BY DEBBIE PAGE
Two clinicians from Southeast Psych in Charlotte presented tips and advice to parents to help their school-age children deal with stress and anxiety during an Iredell-Statesville Schools workshop at Lake Norman High School.
In the first presentation, Ian Murray explored the difficulties inherent in parenting in a world full of social media and games that impacts the well-being of their kids. He started by asking parents if they embraced or feared technology, noting many parents were less technology friendly because they did not grow up with it in the same way that kids today do.
The pervasiveness of technology bombarding all of us is mind-boggling, noted Murray. About 2.7 emails are sent and 73 YouTube videos viewed every second. There are 66,000 Google searches each second, amounting to 3.5 billion per day, along with 500 million tweets.
Murray noted that virtually no one follows the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines that recommend no screen interaction for children ages two and younger. Those over two should only experience one or two hours of quality (educational or informational) screen time per day, according to the AAP.
“The theory is great but not really practical,” said Murray, noting that students can exceed those guidelines by doing homework on their laptop.
Research indicates that 38 percent of kids ages 18 months and younger have a TV in their bedroom. Among teens 13 to 17 years of age, 73 percent have a smartphone, with 25 percent admitting they are on their phones constantly. The battle is real.
Social media is a real factor in kids’ anxiety and stress levels. Research indicates that there is a correlation in shifts in mood and mental health associated with social media use.
Murray also questioned whether social media could also have a positive effect on kids. “What came first? The chicken or the egg? Is anxiety caused by the technology or was it already there before?
“It’s now normal for kids to talk to their friends on XBox or SnapChat,” said Murray. “It’s how they socialize now. The benefits outweigh the risks for most kids.”
VIOLENCE AND GAMING
Murray also addressed perceived links of gaming to violent behavior, saying no research yet proves violent video games cause kids to commit violence.
However, research has found an increase in adrenaline, irritability, and aggressive behavior in kids and teens who spend long periods playing violent games. Murray admitted little research on long-term effects exists because gaming in its current form is still relatively new.
“Playing a game 30 minutes is much different than playing four or five hours,” he said.
PARENTING AND TECHNOLOGY USE
Murray advocates the idea that parents should work on their relationship with their children and their technology use, starting at a young age. “The goal is a responsible approach and engagement,” he explained.
Murray used the analogy of teaching a teen to drive in small steps under close supervision and instruction from driver’s education teachers and parents. After supervised practice, teens are given permission to have limited freedom to drive until they are 18.
“Just because the technology is available to kids does not mean they should get full reign over it!” noted Murray.
Deciding the best course with a child regarding technology use is dependent on the child “because normal development is uneven,” he said. To earn the right to use technology more independently, kids need to demonstrate responsibility and maturity by making good choices and learning from their mistakes.
Murray noted that exploration, making mistakes, and dealing with their consequences is an important part of the maturation process. “Brain development happens from the inside out, and to develop, a child needs to make mistakes and problem-solve,” he explained.
Giving kids some freedom with social media gives them a way to connect, “but the issues arise when they are given too much freedom.”
Key factors to consider include the age of introduction to technology use since younger kids should have more parental controls. Parents must also consider the underlying messages regarding trust and freedom as kids enter their teens.
SETTING TECHNOLOGY EXPECTATIONS
Parents should set clear expectations and limits on technology use, including the screen time allowed and the sites that they are allowed to visit.
Parents must also make sure they are modeling, teaching, and validating their own responsible and time-limited use of technology to “practice what they preach.”
Parents should also clearly define incentives and consequences regarding their kids’ technology use. Establishing these rules early is important because children will push for more autonomy as they reach the teen years.
“No matter how long you wait to introduce technology, parents still need to teach and model appropriate use to their kids,” said Murray, who advised a purposeful parenting approach that emphasizes resiliency and some freedom to make and learn from mistakes.
“Having continuous conversation early and often about technology use is important.”
Using a stage approach is more effective than an age approach since kids mature at different rates. He noted that kids with ADHD or other issues will be more affected by technology use, especially in gaming, because the rush of dopamine that floods gamers’ brains makes it more difficult for them to stop playing.
Instead of forbidding technology use, parents should model, monitor, and limit technology use. Developing a relationship with the child that stresses values and responsibility will help them make responsible decisions when using technology.
Murray cautioned parents to pick their battles, focusing on high probability risks, like talking to strangers while gaming or on social media.
He also urged parents to catch their children doing the right things with technology and praising them to nurture kids’ competency, confidence and responsibility. “Validate kids’ good behaviors with technology to grow them. Let them know you are noticing because the praise is like little bank deposits to reinforce good behavior.”
He also asked families to try periods of digital detox, which many teens are open to. “They do see the stress of it.”
THE SMARTPHONE BATTLE
Murray also advised delaying giving a child a smartphone until parents have a comprehensive strategy to handle the child’s technology use. “The technology is a privilege, not a right,” he said.
Parents can develop a technology-use contract, requiring checks on the phone at will, phone turn-in at bedtime, and all passwords to social media accounts. “They are not ready for all the freedoms that technology offers,” Murray added.
He strongly recommends parents require phone turn-in at bedtime because “sleep is critical to teens, who are not always ready to be responsible and unplug at night.”
ANXIETY AND STRESS
Presenter Dr. Trey Ishee said that stress and anxiety are not all bad since they play a key role in maintaining one’s safety as well as enhancing performance.
Having some degree of stress and anxiety is a natural and healthy part of life, but the tipping point comes when they negatively affect performance.
Ishee noted that three kinds of stress: before, during, or after the stressful event.
Kids are more prone to anticipatory anxiety because of the unknowns or question marks surrounding a situation.
When the kids or teens paint a picture of a future situation, they fill in the blanks with scary things much worse than they really are. The way parents can allay such anxiety is to help them paint an accurate picture. Telling them not to worry will not help.
Parents can ask the child to explain the picture of the situation and help create a realistic one. Remember that creating a rosy picture for the child is also bad because parents will lose credibility if they are inaccurate.
According to Ishee, parents should ask the question: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” After the child answers, parents can diffuse their fears by tackling them rationally by getting information to combat the scary picture the child has created. The reality is usually in between the perfect outcome and their worst-case scenarios.
Parents can also ask if the child fails in this situation if it will really matter in the future, helping him to see one failure does not define them.
Teaching kids to do this process for themselves will help them gain an important coping skill. Adults should model the process aloud when they confront their own anxious situations and also assess whether their own anxieties might be leaking to their kids.
Giving kids a Plan B is also a positive way of coping with a stressful situation. Pointing out people who could help them or giving them another way to cope with the stressor is helpful. Just having a plan lessens anxiety.
Social anxiety is defined as a misperception of how people view us. Ishee noted that all people are performing in our various roles each day, but most of the time we can only guess how people view us.
People with social anxiety do not correctly estimate others’ negative perceptions and often magnify them.
To help children with this type of anxiety, parents should challenge children’s perception of how others view their behavior. They often believe that people remember their mistakes longer than they do and do not recognize their successes.
When kids say their friends “hate” them, they really believe it. Their feelings are real, even though their thinking is irrational, Ishee said.
To confront this belief, ask the child for specific evidence. What has the person said or done (verbally or nonverbally) that makes the child think that? It’s important to get accurate information to help them reframe the situation more rationally.
Some kids, for whatever reason, just see the world as a threatening place. Ishee said this perception can occur as the result of difficult experiences or individual temperament. Figuring out why they are thinking this way is not important.
Instead, parents can help them rewire their thoughts in a more positive direction with evidence and information to address whatever stokes their fears or anxiety.
If the anxiety is organic, meaning the body is hypersensitive to stressors, the child may require medication for a period of time if the psychologist cannot talk them through the anxiety. According to Ishee, many organically anxious people do not even realize it because they have always been that way.
One of Ishee’s patients with organic anxiety described his brain as an engine that is revving in a high gear all the time. He started to realize that other people are not like that. A patient in a perpetual state of “fight or flight” may not be able to just talk through their issues.
Most teens only need to be on medication for three to six months to break the pattern of anxiety, and most do not go back to their previous anxiety after stopping medication, according to Ishee.
Adults may regress to anxiety-driven thoughts because they expect to be anxious, but teens are more likely relearn other behaviors and forget to be anxious.
ACUTE ANXIETY VS. PANIC ATTACKS
Acute anxiety is more temporary and related to a specific event or situation, such as test anxiety or seeing a snake. The brain perceives a threat and the body reacts by increasing respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure and dilating the eyes. The brain does not distinguish between a physical or emotional threat.
As part of the human survival instinct, the brain stem periodically tests the body’s response systems to keep them alert. However, in a panic attack, the body’s regulatory system gets out of whack when this brain stem test occurs.
The brain and the body start ramping each other up, even though nothing is really happening to create the anxiety. The body just overreacts to the normal, periodic brain kickstarts.
About one-third of the people in the world have a panic attack at some time in their lives, with some people more naturally prone to them than others.
To combat panic attacks, parents can teach their children to try to make sense of the situation and to connect to their surroundings. Worrying about having another panic attack actually provokes more attacks.
Ishee suggests that those in the midst of a panic attack should get the big part of their brain to talk to the rebellious brain stem and tell it, “You’re wrong. There’s nothing to panic about here.”
Most attacks last 15 to 20 minutes before the “thinking” part of the brain wins out, leaving the panic-stricken person exhausted from the rush of cortisol.
“To activate the thinking part of the brain, you must create a strong dialogue with it,” said Ishee. Parents should also assure the child that he or she will not die from a panic attack.
If parents cannot identify a cause for the panic attacks, they should seek treatment for the child. If untreated, the waves of panic attacks can continue for months. With treatment, the attacks can often be curbed in days to a week.
One more recent cause of kids’ stress is cyber bullying, which is easier to perpetrate than traditional bullying since technology allows someone to hurt another without having to do it face to face.
To combat cyber or other types of bullying, kids need to build a “tribe” of friends who they trust and who are kind to them. Getting active in various organizations, clubs, or sports helps kids build positive, strong relationships with others who are like themselves.
With this tribe comes a sense of safety and belonging that builds children up. They should eliminate bullies or toxic people who tear them down from their tribe and instead nurture the positive relationships.
If a child or teen loses control and has a meltdown, Ishee advises waiting until the crisis is over before addressing it. Get through it and when the child is calm, parents should ask the child what he or she was thinking, feeling, picturing, or perceiving during the “freak out.”
Ishee cautioned parents not to engage with the child while the acting out is occurring. “That’s just putting gas on the fire.” He advised stepping back and staying calm until the tantrum over.
Relating a humorous family anecdote, Ishee recalled his brother once had a meltdown at the grocery store over not getting something he wanted. Instead of reacting, Ishee’s creative mother called others over to watch the tantrum, asking them to comment on the tantrum’s quality.
When his brother realized his mother’s indifference to his behavior and the group of people watching him, he ceased the meltdown, now embarrassed, and walked toward the door.