Mental Forecast: Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Passing Befuddlement

I’d prefer, of course, to blame it all on COVID-19, civil unrest and the general zeitgeist.  No such luck. It is solely due to my own sloppiness (how I managed to read information, mistype it, and then overlook my error multiple times while editing, I cannot know) and thus, in my recent article, “The Sin of Referral,” misidentified the professional group mentioned; it should have been the American Counseling Association, rather than the American Mental Health Counselors Association.  I apologize for this.

I would also rather credit COVID with what has apparently been seen, by some parties, as my dismissal of the suffering of young people during the pandemic.  My ability to be clear has failed me; certainly, this was not my intention. I work with many young people and their families, and their suffering has been genuine. I am also aware, however, that young people were suffering greatly, and in a terrible upward surge, for the past decade or more.  The research on the compelling correlation between smartphone use and emotional distress of many kinds, especially in the young, is readily available for the curious reader.  I stand beside the assertion that we adults bear responsibility for teaching young people how to think, how to interpret the signs of the times, and for modeling hope rather than despair, resiliency rather than defeat.  If the constrictions of this past year are unbearable, how do we make sense of the diary of Anne Frank? Of the countless children, in England, Germany and elsewhere, sent away from family to live as often unwanted guests with strangers to be safer from bombs during WWII and yet played, studied, made friends? Of the lives of so many on this planet now, where abysmal living conditions would seem to quell any hope or joy, and yet one finds giggling children, cooing parents, adherence to principles, and the shy, burning moments of young love?

I could point to the fact that in my particular field – the mental health field – we are receptacles for our pain, our loved ones’ pain, and the pain of everyone with whom we work. Yes, this is always the case, and now the strains of the pandemic, unemployment, loss of loved ones, separation from loved ones, has crept like lava over the normal pains of life: grief, depression, anxiety, loneliness.  Most of our conversations are one-sided, in that those conversations occur solely for the benefit of one party, and the party had best not be the therapist. The mutual supportiveness of two-sided conversations is necessarily truncated. Add to this that friends and loved ones (like ourselves) have little reservoir from which to offer solace.  Most of the therapists I know have dug even deeper into prayer, into silence with God, and turning more to colleagues whom we know are on that same trail for encouragement and support.

Perhaps you, too, are noticing strange mental impacts from the cascading stressors of the past year. Perhaps not; we are prone to generalizing from what we know, and if we are introspective at all, then our own experiences are what we “know,” at least to some extent.  I know I am in many ways an odd duck; I dislike clothes shopping and like crows. I would rather stay home and read than to go “out.”  The outside chance exists, then, that it really is “just me,” and the rest of the world is rolling along, firing efficiently on all cylinders.

I doubt it. It doesn’t look to be so.

So, here is an antidote for me, and perhaps for you. Somebody you know, at any rate, could use some.

Grace. Just give one another a bit of grace, even more than in so-called “normal” times, in which grace was already in grievously short supply.

Guess what? People will say things that are stupid, or inaccurate, or sound awful out of context (and stupid and inaccurate, even in context). Even professionals will sometimes screw up! Your physician might seem to not as focused as you’d like, your counselor may give you homework that doesn’t suit or not explain herself properly.  The dentist’s office has to close on the day of your cleaning because of a COVID breakout. None of these is the equivalent of giving you poison or leaving a surgical tool behind when you are sewn back together. Give them a bit of grace.

The mail will be slow. There will be inexplicable gaps on the grocery shelves. (I did lose some patience when Dove dark chocolate and Nestle’s Peppermint Mocha coffee creamer were AWOL at the same time; it seemed a harsh injustice.) People will be anxious and insensitive, so wrapped in their own fears that they forget other people are as fragile and sacred as they.

Friends, family, professionals and strangers alike may be so eager to comfort you that they inadvertently do or say something not entirely useful. They offer silly, unwanted advice and unhelpful platitudes. Let it pass.  Assume, perhaps, you misunderstood, misheard, misinterpreted. The possibility exists. Accept the spirit of kindness and let the trappings go.

One of the side effects of grace is that it enhances humility, and that, too, is a good thing. This way, when I (or you) am the one who fumbles, missteps, speaks foolishly but with good intention, I can, with some embarrassment, acknowledge the error and accept benevolence.

…and if all this talk of grace and humility is more uncomfortable for you than an N95 mask with an extra cloth mask over it, then consider this:  just be kind, for crying out loud. Cut someone some slack. Including, of course, yourself.

The forecast for me, for the time being, is (mentally) partly cloudy with a chance of passing befuddlement. Expect periods of anxiety throughout the evening.  The morning, as all mornings are, will be glorious.

How about you?

If this were my kid…

Advice-giving:  some therapists claim it should never be done; therapists-in-training are eager to leap in with advice before they know enough about a situation to offer it.  The stance on advice-giving has its roots in various philosophical approaches to therapy.

For those of a more psychoanalytic bent, it is the role of the therapist to push for deeper self-exploration and understanding, with that “a-ha!” process leading to more responsible, better-informed decision making.  Insight leading to action is a vital part of maturation; the alternative is an adulthood of adolescent reactivity and self-absorption.

Psychoanalytic insight may not do a frustrated parent any good at the moment they are figuring out how to handle the upside-bowl of cranberry sauce on the floor. Again.

In solution-focused brief therapy, the emphasis is on searching for times when a problem is absent or much reduced and breaking down the details of those situations, especially in regard to clients’ behaviors. This process empowers the client to realize that s/he is already equipped to deal with much of the situation(s) at hand and develop plans to do more of what already works.

This is a very helpful process, but sometimes people want a little more guidance.

Psychoeducation – teaching, basically – is different than telling a client specifically what to do. It provides information, refers to scientific data, often linking particular actions to help with problems.  Education is part of holistic counseling approaches to many concerns, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and problematic insomnia.

All of which brings us back to the question of advice.  I am not a new therapist, and people are not coming to see a therapist with 25+ years’ experience and some white hair so I can look vaguely concerned and steeple my fingers and murmur, “Hmmm, how do you feel about that?” when they express anger and shame over their inability to get a five year old to comply with bath and bed routines.

So, I am, at least for the moment, breaking the invisible fourth wall – the wall first broken in literature by Charlotte Bronte in the final chapter of Jane Eyre – and say, straight out, “If this were my kid…

“I would take away all electronics for at least six weeks.  Maybe longer.  Not even any television/movies unless a responsible adult is with them.”

Yes, they are going to be bored. They will be angry. If they have been playing video games, they may become aggressive and destructive – be prepared for this.  If they have been using pornography, it could be even worse. Fists and feet have gone through drywall over losing access to video games and phones.  If your child becomes hostile and aggressive (not just normally angry), it is evidence you are doing this late in a problematic process.  What are they going to do?  Play other games. Make art. Play the instrument that is gathering dust. Exercise. Do chores.  Read.  Libraries offer books, puzzles and games to borrow: no cost, little effort.  Try a family book club to introduce them to a broader range of reading.  Help them learn how to have a conversation in full sentences, complete with eye contact. The possibilities are boundless.

If they need a device for school, it can be carefully monitored and programs to limit access (such as Covenant Eyes) are available to try to control what is going on. 

“I would have them do chores.  No, ‘school is their job’ is not a good idea.  Do you want to be married to someone who goes to work, comes home, and expects to be waited on, because they did their job?”

By 13, an average, healthy child should be competent at all the basic skills of housekeeping. That means, able to clean any room without having to call in HazMat; sorting, washing, appropriately drying (read the tags), folding and putting away laundry (I give everyone a pass on fitted sheets, and yes, that reflects on my clumsiness); plan, execute, cheerfully serve and thoroughly clean up simple and nutritious meals; do most of the tasks of pet care; be able to handle trash, recycling and compost duties.  Would you want to be roommates or married to someone who can’t do these things as a young adult?  Your future daughter- or son-in-law will appreciate it.

“I would have them get an hour or two more of sleep, every night.”

According to the CDC, children age 6 to 12 need 9 to 12 hours of sleep per night. Teens need 8 to 10.  Odds are, your child is not getting enough sleep and you are already saying this is ridiculous and impossible; how are you supposed to do this?

Insufficient sleep has an almost immediate detrimental effect on brain structures and functions critical for focus, memory and mood:  factors that teachers and parents spend a lot of time complaining are deficient in children.  You know what you’re like when you don’t get enough sleep; foggy-brained, irritable and looking around for caffeine and sugar.  Your children are like that, too, except you are probably keeping the little ones away from triple-shot lattes.  If your teen has to be up for school by 6 AM, then they have to be in their room without electronics sometime between 8 and 10 pm.  The math is easy; accepting that something has to give is the hard part.  Make it an experiment to accompany the electronics question and see what child you meet after a few weeks.

“I would have them learn to use a planner.”

Unlike the early years of school, and even a lot of secondary classes, real life – adult life – requires strategic planning.  By middle school, students should be learning how to break down tasks into manageable, realistic chunks and follow those plans, adjusting as necessary.  That means writing down “Social studies test tomorrow” Thursday night is not good enough.  It means figuring out how much review needs to be done each night of the week to be adequately prepared, and adding that to Monday through Wednesday’s plans.  Even outside of school, the skill of planning is useful.

For example, many people get into power struggles/arguments/endless debates over dinner. The frequency with which this particular power struggle erupts in therapy would astound non-therapists.  I do not understand the surprise that dinner must be had.  Name a date in the future – any date – and if I am not deceased, unconscious or doing colonoscopy prep, I will expect to eat.  The need for a meal at night will never catch me by surprise.  Yet this recurring surprise is apparently part of the annoying texture of life for many families. Model the benefits of planning.  Get the week’s meals worked out, and streamline evenings.  There is an immediate benefit: instead of arguing about “what to do” and wasting two hours around it, have a quick, planned meal and then have time to do something fun, like watch a parent-approved movie together, fold that pesky laundry, and push around more pieces on the 2000-piece puzzle of a Tiffany window that seemed like such a great idea at the time.

I’d make some good memories, I’d say, if this were my kid.

COVID-19: Surviving and Thriving

We’re worried about our loved ones, our own health, our school work or livelihood and what the months ahead will hold for our families, our communities, and our world. Being separated from one another makes it harder. Here are some strategies that can help:
1. Establish a daily routine and keep regular hours. Get up at your usual time; go to bed as usual. Use a checklist, a schedule or whatever structure helps you stay focused on positive, constructive actions.
2. Pray! Pray alone; pray on video-conferencing with friends and family; pray while watching livestream worship services. Include in this: daily periods of silence – not just telling God what you want done; instead, begin learning to sit quietly, observe your zigzagging thoughts, and not immediately take all your ideas so seriously.
3. Physical activity: an hour or more of physical activity, if you have medical clearance to do so, will help reduce the physical and mental effects of chronic stress. If you are able to be outdoors without being in danger of infection – enjoy a walk in nature. If not, seek opportunities indoors: walk in place; dance with your kids; be creative!
4. Reach out to someone who needs encouragement every day. Call, email, text, video chat, or send a note in the mail – be a light for someone who is alone and discouraged.
5. Check for news updates twice a day – more than that and you are often reinfecting yourself with the same negative news. Even if your logical brain recognizes it as last hour’s news, your emotional brain is again jolted with a bit of fight-or-flight about the pandemic and its consequences.
6. Odds are, you have more time on your hands than usual. Why not pick something to learn about on your own, with family, or with friends as an online/videochat study group? Can you practice a new skill, start a book club (hello, e-reader plus video chat!), or study a long-neglected area of interest? If you ever purchased arts and crafts supplies for “someday,” bought and neglected a language-learning app or fondly recall an elective course you’d wished was your major – it’s time to bring those interests into the light of day.
7. Take some time each day to journal about the experiences you are having during these strange weeks. Writing things out may help you clarify your emotions and thoughts, and help you see your experiences from a slightly “outside” perspective. Close your daily journal entry with a few things for which you are grateful.
There are lots of other ways to survive and thrive as people maintain social distance, self-isolate, and shelter in place…while we can’t control everything, we can exert control over our responses. Pick the story you want to be able to tell yourself, and others, about how you handled the COVID-19 crisis. Are you going to be able to tell a story of faith, compassion and grace under pressure – the year you became passable in Portuguese, started a book club via Skype or Facetime, and became a hula hoop expert? Or will it be the year you zoned out in front of 24/7 news for untold days, slowly becoming more burdened with ennui and inertia?
Choose to persist in faith, maintain your healthy habits, nurture others and grow in wisdom.
Choose life!