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Episode 32: Coping with Student Sadness and Anxiety During COVID-19

Is it normal for children and their parents to experience high anxiety and sadness during these uncertain times? In this episode of the Supercast, we hear from a Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety, particularly in children. Find out what advice Dr. Kristy Ludwig has for families trying to cope with being cooped up, staying home and staying happy.


Audio Transcription

Anthony Godfrey:
Welcome to the Supercast. I'm your host superintendent, Anthony Godfrey. Today we are joined by a local clinical psychologist who has some advice for families feeling stressed as they are cooped up at home because of COVID-19 find out if it's actually okay to feel sadness and experienced anxiety during this time. And we want to talk with her today about the impact of the current circumstance. We find ourselves in on families and on children and maybe some things we can do to help make our way through Dr. Ludwig. Thank you very much for joining us today.

Dr. Ludwig:
Sure. Happy to be here. It's very interesting doing interviews, always using social distancing and my iPad has had more use than ever before, but it's very nice to see you. I hope to one day meet you in person.

Anthony Godfrey:
I this, like I said, a very unique time. Obviously it's something none of us has experienced before. What are some of the impacts that you're seeing on families and our children?

Dr. Ludwig:
I agree. I do think it's a really unprecedented time and I think what's so interesting about it, when you think about the implications for mental health, one of the things that we know about anxiety is that it's a normal, and it's an adaptive emotion. It's an important emotion that we have that essentially prepares us to respond to valid threats. The current situation that we're in does consist of a valid threat. Coronavirus is a valid threat to all of us. The most important thing to start off with is just that it is all valid, that it is normal to be anxious. It's normal, it's valid to be stressed. It's valid to feel sad. I think about the seniors in high school this year that just, as an example, are missing out on a lot of things that they have planned for and expected for a long time.

So I think that there's the developed threat. And then there's also all the things in our world that have changed. And I think part of the challenge and the opportunity is to practice and learn how to tolerate a certain amount of uncertainty. What probably is the most important place to put our attention is into our families. And rather than being pulled in lots of different directions, I think being really thoughtful and mindful of what we are exposing ourselves and our families to. In regards to media, we do need information, but I think we also need to be thoughtful of putting limits on that for our own anxiety, for our own mental health, as well as modeling that and helping to limit that for our children. Information's important, but we also want to make sure that we're not overwhelming ourselves with the desire to try to create certainty or to just continue to feel like we need to get more information.

Anthony Godfrey:
Interesting phrase, trying to create certainty. And I can absolutely see that happening where we are just checking in with the news constantly. We're looking for updates and things are changing rapidly. It feels like every day, there's a change in what we're hearing. And we may start to think that the more information we consume, the more we can get a taste for some certainty, and we can see a path forward.

And yet I think that we have to really be mindful of that because the information we get may not be creating that certainty that we're striving for. Another piece that I think is really important that a lot of families are probably already well into doing this, as we're five weeks into this. But I do think having some structures, some routine, some consistency and predictability in family life is actually really important for kids of all ages, from the little ones to to our teenagers.

Anthony Godfrey:
Yeah. I think that's true. You get into a routine whether you want it or not. And sometimes it's not a deliberate routine. It's the routine of staying up too late and getting up too late and maybe not taking care of ourselves the way we ought to. There's something else that struck me earlier in what you said, that is the importance of connection with family. And what I found is that just because we're in the same space, doesn't mean that we're necessarily connecting. And with my own family, I've had great moments of playing board games, long sitting on the shelf that we haven't gotten to and we've really engaged. But there are other times where we all have our various devices and we're not engaged with each other. And so I do think even though we're in the same physical space, we have to be a little bit deliberate about reaching out to each other.

Dr. Ludwig:
Absolutely. And I think part of that structure is I think some of the most important things. We need to structure in our fun family times. And particularly, I also think related to that positive parent/child interaction time so that we're being really thoughtful and deliberate. Like you said about really creating the time and the space for that. And I think that is as important as anything else that's scheduled within the context of a day. I think other things that are important are things like we mentioned, some structure and bedtimes and wake times. I will add a caveat with that. If you have a child who has never been a morning person, trying to fight them to become one right now is probably not something that you need to do. But also, I don't think it's a good idea to have teenagers sleeping into the late morning, early afternoon, and then being up all night.

So I think finding kind of a balance in that for some structure and some consistency. I think the other thing we really need to be thoughtful and scheduling in is physical activity. When kids are in school and when they're on sports teams, they're moving around and there's a lot of activity that's happening. And I think right now we have to be a little bit more deliberate in making sure that we're scheduling that for ourselves as well as for our families going on where it's possible and safe going on a walk being outside, doing some things that, that we can in obviously while also maintaining social distance and the abiding by the necessary guidelines. But I do think finding those kinds of opportunities within the context of our schedule are really important as well.

Anthony Godfrey:
I agree. I decided one afternoon when I had quite a few phone calls to make that I would just fire up the AirPods, leave the house and walk around. The dog was very happy. I decided to invite her along as well, and I was gone for hours and I didn't realize how much time I spend on the phone without locking. It was very nice. And I got quite a sunburn, but it did feel good to be out and about. And you're right. It just totally changes your perspective in ways that even as you're sitting on the couch, thinking about going out for a walk, you, you, you underestimate, I really like what you said. I wrote down three reasons that we ought to be giving ourselves permission, to feel sadness, feel anxiety, and realize that that is an okay response for us to have.

That is number one, there's a genuine threat. There is a health issue out there. There's a genuine threat. Some of us are more susceptible than others. Everyone's circumstance is different, but there is a threat number two, this is a change. We're all having to do things differently. Now this is now what we're used to, and it was an abrupt change. We were thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool on this one. And then number three, the uncertainty that you mentioned, and that we talked about, all three of those just individually would be enough to justify some level of anxiety or sadness or difficulty in our lives. But when you have all three thrown at you and everyone's experiencing that to one degree or another that's that, that creates a difficult circumstance for kids.

Dr. Ludwig:
Absolutely. And I think one of the most important things is to really validate, listen to and validate that emotion both within ourselves. I think we've got to allow and understand we're feeling emotions. In addition, it's really important that we listen and validate for our kids. I think we want to jump to fixing when kids are struggling and I think there's some of this we can't change. We can't fix it.  It is what it is. And I think giving them useful information is good, but I think a lot of it is just listening to and validating the fact that it is hard and it's real.  And then also going to a place of really reminding them of strengthen and the things that we can gain and learn from the experience and the fact that we're being safe.

I mean, there's ways to communicate with kids around some fears, but I also think we have to be thoughtful, not excessively reassuring, so that it is just validating and acknowledging and saying, yes, we're all feeling weird and kind of different, strange, bad, sad. And then also helping them to find things to do that can help them to try to feel better. Sometimes when we're feeling really down, what we need to do is a little counter to how we feel. So it's this nice balance where we really have to validate and listen and let them have that experience. And then also provide an opportunity to do some things that can help them to feel better. That's the fun, that's the being outside, the moving around eating regularly, those kinds of things that really help to manage and maintain that self care.

Anthony Godfrey:
Did you say eating regularly or eating constantly because we're eating constantly.

Dr. Ludwig:
I do think that it's good to remember to eat and keeping that in some type of a schedule. It's funny. I think people do the extremes. I think we can be eating constantly. And I've also talked with some kids that are forgetting to eat lunch. I think we've got both extremes.

Anthony Godfrey:
Eating lunch is one thing I don't forget. Are there some ways that children are going to react to this type of circumstance that might confuse adults or might be different from the way an adult would react?

Dr. Ludwig:
I think sometimes kids might not be as good at articulating why they're not feeling good. So you might see behaviors coming out from the emotion. You might see things that look like more irritability. You might seem kind of more argumentative. You might seem more withdrawn. And I think those all could be indicators of emotion that are happening that kids are experiencing, whether or not they're wanting to acknowledge that. So I think those are things to be mindful of. I think, obviously having limits and expectations for behavior and how we treat each other are important. But I also think being mindful of what certain behaviors might be communicating. A child that's being really argumentative or really irritable in this context, there might be other things going on underneath that.

So kind of taking time to listen and acknowledge pointing out behaviors. You seem more irritable, there's a lot that's going on. It's really hard to be stuck at home, trying to label what you're seeing rather than making judgments on it. I think sometimes we're quick to thinking, oh, you're being disrespectful or a kind of making judgements. You're just trying to upset me. But instead, really trying to label it and then trying to give the space for kids to talk by trying to just be there and listening. So I do think that's one of the things. That we just need to be mindful of the behaviors we're seeing. And I'm not saying we have to validate that are still not acceptable, but I think just also being thoughtful of some of the emotion that might be underlying those.

Anthony Godfrey:
Process it, and also understand that might be coming from a place that isn't immediately evident.

Dr. Ludwig:
Exactly, exactly. It might be that, that your child was feeling really sad and missing out on things. But instead of being able to say that they're kind of arguing with everything you're trying to get them to do, we'll take a quick break, but when we return,

Anthony Godfrey:
We'll talk more with Dr. Christine Ludwig about dealing with the student and parent anxiety.

Break:
I'm Steven Hall, Director of Jordan Education Foundation. In today's challenging and uncertain times, it is more important than ever before to support one another. Here at the Jordan Education Foundation, we invite you to join us in making sure children are not going hungry. Your $10 donation to the Foundation will help us feed one student for a weekend when food and meals may be very scarce for some, with food and hygiene supplies and the Principal's Pantries at Jordan School Districts being depleted and in higher demand than ever before. Every financial contribution made will help us to keep the pantries filled for students who would otherwise go without. The Jordan Education Foundation exists due to the generosity of people who care about kids. If you would like to donate to help children from going hungry, please visit jordaneducationfoundation@jordandistrict.org, or contact the Foundation at (801) 567-8125. Thank you. Together, we can make a difference.

Anthony Godfrey:

We're back with Dr. Christine Ludwig when students do return to school, and the earliest that will happen will be the first day of school for the 2020 - 2021 school year. That will be in the middle of August. So that would be five months between the time that school closed and school opened back up. And that would be the longest that any of these students have ever been out of school since they started. What type of or worries might you expect from kids as they return after a long break?

Dr. Ludwig:
Yeah, that's a really good question. I think one that we're going to grapple with for a while as we move this forward. It's really interesting because I think some students that may have historically rather not gone to school or tried to get out of going to school, now are actually missing school. But I also think that having been out of the habit of going to school, that the idea of going to school is probably going to bring with it some relief and escape, get me out of my house, welcomed and I want to be with my friends. And so I think that there's going to be some of that, but we already know that kids have trouble with anxiety associated with going to school. Whether it's related to the schoolwork or the environment we already know that prime times for school refusal come after breaks, and this is a particularly long break.

So I think that there is some risk of that. And I think the more that we can, and again this is hard with the uncertainty, but the more we can kind of prepare students to know when that's happening, I think that's helpful. But the temptation sometimes could be to fall into letting the student try to get out of it because it's really uncomfortable. And because they've been home this whole time, the challenge is going to be with some of those kids that are actually going back to school or leaving that house comes with a lot of anxiety. And I think one of the most important things we'll need to do is to create the expectations that those things have to happen. That said, one of the things I've been talking to folks about that they struggle with anxiety and where the anxiety of being in a comfortable place for a long time, and then being asked to leave that comfortable place.

I think where possible, if you know that your child is a little bit more anxious or that really resists uncomfortable situations, to try to create opportunities for them to feel uncomfortable, whether it's really encouraging them to reach out to friends, sometimes that might make them a little more anxious having them do Zoom calls with. Friends and family, having them try to think of things that they can do for other people. It just depends on the student, but I do think anything that we can do during this time to help students that are a little more anxious to do some things that might make them feel uncomfortable, just so they're in the habit of doing some of those things, I think could be really valuable.

Anthony Godfrey:
Dr. Ludwig, what are some other tips that you would give parents of children who tend to be anxious, prepare them for the challenges that are ahead and deal with the challenges that they're experiencing right now, because even though we need to be deliberate and intentional about making that happen, there are more opportunities than ever before, in most cases for this interaction between parent and child.

Dr. Ludwig:
So I think, similar to what I just mentioned, in trying to create opportunities for children, teens to do things that are uncomfortable. I think one of the things that we oftentimes think about with anxiety is, I want my child to feel comfortable and then they can do these things that are hard. And what we absolutely know is that the way to overcome anxiety is to do the hard things. So I do think, in general the structure and consistency in having kids know what to do, those are all really helpful for kids that are anxious. They're helpful for all kids. And if your child is particularly anxious, I think really being mindful of trying to encourage, support, reward, reinforce behaviors that are brave as I often like to say. When they are doing things that are uncomfortable.

So for example, if a student is struggling with an assignment ,encouraging and trying to coach the student to be able to reach out to the teacher, obviously age appropriate. If it's a first grader, probably the parents should be reaching out. But  if it's a high school student or middle school student and it's reasonable that they could reach out to the teacher, encouraging them to be able to make that contact rather than jumping in and doing it for them, not that you couldn't on the side also be supporting them with that. But I think the thing that we want students to do is to do those things that feel uncomfortable and really coaching them on how they can advocate for themselves, or have a conversation with an adult in some ways that's really uncomfortable, that those things could be really helpful.

We want to support them in their schoolwork. We want to definitely communicate with teachers as is necessary, but I think oftentimes we tend to jump in more quickly than might be helpful for our child, particularly an anxious child. To be able to do some of those things that might make them uncomfortable. So I think if we encourage them to do those things to reach out to teachers, to contact friends, to ask them questions and then within the context of our homes it just wherever we can, it's a little bit tricky at home to think of how we're going to create situations for our children to do things that are a little less comfortable, but where you can find those opportunities. I think that's the key, finding things that they're not as comfortable doing or that they haven't done successfully in the past.

It could be starting a new project or doing some painting as a family or something that a child might not be as comfortable with and giving them that opportunity to engage in a new behavior. To do something that makes them feel really anxious and uncomfortable. I think anything in regards to connecting and reaching out with others, I do realize for some students and some children that is not a problem. But I do think it's really important for all of them, especially now that for some students, they might kind of get comfortable not reaching out to any friends or anybody outside of their home. And so I do think having some contact with others outside the home virtually is also really, really important.

Anthony Godfrey:
That really resonates for me. The idea that you redirect, if the child is spinning. You don't want to overindulge, you want to understand, you want to listen, you want to validate, but you don't want to reinforce to the point that the student can't escape or the child can't escape this particular way of thinking and you move on together. So that makes a lot of sense.

But I think sometimes the family will accommodate the anxiety. And so the child is comfortable essentially because they don't have to do the things that are uncomfortable for them. The entire family, the functioning of the family is revolving around making sure they're maintaining all of that. So I also think that would be an impairment in functioning that would also require the need for some intervention.

And if parents find themselves in the circumstance you just described, then really a good first step is to contact counselors and psychologists in our schools. Every school has counselors and psychologists who can help them.

Dr. Ludwig:
Yes, yes. And I think that they can do one or two things. I think they can, in many cases, provide the services that are needed. I think that your District has some really wonderful people. I've had the opportunity to work with some of the counselors and some of the folks in your District. And I think you're really fortunate and have a really great system. And I think if they can't provide the service in whatever way, I think they also can be really helpful for connecting and giving referrals for outside services.

Anthony Godfrey:
Dr. Ludwig, what other advice would you give to parents and students who are just trying to do their best navigating these difficult waters?

Dr. Ludwig:
I would say to both students and parents and families to give yourselves a break, to cut yourself slack. I think it's an interesting time because, on one hand, and I'm particularly going to speak to parents for just a second, that I think we feel like in some cases I've heard parents say, I should be able to do more or I should be doing this or I should be doing that. And I think the reality is that this current crisis involves so much change. And so many things have happened differently that I don't think the idea that we should be doing more. I think really giving ourselves a break and making sure that we're giving time to support our self-care, our mental health.

Anthony Godfrey:
It's clear that we need to take care of ourselves because we can't take care of each other. I also think about employees of the District, and we have lots of employees who are doing different tasks from what they normally do. We either have bus drivers who are acting as custodians or helping you with lunch workers. And as a District, we've allowed and encouraged anyone who wants to continue to work and earn their hours is able to do that. And so we have a lot of employees who are doing different jobs, and then teachers are doing things very differently. Now they have to teach in a completely different way. And I feel like there's a chance that teachers are in a position where they have to absorb the anxiety about online learning that all of their students have to experience. And so now they get this concentrated load and this concentrated weight that they carry, because they're trying to help so, so many kids get through this. And I think that creates a really heavy burden on teachers that we maybe haven't talked about. It's not just that teaching in a different way is stressful. It's helping so many kids manage such monumental change that can create stress that really doesn't stop. And do you have any suggestions for them?

Dr. Ludwig:
Yeah, I think that's really interesting that you mentioned that because just earlier today, on another meeting that I was on, we were talking about how I think right now, in regards to our children, our teachers are very much the ones on the front line. I know there's a lot of support people within school buildings that help to share and carry that load. But I think right now, in this context, the teachers are really very much on the front line. Not only doing the educating, but also having to hold the stress, the anxiety. And in many times, maybe even the only communication that kids are having as far as someone outside of their family. And so I do think that one of my thoughts for teachers is, they absolutely need to make sure that they're giving themselves the time and taking care of their own self care. And also, I think one of the things is just acknowledging that this is really different. I don't know that all the teachers in the classroom are trained to do this type of teaching. And I think it's just a time where we all have to cut ourselves some slack and do the best we can.

Anthony Godfrey:
Thank you very much, Dr. Ludwig, I feel better just talking with you. It's great to process all of this. I think we have a lot of difficulties, but we have a lot of opportunities that we have before us right now. And I think that if we try to connect to each other and take care of each other in the way that you've described, we can come out of this stronger. So thank you Dr. Ludwicg. It's been great talk. Thank you. Thank you for joining us on the Supercast. Be safe. And remember, education is the most important thing you will do today. We'll see you out.

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