It’s going to be a difficult adjustment because we have to hang in the balance. I think the only way to do that is to really be connected to your people, to be supportive, to stay in contact with each other.
Skip to: 04:23 As children return to school, what signs should parents be aware of that their child(ren) may be experiencing anxiety or mental health challenges?
Kids are reactive to the mood of the parent. And sometimes the angst of a child is the contagion of the angst of the parent.
Do your duty, do your diligence, but really spend as much time on your own calmness and your own anxiety or depression as you do for your children.
Some of the most effective strategies have to do with physical triage. That is, it’s going to be really important for the physical fitness program. It’s going to be really important to have opportunities for the kids to be outside.
Trolling the internet in place of connecting with people, obviously, has negative consequences. So, social media use has to be monitored. It has to be overseen, not just for the content, but for the hours being spent on it.
Worry a little bit more about the kids who are isolating, especially in the high schools, because the isolation is the far more dangerous, because you have to go and prod them out of it.
Annette Stevenson: Counties across Pennsylvania have begun to transition, as in many other states, to the yellow phase of their reopening plans. After that, they’ll phase into green, presumably. Even with that yellow phase, our lives are going to look different than they did before the pandemic. What are some ways that folks can cope and transition into what we’re knowing may be like our new normal?Dr. Will Miller: This gets to a pretty fundamental and well-researched theory in psychology, and it’s called locus of control. Julian Rotter from UConn established this a long time ago. It’s pretty intuitive, almost like a range. There are some of us, individually or collectively, who cultivate an external locus of control, meaning that you really don’t have any illusions you have a lot of control over a lot of things. Now think about this writ large, with what we’ve seen globally with people who are living in really terrible circumstances, like what we followed in Syria, for example. If you’re a citizen or a person there, you have no illusion you have much control other than the most basic and elemental things, feeding yourself, taking care of your kids.
The American psychological makeup is the opposite. We cultivate a strong internal locus of control. We’re doers, we’re task oriented, et cetera. So my answer to this question is, in this situation, it has flipped, kind of on a dime, where we are at the mercy of forces that are outside of our control. So even though you may be abiding and wanting to keep you and your family safe by the social distancing, et cetera, the mitigation efforts, the fact of the matter is, there’s a real uncertainty about what it means to come back out.
I mean, what is the new normal? The new normal it seems to me still has an umbrella of angst and uncertainty about control hanging over all of us. I mean, it won’t be until, and you can see why psychologically it’s so important for all citizens to say, “Boy, if they get a vaccine, a reliable vaccine, that will change the chemistry.” But until then I have to say, it’s going to be a difficult adjustment because we have to hang in the balance. I think the only way to do that is to really be connected to your people, to be supportive, to stay in contact with each other. We are creatures that need to be connected. Even though we can’t hug and shake hands, we can absolutely engage meaningfully with our relationships. So, it’s the same as it ever was in that regard, but it is an adjustment.
Annette Stevenson: Yeah, definitely. How we’re connecting has certainly changed quite a lot. So as children are returning to schools, the school buildings, when they do, what signs should parents be aware of that their children might be experiencing anxiety or mental health challenges? What are some of the signs or symptoms that educators and parents should be looking for?
Dr. Will Miller: My wife Sally has had a long career in education as an elementary school principal. She really has been down this road before with crises. For example, she and I were living in New York after 9/11, and she was very much involved with schools and dealing with helping kids in the aftermath of that. Here’s the thing, children are resilient, first of all, they are more resilient than the adults are oftentimes. Because, well, let’s face it, to say the obvious the parents have the burden of caring for the kids, where the kids just have to be the kids.
So, there’s two things I would say about this. One is every parent knows at an intuitive level the personality of their children. You know who’s a little kind of unfocused. You know who’s kind of the calm kid. You know who the kid, who’s an acting out kid. You have had to manage that all along, and so you can probably predict when you see behaviors erupt or just move along. You know what to do, first of all. As far as the children are concerned, they will bounce back from this. It’s a couple of months of something that was odd, but most parents, I suspect, have been keeping them busy, trying to do school online, having them play, having them be engaged. I can say that, and I trust Sally’s instinct on this too, is that they will be more fine.
Now, here’s the key. There’s another theory in psychology about the contagion of emotion, hold onto this. It means that your emotion is liable to feel the contagion of other people. So, the way they test this is, you’re in a low mood, but you’ll walk into a room where everyone is happy and buoyant, it will lift your mood without you even thinking about it. Or conversely, if you’re in a high mood and you’ll, all of a sudden, you come down. So, kids are reactive to the mood of the parent. And sometimes the angst of a child is the contagion of the angst of the parent.
To tell you the truth, I’m more concerned about the triage for the moms and the dads and their anxiety, more than for the kids. It will have an impact on the kids, but you know that as well as I do, the intuition of children about the mood and firm footing of their parents, it’s like radar, it’s like a tuning fork. They can sense it, and they act on it. So if the children are acting out, you have to do what you have to do, but just take a moment and think about or reflect on, “Are they feeling the contagion of my, what’s my angst? How am I doing with this?”
Like I said in the webinar, even before this crisis, 40 million Americans had a diagnosed anxiety disorder, that’s a fraction of how many have anxiety. That’s just those who got it treated. We know more about anxiety in psychotherapy than almost any other psychological issue. We know what it is, we know what the triggers are, we know what the brain science is, and we know how to treat it. So, my advice on this question is for do your duty, do your diligence, but really spend as much time on your own calmness and your own anxiety or depression as you do for your children. To me, that’s the most important thing I think.
Annette Stevenson: That’s a critical distinction. I like that.
So, first responders experience crises as part of their profession, whatever that respective profession may be, with the staff and educators as sort of our frontline professionals in a school environment, what are some ongoing tactics that can be used to address high emotions among students and other staff? You’ve sort of started that in the last question, but once folks are back in the building, when students are back in the building, are there tactics beyond what you’ve already covered that can be employed by the students and staff to just maintain that calm?
Dr. Will Miller: I have become a certified trauma specialist working with police, law enforcement and firefighters. The science that we know, and a lot of this comes from an amazing guy. I think I might’ve mentioned this in the webinar. The Danish Psychiatrist from Harvard, Bessel van der Kolk. Basically, what the strategies are is, talk therapy is an important thing and teachers and staff do this all the time, “What’s going on so and so? How are we doing?” But some of the most effective strategies have to do with physical triage. That is, it’s going to be really important for the physical fitness program. It’s going to be really important to have opportunities for the kids to be outside. It’s going to be really important for kids to do things like, and I don’t know how things are able to be done in schools, but not just physical fitness like cardio, but one of the reasons they talked with law enforcement people and soldiers about yoga is that yoga is a very, very powerful and well-tested triage.
So, if you can either flat out, if your school is open to flat out doing some yoga with kids, or you can just mimic some of the movements and stretches of yoga to just get your organism moving. Movement is important and being outside is really important, being in nature. Then, of course meditation, quiet time. So, these are all things I covered in there, but those are the three, I call them the MBM – the meditation, the breathing, and the movement – are the strategies that just lower your energy level.
Teachers are incredibly creative. I mean, they really are. They’re amazing. I know that armed with this research, they can think about, “Is there anything I can do in my classroom or in my program that would incorporate?” It doesn’t have to be meditation sit at your desk, but it could be quiet time. It could be time to just decompress but also to be open with counseling. I know that there are some kids whose issues are significant enough that they may need something pharmacological, they may have medication or something like that when you have attention deficit or whatever, but there are organic strategies for students and teachers that can just quiet the mind, quiet the mind.
People with a vivid imagination are more prone to anxiety than those without it, because your mind, this frontal cortex is always buzzing, buzzing, buzzing, and thinking and imagining. We’re meaning making creatures and we imagine, “What is it that we’re imagining?” Basically.
Annette Stevenson: Social distancing has certainly been something we’re hearing a lot about. It’s a prevalent method that’s being used to mitigate the spread of this virus. In most cases, this means isolating ourselves from friends and family. So, when we come out of isolation, whatever phasing approach occurs and however rapidly that occurs, what will be the impact? How will this impact us when we’ve been in isolation and we’re starting to come out of it? What do you think that reaction will be?
Dr. Will Miller: Well, because it’s not an extended long time. It’s a couple of months, the children, I think, will jump back into it. They’ll talk about it. They’ll laugh about it. They’ll have some experiences. They will remember it forever. My concern for the systems and the adults is to be cautious that we could possibly have to go through something like this again. That’s not something you need to share with the kids, but kids are aware. After 9/11, Sally and I were very involved with the mental health issues that were going on there, she especially with the schools.
One of the things that was true, is that developmentally, for any of the teachers with kids under seven, say, is to really protect them from any frightening experiences. I mean, their brain has not been able to develop meaning making to compass that. So, keeping them calm, reassuring them that they’re safe, reassuring them that the adults in the room and their parents and everyone else in the community have their interests first and foremost, and you will be protected and we’ll get through this. Hey, you don’t even have to say this, but we could go through this again in the fall, if there’s another bout of this, but you know how to do this and we know what to do. So, it will be okay. Just the reassurance is really key for kids and the adults.
Annette Stevenson: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. Particularly, as we are physically separated, we are communicating in different ways and there’s various digital channels of communication that are perhaps being even more heavily utilized than they were before. I’m going to mention social media as one of those. So, social media, lots of information gets exchanged through that forum, some accurate, some inaccurate, some opinion-based, some fact-based, but what are some of the pros and cons of social media in these current circumstances? With respect to the student population, how can parents and educators mitigate any of the negative sides of that?
Dr. Will Miller: This has been an overwhelming development and it’s near and dear to my heart. I teach this, social media in the graduate program at Purdue, and my colleague at Purdue, Glenn Sparks, and I wrote a book that just got reissued about a year ago, called Refrigerator Rights. I don’t know if you know what they are, but it’s a look at the sociology of media and technology and communication. Basically, what it says is between the American tendency to relocate, think about all of your communities in Pennsylvania, the percentage in every community that represents those who’ve been there for five generations versus those who’ve moved in and out. Kids grow up and they leave. We are mobile to say the least.
So, when we leave and we land in our new place, we have a very difficult time reforming relationships that replicate a family. The way we define those is, let’s say, if Sally and I came to you in your home, and we never met each other, and we were just sitting there in the kitchen and a couple of minutes, without knowing you or me, I went to your refrigerator and looked around it there, it brings a picture to mind. Who is in your life, the people who you see all the time, are comfortable enough and intimate enough as friends or family that they can go into your refrigerator, they can be in your space? That is a real crisis in American life.
To say something gloomy, 45,000 suicides and 60,000 opioid overdoses, which are essentially suicides, on the result of this social isolation and disconnection. It’s not lost on Glenn and I. The irony about after cautioning, using only social media versus real face to face connection in this crisis, guess what? It has become an opportunity to mitigate some of what was bad about social media. In other words, kids can FaceTime, they can be on the Zoom, they can see the mugs and the faces of their buddies and their kids and their family. That has helped us.
Can you imagine without social media, if you were just confined in your house with no outlet whatsoever, I mean, as it would have been not very many years ago? So, what has been a challenge and a problem for social scientists and psychologists has become a tool that has facilitated this because when the kids get back live, “Oh yeah. The last time I saw you was online.” That said, let me just add the obvious caution. That is, trolling the internet in place of connecting with people, obviously, has negative consequences. So, social media use has to be monitored. It has to be overseen, not just for the content, but for the hours being spent on it.
So, all the more reason when we can open up, you’ve got to prompt the kids to get out and be with each other to the degree that they can, even with social distancing. It is an amazing irony that this tool, which has caused so much angst and worry, all of a sudden stepped into the breach to help.
Annette Stevenson: That’s completely true. It’s interesting. More screen time than ever right now.
Dr. Will Miller: That’s right.
Annette Stevenson: There are students in the schools who have strong relationships with their school counselors and had strong relationships prior to the school closures. Some school counselors have been working and been able to maintain communication with those students. What is the importance of maintaining these relationships despite not being able to be in the building? Or is it as critical if they are physically not in the building?
Dr. Will Miller: Well, when it comes to talk therapy, I’m a practicing therapist and my practice has had to move to online. When it’s visual and you can see the person, like in a Zoom type setting, it can be very, very effective for the student, the client if you will, and the counselor. The issue here is going to be the same thing as it is with all first responders. I mean, any frontline nurse, doctor, firefighter, police officer, et cetera, is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers that are happening. That may be the case for some period of time for the school counselors. They have a work rhythm where they see X number of kids. And any counselor will tell you, “Oh, brother, this year was really tough or whatever. I’ve been overwhelmed.”
All counselors know the population of their school, and they know which kids are at risk or which kids are acting out that they have to intervene. What will happen obviously here, there are some kids who were not on their radar at all, but who in fact will now come to their attention because they are having symptoms. I strongly urge every school counselor to really focus on the anxiety issue and the depression issue.
I think about this, the anxiety issue is about your mind whipping up and you lose your focus. It’s like, here’s how I talk about it. If you know anything about a car engine, you know that the idle, the idle of the engine, it has to be monitored. If the idle is too high, you’re racing, or if it’s too low, you can stall. Think about that, maybe poor analogy, to think about anxiety and depression. Depression is the more worrisome thing, because its symptom is withdrawal. My urge for counselors and teachers or teachers who have to connect kids with counselors, they know who the anxious kids are and what needs to be done with the family.
Worry a little bit more about the kids who are isolating, especially in the high schools, because the isolation is the far more dangerous, because you have to go and prod them out of it. That’s my counsel for teachers, counselors and parents as well. The anxiety needs to be sort of flattened or mitigated if that’s the right term these days, but depression has to be called out. It has to be called out. I just did webinars for the engineers at Purdue. They are famously, stereotypically, just kind of, they tend to be more withdrawn. You know what I mean? And low affect.
What I’ve told them, is that if you have a roommate or a friend who you suspect is depressed, as in they’re sleeping all the time, they’re on the internet all the time. They’re not communicating. I tell them, “Think like a shrink,” is my mantra. How would a therapist you know prompt them? “I noticed that you’re sleeping all the time. I mean, are you okay? Is that working for you? And do you think it would be better if you had some time connected to me? Can we talk about this?” To just urge and tweak them out of that to be connected, because that’s the triage.
Again, if medication is in order, it’s important. So that’s a long-winded answer to the question, but counselors know the anxiety kids, they sometimes are a little, the kids at risk for depression are a little bit more invisible. So, this is something to be cautious about.
Annette Stevenson: Yeah. That’s a good distinction to know. Where can our listeners learn more about some of what you’ve highlighted here? Where can they go to hear more about that?
Dr. Will Miller: Well, I have a website drwill.com that has links to my YouTube channel, which offers a couple of videos each week, anywhere from two to five minutes, on mental health and on these very issues. As a therapist for a long time, I think I have a lot to share and people can reach out to me there.
Annette Stevenson: Great. That’s awesome. Thank you so much for joining us once again, we’ve learned so much from you in these last, the webinar, and now today’s conversation, really appreciate this.
Dr. Will Miller: It’s been a privilege, and thank you for what you’re doing and you guys are my heroes. Really, you’re the frontline people. So thank you so much.
Annette Stevenson: Thank you.
Dr. Will Miller
Dr. Will Miller has been studying and researching the issue of social connection and isolation for 25 years. He teaches social media strategies at Purdue University’s graduate Communication Department. A therapist and health psychologist, he is a Certified Clinical Trauma Specialist who works with police, firefighters and other first responders on coping and wellness. In addition to his extensive academic resume, Miller was also a professional standup comedian in New York for 20 years. He brings the perfect balance of research data along with an engaging style to both his live and webinar presentations.