grew up as a Gen Xer, we had tons of unstructured time. And parenting was like, you got tossed out on the stoop in the morning in the summer and told, come on home at dinner. That was it.

That is so different from the way parenting has shifted now, right? Where there’s much more structure, there’s many more after school activities, there’s summer camps.

There’s more requirements for parents to be working all the time to support families in a very expensive world, where to maintain things you got to be working, right?

So there’s a lot of demands. So kids actually have less unstructured time now than they did years ago. As a result, they may not be used to managing themselves and their own entertainment during those unstructured times, which is where we run into trouble.

Now, the good news is it’s really good experience for them to have unstructured time to be bored, because boredom can actually be the mother of invention, right? Not necessarily a necessity, but boredom, right?

And while it might be difficult for some kids to manage, it’s a great way for them to get creative about, what are we going to do? Also great, limiting the game time.

Get ‘em outside, get ‘em active, get ‘em seeing peers, see who’s around in the neighborhood if you live in a neighborhood, those things are good, right?

So I want to open with that just as an idea to think about this cultural shift of parenting that we’re experiencing. But I also want to be mindful that we are just for some of us, right? For some communities starting to come out of the pandemic.

It is well-documented that parents were under extreme stress during the pandemic, as were kids. One in two families reported, and this is from the American Psychological Association annual report on stress, where they kept tracking families during the pandemic, as they do every year.

One in two families reported noticing more emotional or behavioral disturbances or problems with their kids during the pandemic. Right? So, there’s two things to think about.

I think for summer, this year as we sort of are coming back out of the pandemic, we need to think about giving our kids spaces to decompress and have some fun, while also preparing them for, you know, with a little bit of structure, for getting ready for school.

Because avoiding things that are difficult in the summer like schoolwork, like thinking about being social and I’m hearing a helicopter passing overhead, that will go away in a minute. It’s just, it’s really important to kind of have a balance of some anchor points, because those kinds of things can really help kids gear up for school.

Lastly, if you have time in the summer, right? And if your kiddos are some of the ones that are experiencing increased difficulties, now’s a really good time to try and get them into services, right? To seek counseling, to get them some coaching or supports, to get them into social skills group, et cetera.

These are things that we think are going to be really, really important to help kids sort of go back to school in the fall. So, space for relaxing, decompressing.

It’s okay to be bored, get them off the screens. And also have a little tiny bit of structure. Even if it’s like, do your math assignments that you’re assigned over the summer, or read your summer reading.

Jenn: So I guess that begs the question then, so yes, we should try to keep some semblance of structure for kids over the summer. But how much is too much structure? Is that child dependent?

Lisa: It’s a tough question, and it’s going to vary for families. And I’d encourage families to think about what works for you and be mindful of your kids. I think we’re going to move inside, nice as it is out here, ‘cause I’m hearing lots of noise.

So this is a good example, of what I’m going to tell you guys to do as parents for the summer. It’s to be sensitive to what’s going on for your kiddos and respond in a way that is workable for them, right? So we just shifted our webinar inside from outside due to noise.

If you’re setting up structures for your kids and you find your kids are isolated, they are cranky and irritable, they are not getting their exercise or sleep, they’re frustrated, they’re feeling tense, right?

‘Cause we live in a pretty high pressure culture, especially around the Boston area where everybody’s trying to get their kids ready for college and being excellent. That’s an enormous amount of pressure on kids. They need some downtime.

So, pay attention to how the structures you’re putting in place are working. Pair them with fun. So if you do a half an hour of your summer reading, then you get a half an hour of doing something silly or fun or ridiculous or unstructured, right? Make it worth their while.

And you think about the principle of, first you do the hard thing, then you do the fun thing. And teach them that, because that’s how life works, right? When we’re adults. First we work, then you get your paycheck, right?

So that’s a good thing to start. Give them some responsibilities around the house too, give them a role, things that they have to do. Even if it’s something as simple as walking the dog, putting the dishes in the sink after dinner, et cetera.

Jenn: So, I know you provided like overhead advice about kids pushing back on the structured time over the summer, but what happens when they push back? Like, do you have any language you’d recommend for defusing that pushback? At what point do we put our foot down as parents?

Lisa: Right. And I think depending on the age and depending on the issue, right, first you want to be collaborative. Because you’re always going to get better engagement when you’re collaborative, right? Regardless of the age.

It’s better with kids who are older. Good luck trying to tell your teens what to do. That’s hard, right? ‘Cause we can tell them, but it’s much better received if it’s collaborative, and if it’s done in a mindful way with calm, not in highly emotional moments.

With younger kids, it’s easier to simply set clear and consistent expectations, right? And stick to those. First you do this, then you do that. That’s how it works, right?

Now, if there’s pushback and you feel like the structures you set in place are meaningful, are useful, are not leading to too much stress, and ennui, or whatever, you know, could show up with doing lots and lots of things like that. I think what I would say is just to have a conversation about it.

And say, I’m really sorry, I love you, and I know this feels weird, I know this is difficult, and it’s really important for us to do it. So I would take a more supportive stance. I would also, again, think about the things that you want to set limits with, like screen time, things like that.

Make them contingent on doing things that you’d like to see. And that’s another way around it sort of more proactive. But it’s better to be more proactive, I think, than get in the push/pull tug of war about, I told you to do this or we’re going to do this, and you’re saying, no, right?

Jenn: So, when our kids do have this downtime, how as parents can we better manage it so that their own schedules and their own minds aren’t suffering, but in a way that also fits our own needs?

Things are opening up, it’s really important to recognize that not all parents are going to be home 24/7. They can’t monitor what their kids are doing all the time. And they certainly can’t be an on-demand Uber. So like, how do we balance their downtime with our own?

Lisa: Well, and again, that’s going to vary widely and hugely with age groups, because younger kids, of course we wouldn’t leave alone by themselves. And hopefully they would have a sitter or a place to be.

With your teenagers, I think, and your middle school aged kids, depending on when you as a family are comfortable leaving your kiddo, given their developmental skills and maturity level home by themselves, right? For short stints or longer stints.

I think with teens, it’s going to be tough to manage it. I think have things available for them. Set some structures, have conversations about like, what’s your plan for today? How’s that going to work for you?

But there’s really not tons you can do beyond, if you want to set up internet controls over things. Encourage your teenagers to get summer jobs, right? Encourage them to do their volunteer hours. ‘Cause a lot of kids need volunteer hours for school.

Encourage them to get some exercise, or see if they’re going to go out with their friends in the community or something like that during the day. Encourage them to get outside maybe once a day. But then let it go, right? Because no parents can really manage.

You’ll really cause yourself as a parent, a ton of stress, trying to kind of micromanage what they’re doing during the day. And with middle school aged kids, it’s going to be very much the same.

I think giving their days just a little bit of structure and planning will be useful. Like meeting a friend, time to meet a friend, time to go to the gym, time to take a walk, time to walk the dog, time to eat your lunch. You get this many hours of screen time, that’s it.

And then if they’re home alone, they’re home alone, you can call to check in or text. But I think that if the kid... And kids are different. Some kids love to have lots and lots of contact with their parents.

And that may be something for some families that you want to minimize, right? Teach them to be more independent. Others, you may feel like you need to be checking in for your more risk-taking group of kids.

And so, you want to be mindful again of how is it working, right? If you’re texting 400 times a day and they’re just ignoring you, that’s not working. In our house, we have a 16 year old, and we have an agreement that he’s supposed to, if we text, he has to text back, and if he doesn’t text back, then he doesn’t have the privilege of having as much freedom, right?

So in our house we set the expectation that you have freedom until you’re not responsible with it. And not responsible means we don’t know where you are. We don’t know who you’re with, and you’re not responding within an hour of our texts, right? Or somebody sees you biking around town without your bike helmet.

That happened. And I’ve spies all over my town. And I got some pictures sent to me, and that was that. So, never happened again. So, true story. So setting up stuff like that.

And we have an agreement with him too that we have a tracker on his phone, so we can kind of look and see where he is. And I think that that’s an important safety thing.

In our particular situation, our town is very safe. He’s 16, he plays soccer, he’s all over the town. So that’s a good thing, right? But we have a lot of things in place for safety. And then we let him free range.

And that’s actually been really helpful, because for him, he’s developed a really nice balance of gaming where he’s seeing his friends and playing soccer, and doing other things, which is great.

Jenn: So, do you have any advice about starting that conversation with our kids about being safe over the summer with their friends?

Some things that come to mind from when I was growing up was teens and drinking, talking to strangers online, wandering around the local mall. And of course, me, I don’t remember a single thing my parents said to me. So, what is a way that we can talk to our kids about being safe?

Lisa: It’s 100% an essential conversation to have, and it’s not going to be a single conversation. Okay? So that’s mistake number one.

It’s going to be many, it’s going to be repeated check-ins, it’s going to be over time. And I would say one piece at a time, right? Don’t do the whole omnibus conversation and then expect the kids to take it in. Be frank.

One way we did it, I don’t know if this will fit for all families, but this is how we did it. We understand as you get older, you’re going to want to do more things. We get it. And also it’s really, here’s what we require in order to give you that kind of freedom that you want.

We do set curfews. That’ll differ from families. We do talk about safety biking at night, after dark. You definitely want to have conversations about substance use of any kind, because I promise you, it is going on. If you look at community data across Massachusetts, kids are using substances.

It is really important when we think about risk reduction and harm reduction that…think about it this way, the longer you can get your child to delay trying out a substance, which will be something that they will probably do during their childhood, much as we don’t want that to happen, the more it’s going to reduce their risk, right?

The younger you are when you first try substances, it can double your risk of developing a substance use or substance dependence issue. That is a sentence we say repeatedly to our kids, right?

We talk about refusal skills. What you can do if you’re feeling peer pressured by kids. Very importantly, we talk about never, ever getting in a car with someone who has used substances, and not ever biking using substances.

We give them a plan for, if you feel uncomfortable and you want to use us as bad guys and say, you know, my mom is such a jerk. She’s making me come home. Sorry, I got to go. Great, more power to you, right? We give them the tools.

It’s not enough to just have the conversation, you need to help them build the skills. Right? Be frank, be honest. Talk about how substances affect the brain, the developing brain. Talk about risk. Talk about how it impairs your ability to make decisions, increases your risk-taking behaviors, which is very, very dangerous.

And have some really clear contingencies, right? That’s one of those, like, the minute we see that, your freedom is gone. And then the level of oversight is huge, right? So, all sorts of things like that.

And we also talk about sexual safety with older kids. That’s really, really important. And sexual responsibility, right? For boys and girls and every gender, every spectrum of gender, happy Pride Week, happy Pride Month, in between, right? So we want to talk about all of those risk-taking behaviors and safety.

Jenn: Do you have any conversations starters to specifically address the teen that might want to try substances with their friends? We’ve received a couple of questions about, number one, starting that conversation, but number two, ways that your kid can say no without making it sound like a bad ad from the ‘80s.

Lisa: I feel like I am a bad ad from the ‘80s. So I don’t know if I can help you with that, but I’ll try.

Jenn: None of, this is your brain on drugs, none of that.

Lisa: Get a frying pan and an egg. No, don’t do that. I’m dating myself. So, I think timing matters. So you want to have a serious conversation about this.

You don’t want to do it reactively. You don’t want to do it when your child is in the middle of their favorite thing. You don’t want to do it when you’re rushing around, or right before they are going to a party.

You want to pick a time that is calm, everybody’s around. You might want to schedule it beforehand. Say, hey, I need to talk to you for about, I don’t know, 20 minutes. And it’s really important. When is good? Okay, it’s about summer.

When can we meet? When can we talk? Right? Schedule it, right? And then say, so we’re going to have, you could open with, this is going to be an awkward conversation for both of us. And it’s about drugs.

You can be silly. I mean, you can be serious. But I think you should be collaborative. And I would probably start with, tell me what you think about alcohol, pot? You know, what do you know? What are you learning?

Like, what are your friends doing? Are they doing it yet? Have you tried it yet? Right? What do you think about that stuff? Like what do you know? Right?

Get information first. See if they’ll tell you. They may not tell you anything. It would be great if they did. And say, as a parent, you know this is the time when kids start experimenting, right? And you want to share some information, right?

We can’t see what you’re doing 100% of the time. Our main concern is your safety. Okay? We know what it’s like feeling pressured to do things. We know what it’s like being curious about things.

We also know what it’s like to kind of not really have clear information about the risks. And so, we wanted to give you some information about that. Now, if you can share experiences that you’ve had that you think were appropriate teaching tools when you were a teenager, that would be great, right? They might dismiss them.

Jenn: That was actually going to be my follow-up question. Do personal anecdotes help?

Lisa: They can, used well, depends on the anecdote. Be careful, right? But I think if you want to shape your child, if you want to shape disclosure, right?

You want to help encourage your child to disclose and talk to you about this stuff, you know, very often in conversations, if you share something, the other person shares something. Right?

One other thing that’s really important I think is a lot of you were probably thinking like my goal in this conversation is to get them to not do this. Right? That’s a great idea and it’s not possible, right?

It’s not a helpful goal because when you push, they’re just going to push back. A better goal, right? A more workable goal is to make a space where they will come to you with questions, right?

Make a space where they know no matter what they did, it’s safe to come and talk to you. And you’re not going to lose it and yell at them.

Even if you feel super, super mad, which you might be if they something dumb, like using substances too young, it’s more important to have a long standing pattern of good communication with your kiddos than any one, single like incident.

You want to shape their ability to come to you for advice and guidance. It really matters. It really matters. It’s really tough. I’m just going through the Rolodex of things, that I’m so lucky, my kids were great, mostly, mostly.

But getting calls like, mom, the girl who drove me to the restaurant is drunk now. What do I do? And I’m getting the texts. Thank God. Right? Thank God. That’s what I want. Were you drinking?

And you know if I jumped down her throat, like were you drinking? That would have ended that, right? So what you want to say is, I am so glad you texted me, you did the right thing.

Tell ‘em your mom will come get you. Tell ‘em your mom is mean and wants you to come home right now. And she’s coming to get you. Tell ‘em it’s all sorted, no problem. You did the right thing. Use whatever story you need and we’ll get you home safely. Okay?

So think about things like that. The goal is supporting really positive communication, because they’re going to want to, and you want to be a good information source, right? This is going to be multiple years.

And this is, trust me, this extends to college and beyond, it doesn’t stop, hopefully, right? You want these kids to talk to you. So, see if you can shape that. Focus on the bigger picture. You’re going to get more bang for your buck that way.

Jenn: So, I just love how our conversation flows, because the more that you talk, the more questions that I have that just like flow beautifully one into another.

So, I know that legally and with kids, when you’re 18, you can buy cigarettes, you can buy scratch tickets. They’re adults in the eyes of society, right? And if you’re only listening...

Lisa: Huge sigh, huge sigh. Yes, go on.

Jenn: But parents and providers know that the brain’s not fully developed until like what? Mid to late 20, it’s like 26 or something.

Lisa: And it keeps going after that, but yeah. Young adults or teenagers go to 25 or 26, I think.

Jenn: Yes. And I, myself made plenty of mistakes between 18 and 26 where I thought I was an adult. But at what point between when they consider that they’re an adult and we actually know that they’re an adult, what point can we start loosening our protective grip on them?

And how can we be better about kids making those mistakes between the time that they think they’re grown up and we know they’re grown up?

Lisa: Yeah, it’s such a loaded and difficult question. And I think that we never really let go of wanting to protect our kids. Right? And we also have to be very pragmatic about it. Okay?

Parenting as much as you learn and as many skills as you have is all about trial and error. It’s about learning one way to do something, seeing if you can be consistent in using that skill or strategy, and also watching how it’s working over time.

So, there is a developmental shift that happens in kids when they go into the teenage years where they are more driven by the emotion center of the brain, they need to do riskier things to trigger that reward cascade of neurotransmitters in their brain, which leads to risk taking behaviors.

And that’s evolutionary. That’s how we evolve. Because that’s when they’re going to start figuring out who they are, they’re going to start trying new things. Our bodies were built to do that. Okay? So, when that happens, right?

Parenting is also developmental. And there is a developmental shift that needs to start happening in parenting. And some of us get stuck, because when your kids are younger, we’re used to giving directions, having them followed and being more directive, right? Or structured.

And our parenting is all about teaching, it’s all about setting guard rails so that we don’t swerve off, teaching how to manage yourself, your own behavior, all of those things. Right?

And when your kiddo shifts into the teen years, your parenting also should start to shift. And a lot of parents feel it when that shift doesn’t happen ‘cause that’s when the head butting starts. Right?

But it needs to become more collaborative. Okay? Because, think about, you know, the goal, right, of the teen years is to figure out who you are, to launch yourself into the world. The goal of a parent, one helpful goal is, how do I teach mindful risk-taking to minimize harm and maximize learning? Okay?

So these kids, their environment, the context is changing too, right? The social demands are changing, where, to belong might involve peer pressure to do things or not do things. So think about that time period.

Also another goal is, I want to give them the skills that they need to make good decisions, right? So if you come in as a parent and you’re like, you need to do this, or I’m going to micromanage you, you can try it, and I encourage you to see how it works. And you might get tons of pushback.

For some of you who have kids who are like, okay, mom, that’s great, you can do that. But for some of you whose kids are like, shh, what are you talking about? That’s going to go over like a lead balloon.

So helpful tips, right, to get here and to kind of start this sort of communication are, think about what is it like seeing the world from your kiddo’s, your teenager’s eyes? What’s important to them, right?

Because the conversation might be instead of, hey, I don’t think you should use these substances, it might actually be, oh my gosh, I didn’t know how scared you were to feel like you might be left out if you didn’t use them. That must be so hard. What support do you need from me to help keep yourself safe? Right? Is there anything I can do to help you know what to say? Right?

That’s a very different conversation than, hey, don’t use drugs, frying pan and egg. Okay? And I hope you can find that ad, and like don’t parent like this in your resources.

Jenn: Yeah, fear-based messaging is very...

Lisa: So backfire.

Jenn: Especially in a population that already has an invincibility complex.

Lisa: Correct.

Jenn: Number one, they’re going to live forever. Number two, nothing is going to permanently impact them.

So, it sounds like what you’re trying to say is that parenting is less like steel guardrails and more like bumper cars, where you can hit things, but there isn’t going to be that permanent damage.

Lisa: Absolutely. And another important conversation to have is, if your kid makes a mistake or breaks a rule, it’s the, how did that work? Can we talk about that? How did you think that went? Would you have done anything differently? What did you learn from this? Okay?

Because what you want is for kids to learn from their experiences. You want them to trust your information that you’re giving. And you also, when they make mistakes, and they will, to learn, right?

One other tip too, just having lived this with one of our kids, and maybe the other one we’ll start this too, is when you do set limits, they’re not going to like it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set the limit. Right?

And just remember that kids will, if they are working and sort of driven by that emotion center, they might say things they regret, they might call you names, they might curse, they might be hugely disrespectful to you. And if that’s important to you, you can take that on.

But what you might do is just set the limit, stay really calm and let that stuff go. Right? Let that stuff go.

Because oftentimes in our experience, at least, like our kiddo would be like, she’d go from like, I hate you, oh my God, you ruined my life, you didn’t let me X to, mom I’m so glad you did that. Thank you for always being there. I know I did not like that, but you were right. Okay?

And so thinking about, focusing really on picking your battles in the big picture items like safety. Okay? Teaching good skills for managing adversity. Teaching how to mitigate your own risk and keep yourself safe. Teaching them how to like be mindful of potentially risky situations.

Teaching them how to plan ahead, right? Like what’s the plan if you go out and everybody’s drinking, somebody is driving and that’s your ride, what do you do? Right? Have a plan in place, be proactive.

And again, it worked, like you can say, and people have, different families are going to have very different ideas about what’s right for their family. And no one should dictate that, but you and your family. Right?

For us, you know, giving freedom with really clear rules about, you can have this, right? But here’s when it goes away. So, don’t do these things and we’ll all be good, right? That worked really well for us. It might not work well for you, and that is okay. Right?

Sometimes you have to go backwards and go, I’m sorry, you’re on restriction. But in order to earn it, here’s what you need to be able to demonstrate.

One thing not to do is make it impossible for kids to demonstrate their competence to you so that you reward them with a little bit of unstructured time, a little bit of free time, a little bit of autonomy, especially during the teen years. Right? Don’t make it impossible.

And if you’re going to use a restriction, make it fit whatever the risk was that they took. Don’t go overboard. Right? So that’s really important.

Jenn: We had someone write in asking, well, they said, I have an agreement with my kids that if they make a bad choice, they call me, we talk about it, but they don’t get in trouble. But they want to know what your thoughts are on that approach.

Lisa: I think that if that works for your family, that’s great. And I would think about like, for me, when I think, and this may be different for our listener, but like when I think about how does it work, I want to know are they less likely to make that bad choice in the future? Right? That to me would work.

But if it’s, we’re just going to talk and then they’re going to continue doing this, that’s not my definition of working. So, again, be pragmatic. Right?

Are you sure they’re going to take on board, right? That’s effective, that’s great. But if it’s sort of lip service, watch out for that. But I like that. I think in general, that’s our approach too.

Jenn: And also knowing full well that it’s not going to be one blanket approach if you have multiple kids too. Sometimes we’re going to need different disciplinary measures. As one of three, I can attest to this.

Lisa: And having two that are very different, I can also attest to that. Completely different, right? So, yeah.

One other thing, one other comment just to circle back to that is timing matters. So just watch the timing of those conversations. Make sure that they are at times that are workable when that conversation is most likely to be taken onboard.

Jenn: Yes. Don’t have it on the way out the door, when you’re on the way to work and they’re just waking up.

Lisa: Correct. Or when they just come in past curfew in the middle of the night.

Jenn: Also that.

Lisa: Not good times. And make sure the basics are met. Are we fed? We’ve had water, we’re good, okay.

Jenn: No distractions, TV off, phones are put away.

Lisa: Right.

Jenn: So speaking of those distractions, limiting video game use amongst kids, what interventions do you recommend?

Lisa: You know, people always ask me this, and it’s really tough because I am not an expert at all on how to do that. I know that there are parental controls that you can do.

And I guess what I’m saying is, like I would set rules, right, about it. And I would kind of have really clear expectations. But if those weren’t followed, I’d just figure out a way to turn off the internet. Sorry, you know, go outside and play.

But that’s just me. I don’t know great ways to do that. But I think having really clear expectations is important.

And a lot of information has come out about, you know, it’s shifting all the time, kind of the effects of being on screens all the time for kids just because the pandemic just threw everything into a maelstrom of like, just conflicting things.

For some kids it’s really great. It was the only social window to talk with their friends. Some kids that have issues socially, it’s a leveling thing, where you’re all together, you’re more equal in a game and you’ve got your gaming friends, and everybody’s kind of feels connected in a community.

And sometimes that’s just a saving grace for kids who are feeling left out in other ways. Now, for other kids, right? If they are using gaming to just avoid things that are hard and not be in their lives in ways that are more healthy and more adaptive, it can get to be a real problem.

And the World Health Organization has actually come up with, this is a disorder, can become disorder status where you’re addicted to this, right? To gaming, to being on screens and things like that.

So, rules of thumb, if we’re isolated, cranky, you’re seeing terrible mood, you’re seeing irritability, you’re seeing you’re not doing self-care, you’re taking care of yourself with hygiene, with your laundry, with clothing. This is all you’re doing, that’s a danger sign. It really is.

And so, that is going to be difficult to get your kid off the screen, but it’s also important to do so. So you could set some limits.

And I like to encourage people to, instead of framing it as you can only have X number of hours, say, right, during from four to six when we’re all home together, we’re all going to be off screens. And we’re going to hang out and just do whatever.

I’m just making this up. You could pick a different time that works for you. Before bedtime would be a great time, an hour before bedtime, because we know that screens and the light from them can disrupt sleep for a lot of kids. Not a great idea to have screens in bedrooms.

So that’s one simple thing you can do, put it in the kitchen, put it in a room with high traffic so that you can see what’s going on. But thinking about game-free, screen-free zones of time for the purpose to just all be together.

It doesn’t mean that you have to do structured things. It just means we’re going to do something else, and we all happen to be in the same room. Could be during a meal, can be right before bed, things like that. You can go for a walk, whatever. So thinking about it from that perspective might be better, or more useful.

Jenn: So a lot of kids when going through the school year, you know, school, afterschool activities, those are really small communities, right? They’re tight knit.

A lot of kids often feel a sense of belonging and occasionally purpose when they’re going through these experiences. Summer comes around, sometimes they don’t have that same feeling.

So how can we help instill those same feelings of purpose and belonging in our kids, so when they do have that summertime freedom, they feel more emotionally grounded?

Lisa: That’s a great question. And it’s an interesting way to ask it too, ‘cause I was reading this earlier, right? Like how do you instill feelings? And I don’t think we can in kids, right? Like, I don’t think we can make our kids feel something.

But what I do think is we can reinforce, right, and encourage their engagement in things that they really care about, that make them feel alive, that make them feel like it’s fun, right?

We can do that by just providing those activities, providing access to them, by engaging in those activities with our kids, by doing it ourselves as parents, right?

Doing the thing you care about, modeling, here’s how I take care of myself, I do this thing that I care about, you know. And we have various hobbies in our house that we all do. But I also think it’s really important, like, I think it’s a very, you know, and I wonder what you think about this.

I think it’s a really American thing to feel like I have to be doing in order to have a purpose. And I’m just curious, I wonder what our listeners think. Do you feel like that? Like, ‘cause I know I feel like that sometimes. That like I don’t even know who I am if I’m not doing something.

Jenn: Yes. I joked with one of my friends the other day that for me unstructured time is problematic because I joke that I have super bowl syndrome, where if I’m not focused on something, my thoughts are just all over the place all the time. So for me, I need structure.

Lisa: Yes. And sometimes that can lead to burnout. Right? So, it’s true, it really is. And been there, done that, promise.

Jenn: I’m just nodding vehemently over here.

Lisa: We’re like, yes, yes, that was me. Yep. So it is a gift to teach your child and yourself how to be still, right? How to just kind of take in the world slowly and allow.

And I think a lot about, you know, for me, I don’t even know if you know this, Jenn, but I have a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing which was my other life before I became a psychologist. And I think about people’s work like Mary Oliver.

And I’m thinking about a poem that I’m going to actually pull up for you right now. And actually, if I can see it, I can read to you. Okay.

But think about summer, think about how beautiful it can be. Think about what it was like when you were a kid and you used to play outside and enjoy the sun. And I’m just going to, it’s a gift to teach kids that you’re enough as a human just because you exist, and you’re loved just because you exist. That’s it. Right?

And to teach them how to have that relationship with themselves and how to handle difficult emotions like boredom or like feeling uncertain about what am I, you know, ‘cause life is full of them. Life’s full of those. So, I am going to.

Jenn: That’s a really nice reminder for all the parents on here too, that you as you are is more than enough.

Lisa: Absolutely, absolutely. And just for fun, can I read them a poem from Mary Oliver, Jenn?

Jenn: Yeah, go for it.

Lisa: It’s really short. Okay. So guys, I want you to just listen to this and just let it wash over you. This will be a fun thing for us today. It’s a poem called When I Am Among the Trees by Mary Oliver.

“When I am among the trees, especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness. I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself, in which I have goodness, and discernment, and never hurry through the world, but walk slowly, and bow often. Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, ‘Stay awhile.’

The light flows through their branches. And they call again, ‘It’s simple,’ they say, ‘And you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.’”

Jenn: Aw, I love that. I can’t believe I’ve never heard that before, but thank you for sharing that.

Lisa: So, think about, parents, how can you teach your kids that? How can you use the summer to reinforce that for yourself, and for your kids?

And we all need it, especially after this pandemic, right? Just some space to decompress, to touch base with ourselves again, get some sun, have a little fun.

Jenn: And again, you’re just teeing me up beautifully for these questions. Someone wrote in saying, my 13 year old just finished a treatment program, and we were trying to focus on safety back in the community and our family.

After stabilizing, how can we utilize summer timing to help them build a more meaningful life together?

Lisa: Such a great question. I would think about hearing from them what summer means to them, what would they like to do? And just to kind of give you some kudos, the parent who wrote in, ‘cause that’s wonderful that your kiddo finished treatment, and it’s a journey, isn’t it?

So, keep going. Listen and see what is it that fills them up. Help them search for that. Help them find that and then see if you can kind of get them in contact with those kinds of activities and experiences, right?

See where it’s possible if they can lead. And with some kids, like I tend to work with the risk averse, actually. I used to work with the risky, and now I work with risk averse. A lot of kids will say, well, I don’t know, or I don’t want it, this is hard.

And so, for parents of those kinds of kids, gentle encouragement and modeling is a really good practice. And seeing if you can encourage approach of things that might actually be fun, you know, and discoveries for them, and seeing where you can kind of discourage avoidance, those are going to be really important tools.

Jenn: What are your thoughts regarding parents that tend to call and text to check in a little bit too often? The person who wrote in is a child who is now 23 that does not want to necessarily...

Lisa: Is it my kid? No, just kidding.

Jenn: So it’s more specifically, do you have ideas about how to establish boundaries with a young adult where boundaries may not have previously been present when they were growing up?

Lisa: Ooh, and I love that this is initiated by the young adult. So more power to you. I think I would give you the same advice as I would to your parents, which is, pick a good time, have a conversation.

And when you’re giving someone feedback, right, it’s important to talk about how you feel, right? How you feel, not how they make you feel. But when you do this, I feel this, and I feel really reluctant to text you back. Here’s what I would be comfortable with.

And also take your parents’ perspective too. ‘Cause like most of us as parents, I’ll tell you a secret, we are terrified you guys are going to be unsafe and we’re going to lose you. Right?

Most like when you see big responses from parents, it’s usually a fear-based response because we’re scared of something ‘cause we love you very much. So with that in mind, how might you have a conversation with a parent who texts a lot, right?

And I might start with empathy and acknowledging, right? Also, just like kids, parents like to hear your plan. Have a good plan. Right? Here’s my plan. Okay? Let’s make a plan, here’s what I’m thinking. So you don’t have to text me every five minutes. Alright. And let’s see how that works, right?

So, think about whether those elements, right? Perspective taking, empathy, having a plan, right? Talking about I statements, not you made these. Those might be useful in a conversation like that. Good luck, good luck, I hope it works. And also there probably will be more than one conversation. One step at a time. Right?

Jenn: And sometimes if you feel like you’re oversharing, sometimes that is just enough to meet them where they’re at, and they start to respect that boundary because you’re being as transparent as they want you to be.

Lisa: Yeah. One thing our daughter was really brilliant at when she was a teenager was she was so good about texting and asking permission before she did the thing. And that really relaxed our vigilance, which was great, you know?

And we were like, she’s really trustworthy too. This is really cool. And we also could see by that, that she was making really good decisions for herself, right? Then her senior year in high school came and that all went out the window.

But that’s another story. But while it lasted, it was really great. That’s when the freedom got constrained. So, it’s never a straight path, remember that too.

Jenn: Nope, progress is never linear. I have to remind myself of that all the time, but it’s never linear. Neither is growing up.

Lisa: Right.

Jenn: So as the parent of teens and young 20 somethings who is also clearly an expert in addressing all of this, any last thoughts or words of wisdom that you would want folks to know?

Lisa: Yes. One of them is none of us is an expert. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve written on the topic. Don’t trust somebody who says they’re an expert, because the most important thing is to be pragmatic and to really pay attention to how what you are doing is working, right?

The minute we start to think we’re good at something, or we know all the answers, we stop paying attention and learning. And I, for one, plan on learning until it’s all over. Okay?

So, my advice is, be gentle with yourselves, let yourself learn, make a practice, make your parenting a practice that you take feedback from the world, see how what you’re doing is working, and then shift as you need to.

And focus on those communication patterns with the kids. That’s going to be, I think, the most important thing. And summertime’s a great time to do that.

Jenn: And I think that’s a really good way to end the session. So Lisa, it was really nice to see you.

Lisa: You too.

Jenn: Thank you per usual for your candidness and your candor. I thought I’m not even a parent, and I got a lot of great tips. So here’s hoping, and give it like 20 years, I’ll be able to apply all of this to my own kids. But Lisa, thank you tremendously.

And thanks to everybody who joined. This actually concludes our session about kids, mental health, and summertime. So until next time, be nice to yourselves, be nice to your kids, but most importantly, be nice to yourself. Thank you. Take care.

Thanks for tuning in to Mindful Things! Please subscribe to us and rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.

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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.

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