Surviving Quarantine with Your Teen

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 35 │Surviving Quarantine with Your Teen

Wednesday, November 18, 2020



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Show Notes

Dr. Lisa Damour and Isaac Hurtado

Raising a teenager can be difficult—even under normal circumstances—and COVID-19 has added new challenges. We talked to Dr. Lisa Damour, adolescent psychologist, and high school student Isaac Hurtado, co-host of the hit podcast, Teenager Therapy, to get tips. Isaac shares his experiences and what he’s hearing from other teens as they cope with all that 2020 has thrown at them. Dr. Lisa Damour offers her own professional perspective on these topics, covering everything from remote learning and social media use to anxiety and depression.


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Helen: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack a PTA podcast, I'm Helen Westmoreland.

LaWanda: And, I'm LaWanda Toney and we're your cohosts.

Helen: Today, we have a very special episode for you. We are talking about high school, those teenage years that are fraught with drama, even in the best of times. What are teenagers facing right now, as they're coming of age during the pandemic and how can we support them?

LaWanda: Helen, I'm so excited that we have two guests today. We will be sharing pieces of our interview with Isaac Hurtado cohost of the hit podcast, Teenager Therapy. Teenager Therapy has received over 2 million downloads as teens tune in to hear other teens getting vulnerable about the issues that they're facing every day. In addition to his podcast career, he's currently completing his senior year of high school in Anaheim, California.

We're also thrilled to have Dr. Lisa Damour with us today. Lisa writes, the monthly adolescents column for the New York Times and as a regular contributor to CBS news, she's also the author of two New York Times bestselling books, and recently launched a new podcast that she co-hosts called, Ask Lisa, the Psychology of Parenting. In addition to all of this, she's also a mother of two daughters, one who is currently a teenager. Welcome Lisa, we are so happy you could join us today.

Lisa Damour: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really glad to be here.

Helen: Thank you, we're glad to have you.

So Lisa, as LaWanda mentioned at the top of our show, we're thinking that an episode about high school really wouldn't be complete without some insights from an actual teenager. And we're very excited, we’re patching in our interview with Isaac Hurtado cohost of the great podcast, Teenager Therapy. And, our first question to him was around how teen anxiety is impacted by the pandemic and how his own school year has been. So, we'd love to share that with you and then get some of your reactions to what he shared.

Lisa Damour: Terrific.

Isaac Hurtado: My senior year, it is all online and Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays, we're in class for like 40, 50 minutes for each class. And then Tuesdays and Thursday is asynchronous days, so we don't see the teacher, we just do our work. And, it's pretty hard because you don't talk to other students. In a lot of the classes, sometimes we go in breakout rooms where you're supposed to do discuss with other students, but students don't even unmute their mic or their camera. And sometimes, you'll just ask a question and no one will respond, so it's demoralizing and you're just staring at a blank screen and there's no discussion, no social interaction. You just feel like so isolated.

We did a couple of episodes on anxiety and teens feeling really alone and isolated. And, a lot of teens will say how they don't have anyone to talk to, but sometimes they have their parents there. And I know I'm a teen myself, and sometimes I don't see my parents as like someone I'm just going to talk to my personal feelings about.

LaWanda: So Lisa, it is clear to us that teens are facing a lot right now and these feelings of anxiety and isolation can be so intense. How does this compare to what you've been noticing?

Lisa Damour: I'm hearing the same thing. And man, there was a lot in that recording, of what was being shared and really moving and also actually kind of heartbreaking,

But part of what he was sharing is even these efforts on the part of schools, which I know are so earnest and well-meaning to try to create a sense of community in the classroom and have breakout rooms and give kids a ways to get out of the large zoom group. What he's describing of that actually not working all that well, I'm hearing that too. sometimes it just like no one really wants to talk or no one knows how to start talking and there's a lot that could be at work there. But, so much of what supports conversation are the nonverbal cues that happen in one another's presence.

And so, that is really hard. I'm also hearing that, the breakout room, if you're in there with someone you really don't like, and you have a way to just check out, you'll take it. Whereas if you're in person, you can't necessarily just check out because you feel like it's. So, I trust the teachers will continue to figure out systems that work are more effective. part of what is so hard is that it's everybody's first year of teaching, basically. Everybody is trying things they've never had to do before.

So, the school part sounds really crummy and not the fun part of school, getting to be with your peers even if you're in a small group. Getting to be at least with one kid you enjoy and having a good time with them. These poor kids are having to try to stay motivated and into school, without any of the benefits, the joys, the pleasures, the comradery, that usually gets them through school. So, I'm hearing that. Yeah.

LaWanda: It was heartbreaking to hear and I didn't really think about it because I have a second grader. So, I hear them running and jumping and moving and they want to be on screen and they want to see each other and they have their own issues and challenges, but as a teenager, it's totally different.

Lisa, what kind of advice do you have for families of teenagers who are struggling with these types of issues?

Lisa Damour: I think a lot of empathy is in order.

LaWanda: Yeah.

Lisa Damour: I am hearing across the board that school is a drag and I wrote this in a piece in the Times earlier this spring, it's all vegetables and no dessert, it's just really pretty dry. And so, I think the more that we can just, be saying like, this is really hard and we're here to help and what would help you through it?

But not all kids are getting along at home, and I will say, I've practiced for nearly 25 years. I've cared for teenagers for a long, long time. And, I started to have this like pit in my stomach in April when I was like, what if kids don't go back and what is that going to mean for the kids, for whom school and the adults at school are like the grownups they connect to. Because, most teenagers get along with their folks and have a good connection at home and can lean into that and then they have the benefit of the adults at school as well.

But there are some kids, and it's not a tiny percentage where life at home does not work well for them, or their relationship with their parents has a lot of friction in it. And, what gets those kids through adolescence often quite well is being able to show up at school and be in the presence of adults they like. And I started to have this started to have this pit of my stomach feeling of like, Oh my God, those kiddos, I don't care what they learn next year. I am really worried about them not having the contact with non-parent adults, that they really count on to get through a hard time in their life.

Helen: Yeah. And I think Lisa, it's true what you say, and also exacerbated by what Isaac was sharing. That, those peer relationships are also harder to have right now. What advice do you have for parents about how to support their teens? If they're feeling like, I'm alone, this online school is not working? How do you encourage parents to support their teens in that?

Lisa Damour: There are things we can do. So let's do it first, if you have a good working relationship with your teen and then let's also do it, if you don't because parents know when things aren't working with their teens.

So, if you have a good working relationship with your teen, number one empathy, empathy, support, support. What do you need from us cookie? You're doing a really good job, you know, really admiring them and cheering them on. It really matters to teens to hear from their parents. I see how hard you're working. I see what a slog this is. I am so impressed that you are getting yourself through it. We should not underestimate our role as cheerleaders in this. It does help.

Another thing I would say is, try to help them connect with their friends. And, what's really hard is it has to be done safely, which usually means a grown up somehow at some level has to supervise, but try to be creative, right? If it's in your backyard, , while the weather's still decent, , having, they have some friends over and you guys can be out in the backyardI won't be weird. I won't hang out with you out there. I'll just occasionally kick out the window to make sure or you can blame the social distancing on me.

We're not accustomed to having to carve out time to supervise our adolescent social lives. We need to carve out time, they need to see their peers. Doesn't mean they need to be hanging out with tons of kids all the time, but they need that connection it is like oxygen for teenagers. The other thing that parents can do. And this is going to seem so small, but it's actually what I'm hearing for teens so much. Hug your teenager, go hug your teenager.

Helen: Oh yeah, we all need a hug.

Lisa Damour: They need hugs, because here's the thing. Everybody needs contact. Everybody needs touch. we know this is really essential for health and development. Usually, if you watch teenagers in their natural habitats, under normal conditions or out in the wild, When they are not in a COVID condition, they are flopping all over each other. it is just part of being a teenager and they get that contact in ways that are, occasionally romantic, but often just playful friendship. But their puppy-like with each other.

And, I am hearing teenagers say to me, I need a hug and you don't usually hear that from teenagers. So, go hug your teenager. And if you're worried, it's going to be weird or you're not sure how that's going to go over, like maybe try like rubbing their back a little bit, see how that read, maybe a side hug to start. But, I would just say like, don't be weird about it. Just go hug your teenager. You have no idea how much I'm hearing from kids that they need that. So those are places to start, and I know they're tiny, but I think at some level we're kind of down to tiny interventions, hugs, encouragement, empathy.

At another level, I'm like, it's about getting through day to day and a good hug, encouragement, empathy, like that can get you through. So those are for the families where there's a good working relationship. Then what if your kid and you are having a hard time with each other?

So first things first, I would want parents to be open to the possibility that they could work on that relationship, that they could make themselves available to their teen to say, look, you and I have a hard time with each other. What could I be doing differently that would work better for you? I really think that is a fair question to ask a teenager, if you know, what's not working, so try that. But, if you're like or I tried that and that didn't work.

Then, I really mean this, I think get other grownups on board. If the teenager has an uncle or an aunt who they have a good connection with call them and be like, you need to call my kid. You need to call my kid and check in and see how they're doing. If there's a way for that teenager to have a job where they have a boss and they can do so safely and they've got some good mentoring there.

Any extracurricular that puts them in the path of a good grownup and can be done right now. But we have to think about what's getting lost when kids are not physically in school or even the kids who are physically in school, you don't have the same connections with your teachers, because it's just school's so weird right now. So shore that up, do it. If you have a good relationship with your kid and definitely do it, if you're not the grownup, your kid can easily come to.

Helen: I like that. That's good advice. ILaWanda and my kids aren't teenagers yet. But, I remember my teenage years, I don't know about you LaWanda, but I was more the second bucket of a teenager. I wasn't going to talk to my parents at all.

LaWanda: I don't know about that talking to them, but definitely not hugging them, but I can understand during this time period, I need a hug now. So, I definitely understand why hugs are definitely needed. So, that was really great advice.

Lisa, we're going to pivot just a little bit because a part of these mental health issues that teenagers are having is due to another crisis coming to the forefront of society, police brutality and racial injustice.

Teens are experiencing trauma from that as well. Can you share some of your science around trauma and how our nation's reckoning with police brutality and racism may be impacting our teen's wellbeing.

Lisa Damour: So, trauma's a really interesting term in our field. And, I like to use it in its most technical way, which is to describe an event that has the psychological impact of basically rewiring the nervous system.

It is such an intense and overwhelming event that, it is integrated not as like a memory or a thing that happened, but as an experience, people like feel it in themselves like overwhelms coping, and it really blows people out of the water. And, what is so critical, I'm so glad you're bringing up trauma in the context of, the police brutality and the things that we have been witnessing, always, but increasingly the summer so much, you know, so much more awareness this summer and fall. Because, what's important for people to understand is that white people can watch those videos and find them deeply upsetting.

But, I'm a white person myself and what I really try to not lose sight of is watching those videos is often literally traumatic for a person of color, that it is a different experience to see it, because the reality is so raw and possible and close. It's not a theoretical thing. For white people, I think at some level we're like, that's awful that thing over there. And, I really try to be, very, very tuned into the reality that for people of color they're like, that could be me. And that, that is a traumatizing experience. And so, when white people that are having a hard time wrapping their heads around, why is this so big? Why is this so intense? Why is there so much energy behind trying to come to a safe place in our country for people who are nonwhite.

[00:17:32] I think we have to appreciate, we don't take in these data, in the same way and it doesn't impact us in the same way. And it's absolutely imperative for white people that, we adopt a profound humility around what it means to see police brutality unfold. If you're a person of color and the victim is a person of color. And, and I think that that's the part where it's like upsetting versus trauma.

And then, the other thing that has to be said of here is, stress is a cumulative factor. So, it's not like there wasn't police brutality before? Obviously we have decades and video from decades.

So, why now? Why has this gained so much momentum? And, one way to think about it. When I think about it does a psychologist is okay, stress is cumulative. So if you are a person of color in this country, your baseline stress is already higher. And, then we load on top of that COVID which takes your stress higher. And then we load on top of that, the disproportionate impact of COVID on people of color. And now you've got something that is at a level we've never seen before.

LaWanda: Sure. Yeah.

Helen: Yeah. And it's interesting, you share that too Lisa, we asked Isaac a little bit about that and he was saying, , one of the, glimmers of hope, in a lot of what's going on is the ability to connect with folks and particularly youth of color who are really galvanized right now, he shared a lot about just how many teens are engaging in this broader discourse about, what's going on in our country and what's fair and what's just.

Lisa Damour: Teens are amazing. They are amazing. And in the context of having, you know, a historically horrendous experience, what they are going through right now is historically we've never seen anything like it. That they still have the energy, I mean, that's why I adore them to be broadminded. To think about what's ahead to think about everyone else. They're incredible. They're incredible.

LaWanda: Yeah. I agree.

Helen: So Lisa, that's actually a good segue to something else we wanted to ask you about. Which is, you know, just the role of social media and teens lives right now.

So, Isaac talked about that obviously in a pandemic, that's one of the main outlets teenagers have. So, we're going to play another little clip for you and then would love to hear some of your thoughts about it.

Isaac Hurtado: I think parents need to be aware of a lot of teens, especially with social media, they'll be on their phones and parents could think, oh, they're just texting their friends. But honestly, people are just browsing Tik Tok and stuff like that. They don't really have others to talk to. I think parents need to realize that, sometimes people are on social media and stuff to cope with the lack of social interaction, especially now with the pandemic, where else are they supposed to talk to others? A lot of people before the pandemic, they would cope with these problems by talking to like a best friend, maybe a really trusted adult, but now parents just need to understand, it's okay if they're on their phones a lot or using social media. That's the only way they can really interact with others and tell them how they're feeling.

Helen: So Lisa, what do you think if parents are worried about social media use, Isaac's encouraging them to just, let it roll - kids need that right now. What do you think, from an adolescent psychology perspective, parents should do about that?

Lisa Damour: I think they should listen to Isaac. I think he's a hundred percent, right.

Thank goodness, that we have a way for our kids to actually have a social life without being, physically present with one another. I mean, what would we be doing right now for this happened in the eighties, it would be disaster. So he's right. And here's the way to think about social media and teens.

When we look at the data on kids' social media use, first things first, we have no slam dunk research telling us that social media makes kids more anxious and depressed. We do sometimes see correlations between, social media use and anxiety and depression, but we don't know which way they go, we don't know if more anxious and depressed kids are using them more or the other way around. So, I want parents to not feel like social media is the enemy by any means, we don't have the data for that.

The only data we have that shows a connection between digital technology and mood disorders is when technology is disrupting sleep. So, if your kids in their room, they're doing social media and they're not sleeping, that's going to mess up their mood. But, the social media per se, is not the issue.

The other body of research, the parents need to know is that we consistently find that kids’ social media interactions, mirror their real life interactions. So, kids who in real life or, you know, when they got to be with their friends in real life, have happy, supportive, playful, friendly interactions with their peers, by and large that's what's happening on their social media, as well. So it's, you know, it's not like your kids living a double life here.

Unfortunately, and this, these are the kids I'm really worried about. Kids who have struggled socially, they are bullying other bullying other kids, or they are, you know, the victims of bullying or they don't connect well socially, or they get themselves into conflict all the time. Their social media tends to mirror that behavior too.

So, what I would say is worry less about your kid being on social media, especially so long as it's not messing up their sleep or their ability to be active or get their work done. I mean more it's about like, don't let it mess up things that are good for development, as opposed to social media being bad on its own.

But if your kid is online, mixing it up or being awful to people or being treated badly. That, is grounds for concern that should be supervised. Your kid needs help getting themselves out of that position. Your kid needs help, developing either a new peer network or better social skills. But, social media in and of itself is not inherently problematic.

Helen: As a parent, I know it can be hard when, one day your child likes one whole set of things, and has one whole set of a peer group. And, the next day your child is maybe trying out some different language. Or, like a different peer group and so I think for parents, it can be stressful as kids are going through this, like trying on of different identities in some ways in. And, so it's hard to know do I just let them be as they try on those identities or do I say, you're this way. And, I think some of that particularly comes up in the context of, we're in an election year, right.

And so, politics are on the mind who are we that way? Who are we when it comes to how we dress? Who are we when it comes to how we talk? What do you think about that, and what's normal? What should parents expect when it comes to teenagers, exploring their identities?

Lisa Damour: I think it very much breaks down to age by age. the kids really go through, different stages of trying to move from being a child to being an adult. In my first commercial book Untangled, I talk about the seven transitions into adulthood and the first one is, parting with childhood. So they don't want to be a little kid anymore. And, we probably see that around, you know, grade five or six. And then the second one is like joining a new, joining a new pack, you know, like who are my people and who are my friends, and I'm going to loosen my ties to the family and strengthen them to my peers. And, that's closer probably to six seventh grade.

And, then there's harnessing emotions and getting used to managing feelings, you know, and that's kind of height of eighth grade and then contending with adult authority is chapter four, it's their job to not agree with us. And so, I think it goes along in a very actually surprisingly predictable fashion.

But, what I tried to do in that book was to really lay out, here's what to expect when you're expecting a teenager and all of this friction and all of this shifting that's normal and expectable. Like, that you don't have to worry that your kids off course. And then, what I did in that book is at the end of every chapter, I wrote a section called when to worry, So, in this particular sort of developmental achievement, like when do we worry?

But I think that, the broad question, I think you're asking about like, when do you step in, right. I think it's really important for parents to have this question in their mind of like, is this really going to matter when my kid's 30? I think that that's a good place to start because we want to get along with their kids and they don't need to be clones of us. They're probably better off if they're not clones of us. They're often better people than we are. And so, if you're really like, is this worth getting into it with my kid? And, you're not really sure a good question is like, will it matter when they're 30? And if the answer is no, maybe you just leave it alone and see what happens.

LaWanda: Thanks, Lisa, that makes a lot of sense. Isaac also shared how teens need some freedom to develop their own thoughts, beliefs, and really their own identity.

Isaac Hurtado: It all starts with the parent pushing on their ideas or a teenager learning about their identity from their parent, because sometimes we just have no information. We all started off with no interaction, really about things like this and, we just learned from our parents. And so, some parents are really worried about their child and they'll push their ideas onto them so that they seem ready. But, in the end they're just making their teen more dependent on them. And, I think it's rough and you just need to let your teen experience everything on their own. They need to form their own opinions, see things for themselves. They should not be guided, completely, by the ideas of the parent.

Lisa Damour: So for better, for worse, you actually can't tell teenagers, what to do. They really don't like being told what to do with it. We don't like being told lots of think. You can, you can make certain privileges contingent on the meeting responsibilities. So you can say, look, if you don't do your chores, then, actually no, you're not getting an allowance or no, you're not going to be running around in doing these privileged things you want to do, but you can't make kids do stuff.

And, what is important is for teenagers to understand or parents, to understand, that teenagers, like their job is to question authority. That is normal and healthy development in adolescents to not buy everything we're selling. And, the goal for parents is to not take that personally, you know, to not feel personally offended, that they're teenagers questioning their beliefs or disagreeing with them openly. And, what it becomes is an opportunity to teach civil discourse, to teach disagreement in a way that is respectful, in a way that is empathic to the other person, curious about the other person's perspective, can tolerate the discomfort of not being in agreement.

That, when a kid is disagreeing with us, the end game here is not, let me get them to see it my way the end game there is, let me take this moment as one, where I can teach my child how to disagree respectfully, push one, another's thinking, but do it in a way that is not unkind.

LaWanda: Lisa, I agree with all of the points that you made. I think that our listeners really needed to hear that. Isaac also has some final thoughts for our listeners, as well.

Isaac Hurtado: I think right now parents just need to be very mindful of their teen's mental state. I was saying how parents should take the initiative on checking up on their child. But sometimes you could just tell, they just don't want to be talked to. And if that happens, just give them their space because teachers aren't holding back for homework, teens are having a lack of social interaction, they can be going through a lot and you might push on chores or things like that, it just stresses them out even more, they're just going to get burned out. So, if your child looks like he's going through something, then just really take the initiative, talk to them, really just hear them out. You don't always need to give them advice. Sometimes teens just want to be heard out

LaWanda:  So, Lisa out of everything we've discussed and I know you've listened to clips and we've had a lot of dialogue. What is one thing you want families to walk away with from today's episode?

Lisa Damour: What I want us to really train our attention on, is that our teenagers are going through something of a scale and a scope that we have never seen before. In some ways, because the pandemic goes on and on, it's become almost mundane, I think we can lose track to the fact that what they are going through is bananas. They do not attend conventional school. They do not get it to see their friends. Everything that is familiar to them is being disrupted and everything that is being disrupted runs exactly against the current of what it means to be a teenager.

So, every day that your kid is upright doing what they're basically supposed to be doing and trying to learn, that is an extraordinary thing for kids to be doing right now. And I think if we can remember that and praise that and admire that it is the least of what we owe kids right now.

LaWanda: Yeah, I like that a lot. Lisa, thank you so much for chatting with us today, before you go tell us where our listeners can learn more about you, your work and your podcast.

Lisa Damour: So, best place to find my work is at my website, So, D R L I S A D A M O U R. And, it's got all of my columns for the New York times where I write monthly about teenagers. It's got all of my work for the press, and then it's got a page devoted to my podcast, which comes out every week, Ask Lisa, the Psychology of Parenting and my cohost Reena Ninan and I answer parent questions, each week just trying to unpack, what's going on, especially in the context of the pandemic.

LaWanda: That's great. Thank you.

Helen: Thank you again so much for joining us.

Lisa Damour: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Helen: And to our audience listening, thank you for joining us for more resources related to today's episode check out and we want to say a very special thank you to the Carnegie Corporation of New York for supporting this season of Notes from the Backpack. Thanks for tuning in.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.