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BIANNA GOLODRYGA: Well, from sudden changes, like having to take lessons at home over Zoom, to not being able to see their friends regularly or wondering
what adult life might look like when they get there, the pandemic has hit children in ways we may not be able to quantify.
It’s an issue one psychologist is putting front and center of her work. Rebecca Kennedy is known for her hugely popular podcast and Instagram page.
Here she is speaking to our Hari Sreenivasan about the mental health crisis facing kids today and how we, as an adult, can step up to help them.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Thanks, Bianna.
Dr. Becky, thanks for joining us.
When you are in your practice with parents, what are the ways that you have heard about and counseled kids and the range of reactions that they’ve had
over this past year, especially in the context of mental health?
DR. BECKY KENNEDY: There are kids who are just eager to get back out there, and maybe they’re super social kids, they’re super sporty kids, they’re kids
who are in that adolescent stage where, developmentally, they’re not supposed to be forming so much of their identity around their parents,
they’re supposed to be separating, and that’s been really, really hard. And then there’s other kids who find the nuances of real-life 3D interactions
with other kids to be really, really hard and have always kind of retreated to video games or things that are online, and those kids, in some ways,
look better and yet, are almost getting more entrenched in the struggles that they have.
I think kids really miss being able to explore. The primary job as a kid is to explore the world. That’s why we form close relationships with our kids
and why we want them to feel so close to us, is that an attachment language, we form a secure base for them. So, essentially a kid can go on
the playground or try a new math problem or even say, I am going on a sleep over, explore because they just kind of know they have the security behind
And we’ve said to kids for so long, no more exploring. That’s literally their job to do that. That’s how they experience and learn about the world.
And so, to have the developmental pass really thwarted, yes, kids are anxious, I think some kids are more prone to expressing anxiety as anger or
frustration, they’re taking it out on siblings for sure or some of them are really withdrawing, maybe even more into iPad or into even just their bed.
And I think we’re seeing that whole range all coming from this real disruption in the developmental tasks.
SREENIVASAN: There’s also on the kid level or student level a little bit of anxiety around going back to school. I mean, it’s — you know, some
young people really suffered from the social isolation of the past year and some kind of excelled. That this was, all of a sudden, the first time that
they were on equal footing and it changed the social dynamic. So, you’ve got some kids who can’t wait to get back to their friends and you’ve got
other ones who are like, well, this was kind of pretty good.
KENNEDY: I think you’re right. And I think what does Zoom schooled do, it equalizes certain things, because you know what doesn’t happen on Zoom
school, you don’t watch four kids from your class walk out, laugh and talk to each other, and you’re watch them thinking, I wish I was in that group.
Instead, everyone shuts down their computer and is looking at a blank screen and going on with their day. And that’s a tough transition.
And, you know, one of the things I talk to parents about all the time is kids never do well when we avoid naming things. It is not like, oh, I’m
just going to cross my fingers and hope my kid figures it out, and –or I think parents worry, I don’t want to put that in my kid’s head. It’s just
not a thing. You know, put things in kids’ head. If you know my kid has some anxiety, my kid is one of the more hesitant, reticent kids, My kid
used to feel about at school and Zoom school has kind of been amazing because those dynamics aren’t in play, now is the time even if it’s before
your kids go back to school to start talking about that. And I think the language of wondering is such an easy way for parents to do that.
I wonder what it’s going to be like when you go back to math class? And part of that is going to be nice. You can actually learn from people who
have legs, and like now you’ll know if they’re even wearing pants. Like you never know. And that’s going to be kind of nice just to be aware. And yet,
when you walk out, it might be the thing that the group you talked to me about last year kind of goes off and you might be with them, you might not,
you want to be, do you not, I’m just wondering, oh, I’m wondering what that might be like.
And I think a lot of parents just say to me, Becky, do you think my eight- year-old son is going to give me a good response to that, and I say, think no, but we don’t ask questions to get good responses, we ask questions to
let our kids know we’re not afraid to talk about things and to start the process inside of our kids of just wondering about it. So, then when the
school day comes, they’re not shocked by this awful isolation feeling, we planted a little bit, they had a little time to prepare for it, because it
is never the feelings that really overwhelm kids as much as being totally surprised by a new feeling.
So, if you’re a parent listening to this and you’re thinking, yes, my kid is just going to look at me and say, mom, can I have my snack now. My kid
says that too, but that’s not a sign that the intervention wasn’t really effective.
SREENIVASAN: You know, I have seen reports from Connecticut and Ohio and hospitals around the country that are saying that emergency rooms are
seeing more children showing up with behavioral and mental health issues and even — you know, are you, in your practice, hearing about sort of
acute things, eating disorders, suicidal ideation, I mean, the ways it manifests in children?
KENNEDY: Yes. I mean, my private practice is pretty small. So, I’d hate to use it as, you know, anything representative. But certainly, my Instagram
community is not small at all, right. Where it’s almost — it’s over a half million people. So, you know, there’s many kids in those families. And I
think I am hearing a lot about kids, yes, across the board who are having a hard time for sure.
I mean, symptoms are tip of the iceberg, right? They matter. We need to pay attention to them. They tell us a kid is having a hard time with something,
right? And sometimes two kids can have a hard time with the same types of things and they just happen to manifest, right, one has a lot of social
anxiety, one has an eating disorder based on temperament. But I think, yes, across the board, I am hearing that kids are trying to figure out, how do I
go back to being a kid? Do I feel support in this transition? How do I go from staying in and feeling scared to being explorative and supposedly
going to camp this summer? How am I doing that? Meanwhile, my parents seem to be fighting a lot, there’s a lot of stress about money, and I’m supposed
to go and put on a happy face, like no thank you. That doesn’t make sense to me.
Soo, I think kids are picking up on the stress in the home, the stress in their own child development. And then, of course, we see that on the
surface as various kind of behavioral problems.
SREENIVASAN: I mean, by the time you get to the hospital there’s already lots — I mean, that’s the last line of defense, right? I mean, what can a
parent do in that stressful household that you described where people are concerned, they have economic anxieties about whether their job is coming
back or fast enough or — and by the way, we are still responsible for making sure everyone is sheltered and fed and clothed, right, and that can
cause stress in families.
So, how do you talk to a child about the stresses, the grown up stresses that you’re feeling and make sure that the child understands that this
isn’t their fault?
KENNEDY: Yes, that’s everything, right? So, I would a couple of things. Connection is the single biggest thing kids need. I think on some level,
our brains say, OK, that makes sense, and that most of us, even me, we go in with a solution, which actually is experienced at the opposite of
connection. Because when you’re have a hard time with something and someone tries to solve your problem, they’re inherently saying, I am not connecting
to the feelings under the problem.
So, if we translate that to a strategy, I would tell every single parent watching this, go to your kid today, no matter how old they are, and just
say to them, it is hard to be a kid right now or life has been pretty stressful, hasn’t it? Let’s even look at the calendar. It’s like this
coronavirus thing, the not knowing, the staying home, the OK, maybe we go out with masks. We don’t have to say to kids, everything is going to be
great, or put on a smile. We don’t have to solve the problem. We have to let them know we see the problems and that we’re in it with them.
I also think just talk about things in the house. Our kids pick up on everything. Study after study always shows us kids pick up more on the
environment than parents do, all the time, because they’re evolutionarily primed to have to because they’re not able to take care of themselves. So,
if you’re not able to survive on your own, you better be extra perceptive about all the different things going on around you so you know when there’s
a threat and need to seek protection from an adult.
So, if you notice something in the environment, if you’re saying, wow, me and my partner, we are getting at it, we are definitely arguing more, but I
think we’re in the corner of the house, I don’t think my kids know, the kids know. I’m just going to — the kids know. They feel it. And that
doesn’t make you a bad parent. What’s actually so helpful for a kid is just going to them and saying, I think you have been hearing me and daddy argue
a little more, and I love this line, you’re right to have noticed that, and there’s a couple things, part of being married is tricky and this
coronavirus time has been hard. And even when we are arguing, our family is safe and you’re safe and we can take care of you and it is not your fault.
That is experienced as a kid is like a major deep breath. And is protective for a kid’s mental health because then they don’t have to hold onto stress
of the family and wonder, what did I do, am I a bad person and how do I fix this? That is what manifests as tantrums, as acting out, as withdrawal, and
we can help get ahead of that by talking honestly with our kids about what’s happening.
SREENIVASAN: You know, I wonder about teenagers and kids who are going to go out. I wonder if the pendulum sort of swings in different directions.
You know, we’ve been so risk averse. Do they engage in not just baseline risky behavior but higher than average more risky behavior throughout this
summer where everyone is seeing each other for the first time, hugging each other, and if you’re a certain age, probably doing more?
KENNEDY: Yes. I’m really glad you brought it up because I feel like it is not talked about enough. That — right. In general, even healthy, like
experimentation and some amount of risk seeking is part of adolescence, it’s how they explore the edge and then kind of come back to something in
the middle. That’s been halted for a year and a half in a 16-year-old’s body, in a 18-year-old’s body maybe in a 19-year-old’s body, who would have
been in college, instead they’re living with their parents. Like I think we can all think, wow, that’s not ideal, right?
And so, I think there are some kids who feel extra anxious and there’s these other kids who are like, get me out, I need to make up for lost time.
And I don’t even think that’s conscious but they’ll be compelled. I cannot recommend enough to parents that this is the time, especially before the
summer fully starts, to talk to your kids about this. And yet, not in a way of, hey, you know, when you go out, you might want to be drinking a lot,
but don’t do that. I mean, you can say that, but it just won’t be effective.
Like I don’t know one teenager who has been in an environment and says, I remember my parents’ word of wisdom. So, I’m not going to drink a lot. Just
never happened. Going back to the idea of asking more questions than saying things because that’s actually what helps our kids start to ask themselves
questions when they’re in environments without us. You know, and look, it depends on the baseline where you’re at where you talk about things like
drugs and sex with your kids, right? So, you certainly can’t go from zero to 180. But if you’re a family where that’s incorporated, I think it’s fair
to say, you know, you have your kid who is home from college and now is — you know, you say to your — say it is your 22-year-old who you still are
in close contact with, look, I could see being with people there might be extra motivation to not just have a drink but to have like six or seven,
like let’s just call a spade a spade.
I am talking about — and I think this is important to say to kids, there are urges and actions. I could see why kids would have big urges or want to
do something around drinking, and then there’s the action of drinking not much. It’s really tricky. I totally get why there would be that urge after
all this time and I think we also both know that the action is super dangerous, it’s really scary to think about.
I know for so many parents maybe hearing me model this they might be thinking, Becky, you’re not saying anything though. Like shouldn’t you just
say, don’t do that? Our kids, at the end of the day, are going to be making their own decisions. So, either we are helping them with the process that
leads to them being mindful and reflective, which are things that help anyone make better decisions, or we’re feeding them advice that I am pretty
sure for most kids who actually go to those type of events, it literally goes right into the garbage can. And not only that, it just leads a kid to
feel like, my parent does not get me. That will be the last time I talk to my parent about any of these types of things.
And so, I think the idea of, yes, let’s talk about it, let’s help our kids ask themselves questions, let’s imagine situations and understand these
aren’t so black or white, it’s not so easy to say no to a drink if your friends are there and you haven’t seen anyone in a year and a half. That’s
not easy, even though it is logical. I know. Me and you, we make plenty of decisions that are not logically a good decision because emotionally, it is
hard to do. I showed up early and worked out this morning. I know that with my brain. I didn’t do it because I was feeling lazy, right? So, we have to
come at it that way with our kids.
SREENIVASAN: I don’t know if it is even possible to call any kind of silver lining out of the catastrophe we all lived through. But do you think
that there’s an opportunity here where we can rethink how mental health fits into the fabric of how we take care of ourselves?
KENNEDY: I really hope so. I mean, I think, just anecdotally, you know, when I think about my close psychologist colleagues and I try to make a
referral to them, every single one of them is, hey, I have a huge wait list, like I have never been so busy because I think we’re seeing it is a
real thing and I think that’s something I keep hearing. Like my mental health is real. This — my feelings are real. I can’t, I don’t have a blood
test for it maybe, I don’t see it, but I feel it and holy moly, I need to look into this.
So, I do hope that continues, that — not only prioritization but in some ways the respect that the things inside of us are really important and need
to be taken care of. So, I do hope that really kind of maintains.
SREENIVASAN: Dr. Becky Kennedy, thanks so much.
KENNEDY: Thank you for having me.
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