Even as we move toward the end of the pandemic, there’s still a lot of uncertainty and anxiety floating around after a uniquely harrowing year. People are talking and wondering about what it will be like when we go back to normal, but in reality, we are never going back to how things were before Covid. We can only move forward, but—beyond certain things like school returning to in-person—what our new reality will look like is largely anyone’s guess.
In anxiety-provoking circumstances, such as the pandemic and the prospect of emerging into a new reality, people typically move toward one of two reactions.
-Criticizing and judging others
There is a third way, however, that anxiety can resolve itself:
Taking refuge in a secure relationship
-When we feel securely attached with someone we’re comfortable around, then anxiety dissipates.
-Of all the ways anxiety can resolve itself, connecting with people is often the most powerful.
The challenge is that anxiety is disjunctive: It leads to wariness and hyper-vigilance around perceived dangers. When we’re anxious, we tend to be less open, receptive, and likely to seek connection.
For kids, this may manifest in increased wariness toward two kinds of threats:
Threats to support and connection
Threats to Autonomy
-Feeling overwhelmed by parental anxiety
In reaction, kids may act out hostile withdrawal (e.g., refusing to talk or come to dinner) or provocative oppositionality.
For parents, this may manifest as worry about:
-Threats to safety and welfare of kids
-Threats to competence and efficacy in parenting
Both can result in a tendency to warn, lecture, criticize, or punish our kids more than usual.
A negative cycle can develop where we get worried about our caretaking and enact escalating efforts at control. In turn, this feeds into our kids’ increased bids for autonomy, hostile withdrawal, and provocative oppositionality. Ultimately, instead of setting the stage for a positive relationship that can serve as a refuge, this push and pull can lead to a loss of connection.
The consequences of consequences
The more we’re worrying about whether we’re doing the right thing as parents, the less leverage we get with our kids. We have the greatest influence over our kids when our relationship with them is strongest, but if we’re acting out of our own anxiety, we run the risk of feeding into an aversive relationship.
As children move into adolescence, punishing with consequences and correcting with harsh criticism—both reactions to anxiety about whether we’re parenting properly—are less effective. Adolescents perceive this behavior as a threat to their autonomy, and on top of that, they are generally more attracted to positive stimuli than deterred by negative stimuli. So instead of thinking “My parents are yelling at me. What am I doing wrong? How do I get them to stop?,” they’ll think “Ugh, my parents are yelling at me. They’re such a drag, and I want to have fun. I’m just going to leave and go out with my friends.”
When kids react poorly to consequences, we’re liable to escalate and seek out a more intense consequence—but paradoxically, the harsher the consequence, the less effect it often has.
This is not to say that consequences can’t be effective when portioned out judiciously and balanced with love. But in general, as kids move into adolescence, they are more interested in autonomy and less interested in complying with our efforts to exert control. The good news is that, even if anxiety has crept into our interactions with our kids and undone some positive bonds, it’s still possible to reverse the cycle and build a more positive relationship.
How do we restore connection?
As children move into adolescence, they have an increased capacity for abstract reasoning and a corresponding need for autonomy of thought and action. Although they may not be so fluent with these capacities, they can be “turned on”—basically, kids need to be taught how to work their own brains. Rather than lectures and consequences, they need help thinking for themselves.
In building a better relationship and helping kids find productive ways to express their autonomy, it can help to invite them to:
Engage in self-assessment
-Rather than scolding, ask: “We are worried about you. Are you worried about yourself?”
-When we give kids a chance to think about their behavior, we help them engage the self-assessment part of their brain. It also gives them a sense of autonomy as they come to their own conclusions about themselves.
-Similarly, ask: “We look at this and get worried, but you aren’t. What do you think we don’t understand about you?”
-This gives them a chance to explain their reasoning and helps you understand where they’re coming from when engaging in behaviors that you may consider concerning or risky.
Take on increased relational responsibility
-Tweens and adolescents are highly motivated by relational consequences.
-State in a matter-of-fact way how you feel and how you react to their behavior.
-Self-esteem comes from our ability to care for those we love. If we give our kids an opening to care for us, that helps them build a stronger sense of self.
-Even if it may not look like it, kids are often available to assume more relational responsibility. Invite them to care for you by modifying their behavior in reasonable and appropriate ways.
-Ask: “What ideas do you have for making our relationship better? What would you like to do so that we could have a better time together?”
-Explain what you need and why it would make the relationship better for you.
-Given an invitation, nine times out of ten, kids will at least try to rise to the occasion.
Participate in planning
-Avoid lecturing kids about what they should or should not do.
-Have them come up with their own plan of action.
-For younger tweens and teens with less of an ability to form a plan, you choose the menu, and they put in the order. Identify the problem and provide options for what they can do to help resolve it.
-If you want to levy consequences, invite your child to participate in developing a fair and consistent plan.
-This is also true when it comes to rules around screens—an issue that many families are grappling with during this time due to the increased screen time (for schooling and socializing alike) spurred on by the pandemic.
-Work on rules about screens collaboratively, ahead of time, and when there are no screens present. Enforcing screen-based punishments like taking away your child’s phone with no warning will almost never go over well.
-Overall, kids are much more likely to accept consequences if they had a role in developing them.
New needs, old needs, new-old needs
-Adolescents (particularly younger teens) frequently slide between bids for autonomy and dependency needs.
-This is even more so the case during times of increased uncertainty and anxiety.
-We may see even more of this back-and-forth as the world reopens and teens re-engage.
-Expect and make room for “regression.”
-Today’s over-scheduled and iPhone-addled adolescents are unskilled when it comes to being bored.
-Kids will default to sleep and screens when given any free space. This isn’t necessarily because they’re lazy or addicted to their screens; they just don’t know how to fill the space.
-Kids need help navigating boredom. We cannot expect them to be able to do this completely on their own.
-Like all of us, kids need help understanding what is going on without ending up in a paralyzing panic.
-They also need help navigating the confusing and often misleading mass of information that is out there.
-Have kids come up with a list of questions about “what happens next” in the economy, politics, and policy.
-Help them come up with the answers to the questions that they are posing.
Working together to resolve anxiety
People are anxious about different things and anxious in different ways. They can get in each other’s way.
Even though the state of the pandemic is improving in the U.S., that doesn’t mean that we’re not still experiencing a lot of uncertainty and stress. It is important to foster an open and supportive family discussion about everyone’s anxieties.
Ask: “What are the two things that are worrying you the most right now? What would you like to do as a family that would help you manage this anxiety?”
-Make time to relax.
-Make time to have fun together.
Q: What is the criteria for determining whether an SSRI is warranted for a teen who is struggling during this time?
A: If you’re at all worried about your child’s level of depression, Michael would encourage you to schedule an evaluation with a psychiatrist. That said, this has been an exceptional year, and many people are struggling with various levels of mental health issues. For some, it may be contextual and normal. That doesn’t necessarily mean that an SSRI wouldn’t be helpful, but Michael encourages folks to try everything else first. Fostering connection, exercising, reducing screen time, and other lifestyle changes can be very helpful in warding off depression. However, if there are issues of self-harm or other behaviors that cause you to worry about your child’s safety, an evaluation is definitely a good move.
Ideally, medication should be combined with therapy. Taking an SSRI does not necessarily mean a child will miss out on learning coping skills; rather, lowering symptoms can help kids feel capable enough to learn what they need to learn.
Q: How can I foster genuine connection if my child is lying and hiding things?
A: There’s no one right way of dealing with lying. Lying can be a symptom of a variety of problems, ranging from fairly benign to more serious. It’s often an attempt to gain power in their relationship with you. Try to determine what you know about your child and what might be compelling them to lie. No matter the underlying cause, one place to begin is by talking to your child about how their lying impacts you. Be honest about the fact that you don’t know why they’re lying. Tell them how it makes you feel, and that you don’t want to feel that way.
Q: What do parents need to know about self-harm and why kids do it?
A: First of all, if your child is harming themselves at any level, it’s important to seek help rather than trying to deal with it on your own. There are techniques for evaluating self-harm, determining how dangerous it is, and helping kids find other ways to cope.
Like lying, self-harm is a symptom, and there could be many different issues underlying it. To some degree, it becomes habitual, and kids need help to break that habit.
Q: Is there a particular type of therapy that’s recommended for self-harm?
A: Most therapists will perform an assessment to determine the severity and underlying reasons for self-harm. This is a crucial part of treatment and can really be done by any experienced professional. In terms of therapeutic modality, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is often considered the treatment of choice for this type of issue. It’s often done in groups and has proven highly effective for self-harming behavior.
Q: How can I build a better relationship with a child who is responding aggressively?
A: You don’t want to meet anger with anger, and you don’t want to try to negotiate with your child while they’re in the heat of the moment. When they’re acting aggressively, just leave it be; nothing good can come from engaging at that particular moment. Intervene before the aggression starts, not while it’s happening. Notice when they’re starting to get upset and talk to them about how you can help each other have a less adversarial relationship. Make space for them and make them feel understood rather than going up against them in a fight, and their aggression will usually abate.
Q: Are there any books that you would suggest to learn more about autonomy and control?
Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Daniel Siegel
Q: Are there any silver linings to the past year that we can share with our children and help them find something positive in the chaos?
A: Kids have experienced and been exposed to so much over the course of the past year. Will it make a positive difference? Well, how could it not? Witnessing political engagement, learning about social and racial justice, thinking about human vulnerability, and coming to grips with mortality—all of this will influence our kids and their sense of what it means to be a person. As a society and as a species, hopefully we have learned some things about priorities, vulnerability, humility, and connection. Our kids have learned these things more than anyone.
Q: How can we help our children understand how they’re feeling when their emotions feel very big and amorphous?
A: It takes decades to really understand what you’re feeling and how to put a name to it. Kids learn by watching other people, reading books, and watching movies, but most of all by feeling an emotional resonance with somebody else. This is how therapy works, too—identifying and naming an emotion together. It helps your kids when you name what you are feeling and let them identify, rather than trying to guess at what they are feeling. It’s really an ongoing conversation. Also, we tend to think kids should be learning emotional intelligence more quickly than they are capable of. It’s important to give kids space not to fully understand what they’re feeling.
Q: How can we tell when our kids’ mental health struggles are about them and when they are actually about the parents? How can we tell when the parents are actually the ones who need to be in therapy?
A: From Michael’s perspective, the problem is neither in the parent nor in the kid; it’s in the relationship. Many relationships have been strained over the course of the past year because of anxiety, and relationships fall apart in predictable places—that is, along the existing fault lines that every relationship has. However, a relationship with exposed fault lines is not necessarily a doomed relationship. Relationship struggles are a symptom of external strain, and fault lines will always be there, but it is absolutely possible to bring relationships back together once the external anxiety lessens and we feel like we have a little more control over our world.
Further reading on PSP:
-Member–reviewed Mental Health Professionals in the area