Tackling COVID-19 Anxiety Together

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 16 │Tackling COVID-19 Anxiety Together

Tuesday, April 7, 2020



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Show Notes

Dr. Erlanger “Earl” Turner

COVID-19 has drastically changed our daily lives in a short period of time. Children are learning at home, and parents are working remotely—while also supporting the social and emotional needs of their children and managing the stress of being homebound. We talked with psychologist, author and professor Dr. Earl Turner about these new challenges to learn how to stay happy, healthy and learning during this difficult time. He shares tips for setting routines, managing your mental health and coping with uncertainty.


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Helen: Welcome back to today's episode of Notes from The Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm your co-host, Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement at National PTA. 

LaWanda: And I'm LaWanda Toney, your co-host and Director of Strategic Communications at National PTA. 

Today we're reporting live from our homes. This will be our first time recording a remote episode. The Coronavirus pandemic has changed so much of our lives in such a short amount of time, and just like many of you, Helen and I have been navigating a lot of new changes lately. We are both learning how to keep our family safe during the Coronavirus pandemic all while balancing our kids, distance learning and adjusting to the new normal of working from home.

Helen: LaWanda you have totally hit the nail on the head. I'm still trying to figure it all out myself. And if I'm being completely honest, it's all still pretty overwhelming and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only parent struggling to manage the stress and anxiety that Covid-19 is bringing. That's why I'm thankful we have an expert with us to help navigate this unprecedented situation.

LaWanda: I couldn't agree with you more, Helen. Today's expert guest is Dr. Earl Turner, a Licensed Psychologist and University Professor from Los Angeles, California. As a Media Psychologist, he often contributes as a mental health expert for outlets such as Oprah magazine, the Washington Post, and NBC News. 

Most recently, he was elected as the 2020 President of the Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice. He's also the Host of The Breakdown with Dr. Earl, a mental health and parenting podcast that has recently released an episode entitled Coping with the Coronavirus Anxiety. Dr. Earl is well versed in helping both parents and children navigate difficult and unexpected challenges. 

Welcome to the show Dr. Earl.

Earl: Hello. Thank you for having me. 

Helen: Great. Thank you so much for talking with us today, Dr. Earl. Let's dive right in. How did you get into the mental health field? 

Earl: Yeah, that's a great question. I think you covered my bio and I was sitting here like, wow that's a lot of information. So I have way too many things going on but I really got interested in psychology and mental health more specifically years ago when I was an undergraduate student  in Louisiana, at Louisiana State University. And, at that particular time, I was actually working with one of the professors there and the psychology department that was doing some work on ADHD in school aged children. I had an opportunity to not only help her with some research, but also, to observe some therapy sessions in an outpatient mental health clinic at a local hospital. And what I saw was that for many of the families, specifically, black families, black parents, that they struggled sometimes with continuing to engage with therapy. And so, I really wanted to better understand what were some of their attitudes and beliefs about mental health treatment and how can I be able to help better address some of these concerns and barriers that they experienced as a result of that. And so I decided to go to graduate school and get my PhD in psychology to become a psychologist so that I can be able to provide services to those families. But also, be able to help practitioners to be able to better understand how to engage in work with communities of color. I recently published a book that was specifically dedicated to helping therapists understand how to engage African American families in treatment. And what are some of the considerations that are important to address in terms of some of the cultural things that may be important when it comes to... Sort of addressing some of their negative perceptions about engaging in treatment. But alsoalso, how we need to better understand how to integrate their culture and beliefs into the process as well. And so that really is what has driven my passion and why I do so many things related to sort of media engagement and spreading awareness about mental health. 

LaWanda: Can we talk a little bit about what's happening right now as it relates to COVID-19 and families? I mean I'm melting down. So, I'm sure that a lot of families, every day is a different type of challenge or struggle. 

How do we explain to our kids kind of what's happening without creating more anxiety or fear to them?

Earl: Yeah. That's a great question and I know that for myself, the news and social media alone is very overwhelming. So, can you imagine for kids what that's like when they sort of see their parents experiencing these things. I think that the most important thing is that you are honest with your kids, but also you want to make sure that you keep it simple. Don't give them too much information and make sure that it's age appropriate.

So for example, I think one way to talk about it is to let a child know that there's a new germ that's spreading. And that people can get really sick, but that doctors are really working to help to fight this germ. And so I think that sort of captures the amount of... The amount of severity with this, but also helps to reassure them that everything is going to be okay so that you can eat some of their anxiety as well. 

LaWanda: Oh my God, that is great. Saying that it's a germ and then it can spread because I have a seven year old and when we go outside he's like, well can I have a play date? Do you know when we're going back to school? And some days I get stuck cause I'm not sure how much information to share. So I like that you say, make it age appropriate, talk to them in their language so that they can understand. That's very helpful. . 

Earl: It is tough as a parent. Cause I think we as adults feel like we have to have all the answers sometimes. And I think that we don't, and that's okay. And I think so when it comes to situations like this, that we have to do our best to really try to reassure kids, I think, that everything is going to work out. And I think that's probably, probably the biggest thing to sort of keep in mind when having these types of conversations, is that reassurance piece.

Helen: Yeah. I'm wondering if you have any examples, Dr. Earl of... You know, my daughter is very young, she's two. But she knows that her daily routines and things have changed. And LaWanda and I were talking earlier today that, you know, for both of our kids and so many kids, like school is such a social outlet, you know? And, and so having them at home with a much smaller group of people is tough. What do you recommend is sort of age appropriate ways to help kids stay connected and socialize? So, they are not, you know, forgive me for being straight, but like driving their parents crazy, and acting out, and right? 

Earl: Yeah. I think one thing that's important is that technology for those that have access to it is definitely one way to help with some of that. Having a zoom, you can download that as a free application either on your smartphone or on your, on your laptop, and be able to sort of connect with, with their friends that are in, in different places. And they would just sort of have an independent sort of play date where you, where they can sort of see each other and engage in an activity. And then I think the other challenge is that when we think about this idea of social distancing. I was just looking a couple of days ago at the CDCs website, one thing that they talk about is that, you can still engage in some, I guess, activity when it comes to like play dates, for example. Although I think for young children, they may have a hard time engaging in the concept of like, okay, you can play with your, with your friend, but you need to stay like three to six feet away from them. That might be difficult. 

Helen: My daughter would... That would not fly with her. Yeah. 

Earl: So I think like in those situations, like, you know, you're a kid and so if you know that they're going to have a hard time with that, let's just stick to some virtual play dates.

 LaWanda: Yeah. Those are good ideas. I know that we started doing a family Zoom with the grandparents so that they can see Caleb and we can see them and see how they're doing. And that's been helpful also with his cousins, they play video games together and that's their time to connect. We give them that downtime. Usually that didn't happen during the week, but we've made adjustments, because our schedules have changed so, so much. And we still want to give him the time to be able to be a kid. Let's switch gears a little bit and talk about parents. We've talked about how to help the kids cope, but parents I think are feeling overwhelmed, they're stressed, even panicked from day to day. It kinda changes. What strategies do you have for parents and caregivers who need to manage their own anxiety? 

Earl: Yeah, that's very important. I think one thing that I often talk about with families, and I'm not currently seeing patients or clients now, here in Los Angeles, but in the past, really talking with parents about kids are going to look at you to understand how to manage their own emotions and fears. You are a big cue in terms of how to navigate that situation. So I really think it's important for parents to really use this time and of course, other situations where you may be dealing with your own emotions, whether that's stress or anxiety, to be able to role model for them, how to effectively cope with those situations.

So I think, one of the things that happens with anxiety, and I think why in this particular situation it is a little bit more overwhelming, is because anxiety is part of sort of fear of the unknown. And I think in this situation. There are so many things that we don't know about. I mean, they'll, they are still figuring out sort of how this is spread, how to protect people, figuring out back scenes in terms of treating individuals. And so that's overwhelming. I think for parents, one way to at least start to minimize some of that anxiety is try to be informed as possible. And the more information and facts that you get, then that can help sort of prepare you and help reduce some of your anxiety. Obviously you need to have some self-awareness to know that. How much information can you consume? Because if you consume too much information, then that's gonna sort of take you over the edge with your anxiety. And that's not going to be helpful as well. 

So I think some of the big pieces are just sort of creating a plan for yourself so that you can be able to sort of calm down and manage your own anxiety. 

Earl: The, Anxiety and Depression Association of America actually offer some helpful resources and tools in terms of managing anxiety. Feel free to check out that website, which is adaa.org. And, one of the things that they talk about is really accepting what you can and can't control. And I think that under this particular circumstance, it's really important that you sort of put things in perspective and know that these are the things that I can do to sort of help myself as well as my family and the things that I can't control. And you really should not focus a worry on those things that are out of your control. So That is one way to help manage that. The other piece I think is making sure that you also keep a positive attitude and outlook.

And again, this also goes to that aspect of modeling for your child, how to effectively navigate situations that may be difficult.  I think if they can see you sort of keep a positive perspective, that also helps them to reduce their own anxiety. Another big piece I think is making sure that you limit your consumption of alcohol and caffeine. And obviously those are... Can be unhealthy ways of, of coping with situations that are stressful like this. But the other piece of it is that what we know from research is that alcohol and caffeine also increases symptoms of anxiety. If you consume those substances, it could increase your sort of a respiration and other sorts of heartbeat cardio sorts of difficulties. It could potentially lead to panic attacks, for so... Some individuals. Specifically that may already be prone to anxiety disorders and so I think that's a really big piece to sort of think about as a way to reduce some of your anxiety is, is limiting use of alcohol and caffeine. And then the other piece is just figuring out what are some of your strategies to help you sort of self-regulate. And one of those might be sort of taking some deep breaths throughout the day. I always encourage people to really... You know, you can do this when you're standing, sitting. and sometimes people, if you don't take too much of a deep breath, that is sort of over exaggerated it's really helpful to sort of help you sort of calm down and reregulate your thought of Physiological responses. I think being able to take a couple of deep breaths throughout the day is really helpful to sort of reduce some of your anxiety. 

Helen: I think that's really good advice. Sometimes I have to remind myself to breathe. And I'll, definitely check out that website for some of those suggestions. 

 LaWanda: A lot of families have become teachers, instantly. What are some are the important things for families to keep in mind as they try to help their kids learn from home? 

Earl: Yeah, I think that's definitely important and I think it also, it's something that definitely takes everyone out of their sort of normal situation in terms of how our life typically goes. Any sort of changing of routines oftentimes can be stressful and difficult for anybody outside of just sort of what we're dealing with right now. I think one important thing with the homeschooling piece is that you want to try to create some sense of a schedule. Develop a schedule that's going to work for your kids as well as for yourself to maintain that you are sort of getting in some sort of sense of normality as much as we can right now. And I think for our kids specifically, we know that it's helpful for them to get into routines because it creates this, this habit for them about sort of what is going to happen each day for them. 

 A big piece that's also important with the distance learning and most schools have either provided lesson plans to the parents and some of them have actually online, education for students. You want to be, thoughtful about the amount of time that you're spending focused on learning or schoolwork. I have a friend who actually is a school teacher, educator in North Carolina. And one of the things that he and I had talked about recently was about, you know, what's a good amount of time that you should be doing this? Obviously when students are in school, they're spending anywhere from, you know, six to seven hours a day in a classroom. And that's not realistic right now under these situations. And so, you know, he's recommended that, you know, four hours a day is probably sufficient for students to be able to get adequate amount of learning, related to their schoolwork. When you're doing that and thinking about sort of the schedule about what those activities are or should look like,  should also make sure that you're integrating spaces for breaks throughout that. Because I think that helps both you as a parent so that you're not constantly watching to make sure that they're on track with that activity. But also, for kids to make sure that they're not required to like sit in one space for an extended amount of time. And so that can be really difficult for children, especially for kids that may, let's say, have a preexisting mental health diagnosis such as ADHD, where sitting for an extended period of time is going to be much more difficult or for that child.  

Helen: That makes a lot of sense. I think it's hard even as a parent not to just feel the monotony of the situation becoming challenging. Do you recommend to your clients any sort of tips or tricks to just sort of keep that positive outlook, even in the face of much adversity?

Earl: So, one thing that I think is important when it comes to understanding the role of your thinking or cognitions in terms of how we function is that we know that, the way that you think has a huge impact in terms of your emotions and how you respond. And so I think in any situation, but especially under these circumstances, that it's important that you try to avoid having what we refer to as black or white thinking, where it's like all or nothing like things have to go this way. And if they don't, then everything is going to be, you know, chaos. It's that again, understanding that you can do your best and the situation to sort of navigate it, make sure that your family is safe, make sure that you're prepared. But life is not perfect and so there are going to be situations where things are not going to work out the way that you might expect them to be. 

Another thing is that you want to avoid, what we'd like to say as shoulding on yourself. Don't say things that you should do, especially during this time because again... 

Helen: That’s good advice for life, yes.

Earl: Yes, things are going to happen and so if you hold yourself to these rigid expectations about, I should do this. Like, I should make sure that my child spends four hours per day on school work. Well, what if they only do two and a half? What happens then? I think it's not realistic to have those rigid expectations for yourself. I think that is another way to sort of keep a positive outlook about let's have a plan. This is what we're going to plan to do, you know, four hours per day. But if it doesn't, just make sure that you make some progress towards what those goals were for you and for your child. 

LaWanda: Dr. Earl I really think you hit that on the head. Especially for me I think we're a couple of weeks into this being at home. And for us at first, I was like, okay, we got the schedule. Caleb and I agreed on it. This is what we're going to do. And then for a couple of days that worked beautifully. And then one day he was like, 'I don't want to do that.' 

You could just tell he wasn't ready to keep going in that schedule and then I was like, 'no, wait, I planned everything around this.' But I had to change. I had to be fluid and say, you know what? I have to go with his flow and every day is not going to check everything off the list. And that's okay. So, I definitely appreciate you saying that, that the shouldas need to go right on out the door and I'm happy to throw them out. 

Earl: I always tell people that it's okay to have goals. But you also need to give yourself the right to like be flexible with those goals and be able to revise and change those goals over time. That's another way to sort of think about it is that. No, making sure that you have this plan, but you can have some flexibility in that plan, because again, life is about unexpected things happening. If you don't have these sort of thought processes that you know, things are going to come up that you weren't expecting, then again, it's going to make you have a much more stressful time, with sort of navigating things when they don't work out the way that you planned.

LaWanda: Right. 

Helen: I like that advice. Give yourself some grace.

I want to ask you, Dr Earl, a little bit about one of the things that can happen, I think, in these sorts of just highly stressful situations is you just start to look inward, right? You become a little insular and even as LaWanda and I were talking, you know, we're very fortunate that we can work from home and we have partners who can help us balance the schedule. And... But we know there are a lot of people across this country and across the globe that don't necessarily have that privilege. Could you talk a little bit about, cause I know you've written and been extensively involved and really understand the equity of mental health services.

Could you, you know, if we'll ask our Listeners, to everybody get out of survival mode of what's going on in your house for a minute. But what do you see really going on across this country and where do we need to have empathy for other folks in their experiences? 

Earl: That's a really good point. I teach a class on diversity as well. And one thing that we've talked about from time to time is that, in the United States, we tend to be a very individualistic society where we oftentimes are very focused on ourselves. And obviously not everyone is that way and, may have some empathy and concern about the wellbeing of others. But when it comes to situations of stress, especially, we do tend to go back to a lot of things that are internal to us that we don't actively think about. In this situation that we're in, this idea of looking out for ourselves and making sure that we're doing well and that our family is, sort of have what they need is very individualistic, from sort of this cultural perspective. And I've definitely seen it under... Either watching the news, myself or going to the stores when it's come to like this toilet paper thing where everybody's buying up all the toilet paper without thinking about, well, what about the people that really need it, that maybe have, you know, a large family, that cannot get to the store to be able to, to get the toilet paper at that particular time period. Or with the baby wipes. I had a, sort of thought the other day about sort of people buying up baby wipes. But what about mothers or fathers that need baby wipes for their kids, but we're buying them up as adults. It's important for us to sort of be mindful about that. Get what you need, but don't sort of overdo it and, and, and, reduce the access for others that may need it as well.

[00:26:10] Helen: Hmm. That's good advice. That's good advice. I think we're seeing, very much, what is happening to our sort of social fabric as this pandemic rolls out and just that some families who are already struggling to make ends meet, like you said, they... Maybe they I didn't have money to buy five rolls of paper towels or we're trying to sort of cobble together childcare, you know, in a community that, where there might not be, at easily accessible childcare. 

So I really appreciate that perspective. 

LaWanda: Dr Earl, are there other things that we can do to be considerate of other families and other people who may not have the things that we have and maybe struggling during this pandemic? 

Earl: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the things is that we can always donate.  I think for us that are fortunate that being able to sort of donate our time. Whether that's going the store to maybe purchase some extra items, food items, and donate it to your local food bank. If you have access to, provide reading a book to a kid virtually, that may be, you know, that parents can access on, let's say YouTube or something to be able to do that.

So that people can, who may not have access to libraries. A lot of libraries are closed down and they can't, be able to access those resources as a teaching tool for their kids. And then there are some resources, obviously for a lot of schools and school districts. They are providing, things for our families in terms of, of food, especially during this difficult time. Being able to, if you know of a family that maybe doesn't have transportation, maybe you can go pick up something for them and drop it off at their home. And so those are some things that we can do. to help out others in our community. 

LaWanda: That's great. Thank you. 

Helen: Yeah. That's a really good suggestion and I can't believe we're already starting to run out of time. Doctor, I hope you can set up some tele appointments. So LaWanda and I can find some individual time later. 

But we really appreciate you sharing some of this really practical insight and guidance from your expertise with our listeners and want to give you one last opportunity. 

If there's one thing you really want parents to walk away from today's episode with, what would that be? What's your message to them? 

Earl: Well, I think the one thing is that, it's important to remember that although we're stressed, kids are stressed too and that they're watching us. And I think the little things that we sometimes don't think about, kids notice. We can communicate a lot of things verbally to kids. And some of it, you know, they take in other things that we say it goes in when it comes out the other. But they're watching us and so I think making sure that you model ways to appropriately manage stress during this particular time period. I often encourage parents to not only just model those things for your kids but talk through it so that they can see you. 

So if you're stressed out and overwhelmed, you can just stop for a minute. Say, wow, I'm really stressed out right now. Things are really tough, but you know what? It's going to be okay. Take a deep breath, let it out. And then you can go on. And they see that, and they may start to use some of those strategies as well. 

Helen: Hmm. I love that. So we’ll end hopeful and as role models. 

Before we go, any social media handles you'd like our listeners to know about if they want to learn more about you and your work.

Earl: Yeah, so you can look me up on Twitter and Instagram at Dr. Earl Turner. That's D. R E A R L T. U. R. N. E. R. And you can also from there find my website, drearlturner.com. And I actually have a resource page if you use, forward slash resources, you can be able to locate some other information related to mental health as well as some other helpful links about coping with COVID-19.

LaWanda: Thank you so much. 

Yeah, that's great and to our audience, tuning in at home or even while at work. Thank you for listening. 

For more resources related to today's episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.com. We completely understand everyone is on triple duty right now, working parents, teaching from home, et cetera.

 So to help families ease the challenges of the pandemic, National PTA has created a COVID-19 resource webpage for parents, students, and educators. To learn more, visit pta.org/COVID19. 

Helen: Great. Thank you, Dr. Earl. 

Earl: Thank you so much. 

Helen: And thank you, listeners. We'll hope you tune in next time.


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