Dr. Lauren Stutman, Psy.D, on How to Ease our Kids’ Anxieties: Pt. 1

Many of our kids are struggling with overwhelm, frustration, and behaviors during these demanding times. We reached out to the founder and clinical director of CARE-LA’s Dr. Lauren Stutman, Psy.D, to find out about strategies we can implement from home to support our kids as they weather distance learning and other challenges. Here, she walks us through some coping strategies to reduce anxiety, upset, and Zoom fatigue with characteristic insight, deep knowledge, and some occasional (much-needed!) humor.

 

3 Things You Can Try Right Now:

  • Lessen Zoom overwhelm by turning off the camera, hiding self from view, or pinning the teacher’s (or a friend’s) feed.
  • Practice body scans, brain hacks, and targeted breathing to prevent the fight-or-flight response.
  • Try different coping strategies: sit with your child’s feelings, celebrate with them when they work through their anxiety, and practice working through our own frustrations out loud so they can learn from our mistakes.
Dr. Lauren Stutman, a woman with long brown hair and brown eyes, sits in front of a window speaking to the camera with a kind expression on her face.
Dr. Lauren Stutman, a woman with long brown hair and brown eyes, sits in front of a window speaking to the camera with a kind expression on her face.


Can you share some tips to help our kids deal with the chaos, stress, and overwhelm of so many online classes and therapies?

We feel stress and mental exhaustion after a period of video conferencing because it requires more work than face-to-face communication. With video, we don’t have access to the speaker’s full body language — we have to read social cues without it. That’s hard for anyone, but it’s especially challenging for kids on the autism spectrum, and compounds the problem. The first thing I recommend to lessen the overwhelm from all the competing stimuli — commonly known as Zoom fatigue — is to turn off the camera. (If you need to, ask your school’s psychologist to advocate for your child and get the teacher’s permission for the student to turn off their camera.) Some kids are very self-conscious (compulsively checking and fixing their appearance, for instance), so it can also be helpful to use Zoom’s option to hide self from view so they can’t see themselves. A third option is to tag or pin the teacher’s feed (or the paraprofessional, or your child’s BFF) so they only have to focus on one face at a time.

You can also try your best to space out Zoom sessions. If kids are getting their socialization time over Zoom as well, be sure to have them do something else in between sessions instead of jumping from school to the socialization activity. Sometimes scheduling a phone call is more effective than a Zoom call. In general, we’ve adapted to not having visual stimuli with the phone, and we’re more accustomed to paying attention to audio cues; this also decreases eye strain and can provide the sensory break that many kids need.

 

Let’s talk about anxiety. What can we do to help our kids manage it?

Stress and heightened anxiety activate the amygdala in the limbic system, the fight-or-flight area of the brain. Sometimes this means kids run away (flight) or shut down (freeze), or they can push back or become agitated (fight). It’s helpful to view your child through the fight-or-flight lens rather than seeing their behavior as oppositional — this gives you the space to be compassionate. If you feel your child is being defiant, you’re likely to feel more helpless; you might lash back, and that’s helping no one. You have to see their defiance as an expression of anxiety.

I take a lot of my theoretical framework from integrative medicine, which looks to prevent disease before it needs to be healed, so I try to do the same thing in my work with kids. In this case, we try to prevent the fight-or-flight response as opposed to fixing it after the fact. Once that response is engaged, it’s much harder to reach children — they’ve disconnected from their frontal lobe and are working from their limbic system, and it takes much longer to cool down from that. 

There are certain things we can do to prevent the fight-or-flight response:

  • Set a timer for every hour and take a break to do a body scan: have the child “scan” from the top of their body all the way down, looking for tension and inviting it to soften and release.
  • Try a “brain hack”: encourage your child to squeeze the muscles in their body really tightly and then release, going section by section from the toes to the neck and face (progressive muscle relaxation). This circumvents the fight-or-flight impulse and activates the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system instead.
  • Practice 4-7-8 breathing: inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7, exhale for 8. It is important that the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation, because the parasympathetic nervous system is activated with exhalation.

If these exercises are beneficial for your child, you can find more of them in a great book called Ready . . . Set . . . R.E.L.A.X.: A Research-Based Program of Relaxation, Learning, and Self-Esteem for Children.


Do you have any favorite coping strategies to use when our kids are upset?  

When our kids are upset, a lot of us try to fix it, but this can make it worse in the long run. Reflective functioning — or naming the feeling and evaluating it — works for some kids, but for others, it can activate them in a negative way. If this doesn’t work for your child, try to hold space for them instead of trying to fix it: make space for them to feel upset. Look them in the eyes with love and try to connect with them, sit with them, and let them realize that they can work through their pain and that they don’t need you to rescue them. It’s so important for kids to experience pain and sit with their discomfort. The other day my daughter fell and I said, “Do you want some candy?” Afterward I thought, “Eh, that’s not the best method. Just sit with her, let her cry and feel the pain and watch it dissipate.”

Sometimes you’re not going to choose the best option. Let’s give ourselves the occasional right to be a little lazy — sometimes you can phone it in a little bit. You don’t have to be perfect. And remember that you can make meaning from anything, even your own mistakes! Take time to reflect and have a discussion with your child when they’re calmer. If you always rescue your kids, it can lead to them not being able to deal with discomfort (which in turn can lead to seeking reassurance or self-soothing through other less healthful means, like overeating or other compulsive and addictive behaviors). Allowing them to feel uncomfortable and sitting with them while they feel it is such a healthy, important life skill, and I can’t emphasize it enough. 

That said, every child has something that will make them feel better: some kids like to listen to music, pet their cat or dog, or do some deep breathing. Take some time and come up with a self-soothing menu together, write it out, and keep it somewhere they can see it to remember what they can do when they feel like they need to check out (or in, as the case may be).

I can’t stress enough how important it is to catch your kid doing things that you feel are healthy for them and celebrate it verbally — praise them and ask them how they did it. For example, “You’re working so hard, you didn’t give up when I could tell that Zoom class was taking a lot out of you — what did you do to stay in there?” Then put their answer on the self-soothing list. Almost all kids thrive on hearing positive verbalization from their parents or other caregivers about their behaviors, and of course, we don’t want to only reflect on what they did when it went well. You can ask them, “Did you not give up? Did you work really hard? Did you make a mistake and overcome it? Did you use courage? Did you use deep breathing?” Let them know that we don’t care about the test score, we care about how they got through it. Celebrate grit — notice what it took for them to get there, or when they try something new, and make a big deal about it. (For more on this, read Mindset by Carol Dweck.)

Finally, it’s important to remember the value of modeling self-reflection when we screw up. When I get really annoyed with my children, I try to use my frustration as a modeling moment: I name my feelings and say, “I’m really frustrated because we’re not understanding each other right now, so I’m going to do a 4-7-8 breath because I don’t want to yell.” By saying that out loud, I’m modeling for my kids what they need to do and how to engage in self-talk, and I’m giving myself the power of doing something to help my kids instead of yelling. I try to disconnect from the thoughts I’m having, like This sucks! I can’t stand this right now!, etc., so I can flip the script and turn it into a moment of growth for everyone. And then if I do say something I’m not proud of, I can be reflective and say, “I don’t like that I just said that, you don’t deserve to hear that — I was feeling overly frustrated.” It’s liberating for us as parents to feel like we can do something good after we screw up: self-reflect, admit our flaws, and start over. I’m all about turning screw-ups into something we can be proud of — this time in history is a bevy of chances to do that over and over again each day.

 

Be sure to check out part two of this interview, where Dr. Stutman talks about strategies to help our kids focus, how to boost their opportunities for socialization, and how to make stress your friend! You can also read her blog post on common parenting pitfalls of raising anxious children. Have any tips of your own to share? We'd love to hear from you! 

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