As parents, nothing breaks our heart more completely than seeing our child stressed, depressed, and anxious. Our impulse is to activate our “fix it” mode. But our way of fixing it often isn’t what our kids need. Instead, they need us to listen, empathize, and ask, “How can I help? That’s according to Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and the award-winning author of No More Mean Girls and The Happy Kid Handbook. Katie joins us to explain the differences between stress and anxiety, and how each can appear in young kids, tweens, and teenagers. She shares practical advice on how to help kids overcome Zoom-related anxiety and brain drain, stay calm, and breathe.
Listen to this episode to learn:
For more information, visit https://practicalkatie.com/.
Helping your kids deal with stress and anxiety
Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard. One thing we know well right now is stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. Unfortunately, our kids know these things too. Katie Hurley is here to help us cope with the stress of 2020. She's a child and adolescent psychotherapist, a parenting educator, and an expert in child and adolescent mental health development. She's also the award-winning author of No More Mean Girls and The Happy Kid Handbook.
Katie talks about the differences between stress and anxiety and what both look like in young kids, tweens, and teenagers. She shares some great practical tips on how we can help our kids distress, breathe, and get through these difficult times. Have a listen. Katie, welcome to Equal Parts. Thank you so much for being here today.
Katie Hurley: Thank you for having me.
Emily: Katie, I want to start with a high-level question because I think it's going to be really important to frame and provide context for our conversation today. Can you just talk a little bit about the difference between stress and anxiety and how they affect our kids in different ways?
Katie: I get this question a lot, especially right now, as we're all going through various stressors at various points. One thing I tell parents all the time is that stress happens in response to specific triggers. Things come up and kids experience stress, but anxiety is sort of this low buzz that's always there. You see it for longer periods of times because stress and anxiety in kids and teens is actually quite confusing because the symptoms tend to be the same.
They have trouble sleeping, they have stomach aches and headaches, they don't eat, they don't want to see their friends. They're irritable, they're yelling, they're crying, they're clinging. All those things tend to be the same, but with stress, you'll see peaks and valleys that are pretty quick, and with anxiety, it's going to last a longer period of time.
Emily: How is it different for different ages? A lot of our listeners might have younger kids who are just barely understanding what's going on. Then others may have preteens or teens that really do understand the state of the world right now. How do you deal with it depending on the different age ranges?
Katie: One thing that's important to note is that stress and anxiety tend to manifest in two different ways. You have some kids who are internalizers and this happens a lot with tweens and teens where they retreat inward a little bit. They may complain of things like muscle aches and headaches and stomach aches, or just tired, not feeling well, but they're not necessarily saying I'm feeling stressed or they're not necessarily having meltdowns all the time, they're just irritable and they're not feeling well.
Then there's the externalizers and these are the ones that constantly project their feelings onto everybody in their path, most often, their parents, and so they're tantruming for long periods. Younger kids are going to have tantrums that are frequent and long. They are going to be just crying for no real reason that you can put your finger on. They're going to have all these outward emotions that are happening a lot of the time.
I think it's just important to notice the differences between those two because as kids get older, one thing they're constantly told out in the world is figure it out, be resilient. They'll learn how to deal with this. What they end up doing is they just take it all inside and they say, "Well, I'm not supposed to talk about this. I'm supposed to get through it and be resilient and figure this out." Those are the ones that become internalizers. The more kids internalize, the more physical symptoms you're going to see. The more, "I don't feel well, I can't do school. I can't sign into Zoom," because they really legitimately aren't feeling well because they're holding all that stress inside.
Really, just talking about it, being a good listener and doing daily check-ins with kids of all ages, with younger kids, you can use feelings charts, feelings faces charts on the fridge to just check in throughout the day. With tweens and teens, it's really just making that 5 to 10 minutes every couple hours to sit down on the bed and say, "Hey, I'm feeling stressed with all this stuff. Everything's weird and different. I don't really know what to make of it. How are you?" Just kind of open that door for them. They may say, "I'm fine. Leave me alone, go away." Then you try again an hour later.
Emily: Let's talk about the major differences between boys and girls when it comes to stress and anxiety. Are there any trends that you see there?
Katie: I see a lot of misconceptions. What parents tend to look for in boys as signs of something is wrong as aggression. They tend to say like, "Oh, if boys are being more aggressive than normal, then something must be wrong." What I find more often than not is because of the way we socialize boys still, even in 2020, when they are stressed or anxious, they're going to be big-time internalizers. They're going to try to hide it, cover it up, pretend like nothing's wrong. They don't actually act more aggressive, but what they do is start avoiding their peers or avoiding the things that might cause stress for them.
If competition on a hockey team, for example, becomes super pervasive and the boys are not being kind to each other, and they're stressing each other out and their behavior is not great in the locker room, they're going to start avoiding hockey practice. They're going to come up with 10,000 reasons why they can't go. They'll blame school, they'll blame physical symptoms.
I think with boys, we're always looking for them to act out because that's what we've always been told, "Oh, when boys are acting out, there's some sort of a problem that we need to uncover." Actually, when boys are under stress and anxiety, they tend to just become very, very quiet. They hide in their rooms and they won't do the things that they normally do. That's something to look for. Then, of course, the flip side is the generalizations we have about girls that they never stop talking and they tell you everything. Well, that's true sometimes.
There are some girls that will tell you 99 problems in two minutes, but there are a lot of girls who won't because they don't know who to trust and they don't know what the person will do with the information. Right now, we have to accept that as this generation of parents, we are fixers big time, and I'm super guilty of it. I have to check myself all the time because when my kids come to me, I'm like, "Oh, yes, I have 10 solutions for that. Let's do it." My solutions are not always going to be the best solutions for them and so we as parents have to really just sit down and be listeners first and take it all in.
Then we have to learn how to say, "How can I help?" Because that's a really important question that we sometimes forget to ask. What we do is we go on our Facebook groups of neighborhood moms and we say, "Has anyone else dealing with this problem? What did you do and how did you solve it? What works and what doesn't work?" That doesn't help our kids. What helps our kids is listening, empathizing, and saying, "How can I help?"
Emily: Got it. That was going to be my next question. What are some of the coping mechanisms or tips that we can help to teach our kids how to get through some of these challenging days that we've been experiencing over the past six months and look like they're going to be continuing for a while?
Katie: Well, I always say that deep breathing is the single best thing that you can do when you're stressed or anxious or even angry or just generally overwhelmed. It's honestly better than medicine if you'd learn how to do it properly. I'm a huge proponent of teaching kids at a young age how to do this. There's a app called Stop Think Breathe Kids that I just love. I have nothing to do with it. No reason to promote it other than-- I think it's [unintelligible 00:07:48]
Emily: I'm writing that down.
Katie: For younger kids, preschool and elementary, Stop Think Breathe Kids is the greatest app invented. You do a little feelings check-in beforehand. They give you some choices of breathing exercises and you do them. Now, the key to learning to do this is you got to do it when they're calm. You can't do these things when they're upset, it's too late. They have to learn when they're calm and practice when they're calm. Then they can access it when they're actually upset. With the tweens, and teens, I often recommend the calm app, that's actually just a really good one. It has lots of different meditations and different breathing exercises.
They can pick and choose the voices they like and the things they like, and they learn how to breathe. The key to deep breathing really is in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, out for a count of four, hold for a count of four. If you envision tracing a square and I often have kids and even teenagers trace a square in their hand while they do that. Up one, two, three, four. Over one, two, three, four, and trace the square over and over again. That's how we calm our central nervous system and that calms everything down in your whole body and lets you release the tension.
That's the first thing that I teach kids and teens life. I've been saying this for years, but right now especially as a lot of kids are at their desks all day long learning at home or even in school, but not allowed to move as much anymore, have a stress fall. Everybody needs a stress fall because we all store stress and anxiety in our muscles. If they can just have it in one hand, squeeze, breathe, release, and then switch to the other hand and use that discreetly under their desk, it really helps release the tension.
Emily: I want to ask a follow-up question to the breathing because I, like you, know the benefits that that can have. When I talk to my kids about it, they're 9 and 10 years old, they shake it off and say, "Oh, I don't want to do that." I think that that's a common theme right now when parents are being forced to try and be teachers and psychologists and helpers to their kids. Sometimes they just don't want to listen to their parents in terms of doing these things. How can you get them to embrace some of these techniques so it doesn't feel like work?
Katie: A hundred percent. This is a lot of pressure on parents. Previous to school shutdowns, the teachers were throwing on therapist's caps and trying to start teaching some of this stuff. Now, it's on the parents to teach everything. That's why I do think that app is great because even very little kids can do it independently once they've done it acouple of times. Kids say it's never going to work because they haven't practiced and they haven't figured out how to do it correctly yet.
One thing that I have preschool and early elementary kids do is envision blowing up a balloon. They're designing it. They're thinking about what it's going to look like, what color string they're going to put on it, who they're going to send it off to when they're done blowing it up. Then they're taking the deep breath in and out slowly to inflate the balloon, tie it off and send it off to a friend. Or I just will do things like, instead of saying like, "Okay, do your deep breathing," because we keep harping on them, "Take your breath, take your breath," and they start breathing quickly is what they tend to do, not taking a slow, deep inhale. They tend to just go really quickly when we say that.
Instead of hyper-focusing on those words, I'll say, "Hey, let's take a break right now and do a relaxing story. When you want me to tell you a story about you, lay down or sit down and get comfortable and you just slow yourself down, give me a character or give me a setting and I'll tell you a story." I did this for years with my own kids. One of my kids used to have trouble sleeping at night.
I would just say, "All right, what are we doing tonight? Oh, we're going to a fairy village. Okay, great. What does it look like? It has lots of little [unintelligible 00:11:33]. Great." I would just run for five minutes, just make it up while she just relaxed, listened with her eyes closed, and visualized. That's a visualization exercise. That's a more relaxing and easy-to-access way for kids to get into the habit of slowing their breathing down.
Emily: Do you think you can move in with us for a while?
One of the things that the most stressful right now is just the open-endedness and uncertainty. Parents are feeling unsettled just as much as our kids are. We're worried about our careers and our kids in their school. We don't want them to fall behind and our health, right? There's so much going through our minds. How much of our stress our kids picking up on and how can we be aware of level-setting ourselves so that they don't pick up on that?
Katie: Well, the bad news is they pick up on a lot of stress and I say, that's bad news because it feels like now we have an extra stressor on our hands like, "Oh, no, my stress is my kid's stress." I'm acutely aware of that. We have to do things like first of all, take care of ourselves, which sounds hokey and overused and blah, blah, blah, what, even as self-care, when everyone's in your house all the time, and you don't even have five minutes to take a shower, this is hard.
We're living in bizarro world right now. I keep saying that to parents and we have to just carve out time. We have to figure it out, whether it's going for a walk at some point, or doing an exercise app inside so that we have time to just get ourselves moving and center our brains. For me, I've had really stopped digesting the news because if I read too much of it, I'm going to talk to my husband about it. If I talked to my husband about it, somebody it's going to be listening and they're not going to understand because they're not us, they're kids.
We really have to be aware of what we're talking about, how we're responding to it. I'm telling everybody to practice deep breathing, but I do it myself all the time. Another thing I tell teenagers and tweens to do, and they laugh at me until they try it is to make up silly songs about your stress. If something is really making you feel anxious, just make up a song about it. Then once you name it and it's out there and you're singing about it, it feels like something you can manage.
I do this all the time and my kids laugh at me, but I do it all the time. I do it when I'm on an airplane, I get like a flying. I don't like turbulence. I make up songs about it. Not just singing my way through life, even kids as young as infants know when a parent is under stress, they'll cry more often, they'll be more irritable, they'll be more fussy, harder to sooth. Then you think of preschoolers. Well, then they start having more tantrums when there's a lot of stress in the home.
We do really have to figure out our ways to practice our own self-care. There's so many ways to get teletherapy now. I really recommend it. I think we always think of therapy as something that we need when there's a huge crisis in our own personal lives. Therapy is just a great tool for getting your feelings out. This is what therapists do, they listen, they help you repackage it and get on your way. You don't have to have an anxiety disorder or a depressive disorder to need that support. It's just great to have a person even monthly or twice a month that you can check in with and get all your stress out in a safe, healthy way and learn how to manage it.
Emily: Zooming is becoming the new norm, whether that's to connect with friends or family or your teachers. Zoom can create a whole level of anxiety. I personally hate sitting there on meetings all day looking at myself. You provided on Twitter some amazing tips and tools that we can give to kids to help with some of this anxiety of being on video all day. Can you share those?
Katie: Yes. One thing I've noticed about kids right now and sometimes the teens will tell me they actually like having their own video up because they can see what their facial expressions look like and they can, I don't know, check it on themselves throughout their classes, but younger kids are really having a hard time seeing their own video in the Zoom room because part of that is and especially kids who are prone to stress or anxiety, they feel like people are staring at them and they don't know who's staring at them. As an adult, I have this same feeling. When I'm in meetings with 18 people in a Zoom room, I'm like, "Where am I supposed to look? Who am I supposed to watch?"
It's weird. It's very uncomfortable. It doesn't feel like a regular meeting at all and we're trying to pretend it does. I'm helping kids learn how to use the hide myself button on Zoom and I do this in every meeting that I attend. Once you hide yourself, you're no longer thinking about like, "Well, who's looking at me?" Because you can't see yourself. That stressor goes away because you're not staring.
Emily: I really love that one.
Katie: Nobody knows about this. It's like we're all learning Zoom-
Emily: I didn't know about it before I read your tweet.
Katie: [laughs] -as we go. It's really easy on a Mac, it's you touch those three buttons and you pull down the menu and you just say, "Hide myself" or on a PC, you just right click it and same thing, click hide myself. That's a good one or kids who are easily distracted by other kids who are off task. You can also hide somebody's video. I could click on your video if you're bothering me or I'm getting distracted by your constant movements and I can just hide you for the time being.
That's another one we can do. What I'm hearing more often than not is that teachers are doing a lot of the talking mostly the students are muted unless they're called upon. If you pin the teacher, that's going to be the primary video that you see so you're not distracted by all the other faces in view.
Emily: We talk to a lot of different people on the podcast about technology and social media and how it's affecting kids right now. There's TikTok and YouTube and Minecraft. Do you think that those devices and apps are adding stress to our kids' lives right now?
Katie: I wouldn't say it's specific to any one device or app. I think the problem is that all we have right now is technology in a lot of places. I live in Los Angeles where we're still fairly locked down. The kids are not going to school yet. In some places, kids are going into school two days a week or they're going to pods or they're doing things but they're primarily connecting through gaming, through social media and then they're in Zoom rooms all day long learning.
There is a brain drain that comes from, if all you do all day long is do zoom meetings and I do it as a therapist, I'm exhausted by the end of the day. I'm completely irritable and exhausted. I have to go walk around the block after my last therapy session of the day, because I'm just tired and I can't access my normal, happy, [chuckles] good-natured feelings when I have been on technology for hours and hours and hours back to back.
Kids are just drained. Social media can be complicated because for some teenagers, it's a lifeline. For kids who are at risk for LGBTQ plus kids, for kids with anxiety and depression, social media can be a super important lifeline for them. It's how they find other people who have the same or similar experiences to them, it's how they find friends.
I hesitate to say that social media is all bad but then we do know that there's cyberbullying that exists. The good news is, it's not good news, it's marginally good news. It doesn't seem like there's a huge spike in cyberbullying since COVID shut things down. It seems to be fairly static. It wasn't great before. That's why it's not super great news but at least it's not a ton of worse.
Emily: Building on that, you recently sent out a PSA from a teen on Twitter, which said that parents think that the news is scary, but really, it's not knowing which news to believe, that's the scary part and the media and the internet are full of distractions and misinformation. How can we guide our teens to make smart responsible media choices and really teach them the right way to find and process the right information?
Katie: I find that kids from probably even fourth grade up right now are searching for news on YouTube. If you asked me what's the one I liked the least right now, it's actually not even TikTok, which I'm not a huge fan of, but it's YouTube because the problem with YouTube is there's also a lot of not real news. There's a lot of fake news, but it looks like real news because anybody can make a video that looks like a newscast and then start talking conspiracy theories and alarming things that aren't actually true.
That's the thing that worries me the most, is that kids are actively searching for information. They sense that their parents are not wanting to talk to them about the news and they're probably right, in a lot of cases, and there are a lot of people like me out there who will say, "Only take news in small bites". Now, I say that for adults, because I know we all get overwhelmed. I read the Washington Post in the morning and then I call that a day until later in the evening.
I do talk to my kids about the news and they're 11 and 13 because they need reassurances and I can't promise them anything. I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow or the next day, but what I can tell them is, "These are the numbers in Los Angeles right now. This is what's happening with schools. This is what's happening with the fires. Here's how they're putting the fires out." They hear things from each other, they see things in stories.
Most of my clients found out about George Floyd by Instagram stories and then they were confused, they didn't know what was happening, because stories are just quick snapshots and lacking information. Common Sense Media does an excellent job of helping parents help kids figure out sites that they can use to get information. Time for Kids is a great resource for younger kids and then, with teenagers, really looking at that media bias chart and helping them find places where they can get accurate news sources. I always say, "Send them to NPR and send them to PBS, because they're not going to lie to them there." Helping them learn to weed out what's accurate and what's not.
Emily: Finally, can you tell me what you think the lasting impact of this year will be on this generation of kids?
Katie: I've been thinking about this a lot over the last few weeks, especially as I'm meeting with kids virtually and helping them transition back to school in various ways, depending on where they live and what their schools are doing. I think the thing we're all afraid of is that they're going to have anxiety and depression for the rest of their lives because of this. We know that anxiety is spiking. We know that depression levels are spiking. We also know that was true a few years before COVID, that the rates have been going up among teens, anyway, for a variety of reasons.
I think what I'm seeing among kids and especially tweens and teens, we tend to paint them as selfish individuals or people who don't really understand empathy, but what I'm seeing is kids who are starting to listen to each other, kids who are starting to apologize for things that maybe shouldn't have been done, where they once would have said to another friend, "Well, I said this because you did that and I don't really care and whatever. We're not friends anymore". Now they're circling back and realizing, well, sometimes your friends get taken away and there's nothing you can do. You have the time to think about it and you realize, "Well, that fight wasn't worth it."
I'm seeing kids start to think more about empathy and compassion and how they can be helpers out in the world. I have so many teens coming to me saying, "There's nothing I can do to volunteer, but all I want to do is volunteer. How can I volunteer, when everything is online?" They're actively searching out things that they can do virtually to make a difference in the world. I tend to be an optimist, maybe sometimes too much of an optimist, but I think that when the dust settles from this and one day it will settle, it always does, I think we're going to have a generation of kids who are more compassionate and more empathic and are looking to be the solution instead of feeling helpless in the midst of a problem.
Emily: That's certainly a positive note. Thank you so much, Katie, for all of your insight today. I've really enjoyed the conversation.
Katie: I did as well. Thank you so much for having me.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.
Emily: Wait. Before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.