Back To School Anxiety & Teenage Depression

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Show Notes

0:51 Listener question on school anxiety

2:54 We mention a recent Facebook Live of Lynn’s about back to school anxiety of really focusing on problem solving and not worry.

17:22 A second listener’s question about her 16-year-old daughter self-diagnosing herself as bipolar.

Books to read. The Keys to Unlocking Depression by Michael Yapko.

Reid Wilson’s website, Anxieties.com. He has a ton of free resources and things, videos that she can watch. His Noises in Your Head series is outstanding.

26:53 So, we announce that we’re actually going to relaunch this podcast on August 31st. We mention our parenting retreat in-person events before 2020’s event.

Episode Transcript

Lynn Lyons  0:01 

Schools are deciding at this point, at this very moment, who is staying home? And who is going into the building? Who’s going to have remote learning? And who’s going to have in-person learning? Is it going to be all day? Is it going to be broken up during the week? There’s just a lot of uncertainty. And we’ve got a listener asking how do you know who to send and who should go into schools? And then we’ve also got a question for a mom whose daughter is doing a little self-diagnosing and worrying about bipolar disorder and anxiety. So, we’ll talk about that, too.

Hi, everybody, this is Lynn Lyons. I’m a psychotherapist, anxiety expert, and author and I’m here with my producer and sister-in-law, Robin.

Hi, Robin.

Robin Hutson  0:36 

Hi, Lynn.

Lynn Lyons  0:40 

How are you?

Robin Hutson  0:46 

Good. Good. Let me read you this first listener question.

Lynn Lyons  0:50 

Okay, I’m ready.

Back To School Anxiety

Robin Hutson  0:51 

“Hello. I am a teacher and mom of three. My husband said I was too late in finding you. I haven’t slept in two nights after my town’s superintendent said kindergarten was THE priority not A priority. The district will push for them to have daily in person instruction. Other towns around us are calling for K through 5 in person and  grades 6 through 12 remote.”

“Don’t they have this backwards? Tweens and teens are the ones who can stay home but it doesn’t mean they should. They are the ones if left home alone will be faced with dangerous and destructive decisions and perpetuating depression and anxiety. I lost my brother to addiction. So clearly, I have a fear of that as well as mental health issues for my kids. Just curious if you have thoughts on this.

Lynn Lyons  1:34 

Hmm, I do have thoughts on this. First of all, let me just say because I don’t have kids going into school right now. I have one who graduated from college and one who’s going into college for his junior year. And so, I really empathize with all these parents that are trying to figure out what the best course of action is. And I also empathize with all the people that have to make these decisions because I think what’s really apparent from this question is that there are pros and cons to each age group staying home or being in school. And so, we could make the argument that teens are better equipped to stay home and do remote learning because they can be more independent. If you are a working parent who’s also trying to balance working at home or even going back to your job, that you can let your teens have that autonomy, and they can manage themselves. And, of course, you can’t do that with a kindergartner or a first grader, or even a fourth or a fifth grader.

So, who stays home and who goes back into school is such a tricky question because of the emotional impact of staying home versus being in school and because of the logistic impact of staying home and being in school and because of the social ramifications of the different age groups?

Robin Hutson  2:54 

Well, as you know, Lynn, I have kids going into fourth and ninth grade. So, I’m very much in this, and what I’ve accepted is there are no perfect solutions, and that there are benefits for being in school and being in home for all the different age groups. So, I have accepted that I can’t get the perfect solution. And the way I have tried to approach it, thanks to, you know, your advice that you mentioned in your Facebook Live about back to school anxiety of really focusing on problem solving and not worry.

I’m thinking about when I send my kids for each of their setups, because I actually am treating each kid because of their ages a little differently. What I’m tasking myself with is as a parent, what do I need to do to add additional support for those ages? I just want to point out that when people talk about… let’s talk about this whole social emotional learning aspect, because I feel like the conversation is a little off, and I think that many kids of all ages are going to have a very hard time adjusting to what a school experience in the building is like if they go back compared to the pandemic, they’re going to expect school to have been what it was before. And you’ll have challenges and you have to prepare your kids to really understand that school will be different.

Lynn Lyons  4:11 

I think that the way, when you describe, and I know you’re looking at it differently for each of your kids, I think that’s probably a really helpful piece of information. Because not only do we want to look at individuals, kids based on their ages, and based on their development, but also just on the individual child you have and what their personality requires. There are some kids who are going to go back to school, who are going to go with the flow… kids that are more flexible kids that are going to be like, “Alright, I’ll wear a mask.”

There are other kids who have really enjoyed being home because going to school is a very taxing thing for them, in general. And so, I think, like you say, it’s about figuring out what supports your individual child’s  needs. If you know that you have an introverted eighth grader who’s really gonna be okay being at home as long as she can have some contact with her friends, that’s very different than if you have a high schooler, maybe a senior in high school, who is absolutely in the social mix, likes to participate in everything, is absolutely crushed that the fall musical isn’t going to happen, you’re going to have to work a lot harder to make sure that that person that that child has enough social contact to keep her buckets full.

And the same goes for the littler kids. How are you going to figure out what they need socially and emotionally based on the personality of your child and also based on what you’re going to have to do in order to get them through the school day? There is not a one size fits all here. And I think that that’s probably being played out in all sorts of school districts all over the country where they’re saying, “What’s the advantage to this group staying home versus this group going to school?” There is not an easy answer.

Don’t Project Catastrophic Thinking

So, the other piece of advice I’d give to this mom is, I know you said you have a fear because of your brother, and I’m so sorry that you had to go through that. That’s just devastating. But make sure that you don’t get catastrophic in your thinking and that you don’t project too much onto your kids based on what happened in your family. And also, pay a lot of attention to the skills you want to give your kids so that they can talk about what’s going on. It’s not going to be perfect. And as we said a gazillion times, have open discussions about it. Let them have room to express their feelings, that they’re lonely or they’re frustrated, or they think this is awesome, because some kids do make sure that you’re having lots of conversations with your kids so that you can keep updating what they need and what they’re struggling with.

Robin Hutson  6:48 

It’s an interesting way to think about having done these podcasts with you and in talking with you weekly about this and really hearing how you talk to your clients. I’m really getting that there is an emotional management skill for every situation. That, as parents, we try and strengthen in our kids. So, it sounds like, when you say, that there are a lot of different specific skills that we need to work on with each of our children based on what their scenario will be. And that’s a constructive place to put our energy. Maybe you could talk a little bit about those different types of skills.

Lynn Lyons  7:23 

Right. Well, so just think in general about the different types of kids and how they’re handling this. So, you’ve got a kid, like I said, you’ve got a kid who’s really introverted, that now the mom is saying, you know, she’s really nervous to go back into school at all because it’s going to be so different.

Or “I know my child is really excited because when they get to school, they’re just the social butterfly.” And so that’s going to be really challenging because they’re not going to be able to move around like they move around and visit every everywhere. So how do I develop this skill? Right? Here comes that skill of differentiation of being able to talk to them about how they’re going to have to manage their behavior differently.

And even to say, so say, just for example, you’ve got this little social butterfly, and you say, so when you’re at school, there’s going to be a part of you that’s going to want to go and do all these things, it’s going to be really hard for you to be able to sit back and not do those things. I would say its sort of the same way I talk to kids who have impulse problems, right?

So not that being a social butterfly is a problem at all. But kids who have a hard time not blurting out something in class, right? So, I talk about taking a pause, and we talk about being able to just hold back for a little bit a little while longer than you want to. So that would be a skill.

What if you have a kid that’s on the spectrum, and that they really value the routine of going into school and having things be exactly how they expect it to be? How are you going to talk to that child about developing cognitive flexibility? Which is a huge issue with kids that are on the spectrum and a really important skill for them to develop. How are you going to talk again about autonomy? So if you’ve got a child who’s staying home part of the day, and you’re not going to be available, how are you going to talk to them about the importance of them being able to work through their schoolwork without asking a lot of questions and being able to tolerate not getting the answers they want right away?

I mean, the list is long. But in every situation, the question you want to ask is, you know, if I’m packing up this little child’s social-emotional backpack or social-emotional lunchbox, what do I want them to be able to go into their lunchbox or into their backpack and pull out when they need it? You’ve got to think ahead and begin to have those very direct conversations with your kids about “These are the skills you’re going to need. And these are the skills that don’t come naturally to you. So, let’s talk about them.”

Robin Hutson  9:44 

One of the things that I noticed from the spring… I praise my school district… for responding with… in making the best of a very, you know, terrible situation. The one thing that I hope is part of the curriculum going forward, and If it isn’t, I think that parents do have to take this upon themselves. And that is in the absence of a traditional school year, what can we do even in remote circumstances to promote connection with classmates that’s slightly different.

Lynn Lyons  10:14 

Mm hmm.

Robin Hutson  10:14 

I would love to see, and I’m just sort of venting here, but I, I’m going to be trying to figure out how to do this in my own community. But how do you spearhead some kind of project that involves kids from classes, getting together on zoom calls and making it a habit to connect. to work together, maybe with people that they don’t necessarily even know but an opportunity to still feel like “I’m continuing to get to know the members of my class,” especially for middle schoolers and high schoolers.

I was disappointed that I never saw any sort of collaborative projects.  We need that stuff now more than ever. As a silver lining, if we did incorporate that more into our curriculum, people would go through talking to and getting to know students they might not have ever met before because they don’t sit at the same lunch table. So, there’s an opportunity to really push teachers to assign kids partners.

Lynn Lyons  11:06 

One of the things that reminds me of I was just listening to this podcast that my mom sent me actually. And the woman was talking about the importance of ritual. And so, it sort of reminds me as you were talking about that, like, how do we create these rituals?

Because school is full of rituals. There are so many rituals, and human beings like rituals. And how do we create? How do we think about these rituals that we can create in this new environment if it’s remote learning, or if it’s a hybrid situation, if you’re at school, and you’ve got masks on? What are the creative new rituals that we can create that we can put in place for our kids as they’re entering school? Somebody was talking to me about how do we you know, when they come back, do they go to their old classroom and then to their new classroom? And we were just coming up with ideas about how do we make a parade that goes from old classroom to new classroom, how do we figure out some way of demarcating for these kids that this is different.

It’s not going to look like the way it used to look like. But we’re putting things in place that feel like ritual that feel like ceremony that feel like routine, because that’s what that’s what school is about. And that’s what a lot of our human celebrations and interactions are about. Think about all the rituals that we’ve been missing through this. And we can find a way to put some of those things back into school, it might look different, but I think finding some rituals is going to be important to kids.

Robin Hutson  12:30 

I agree. I think that it’s going to look different. But I think knowing all of the restrictions that we have, how do we make the best of a situation?

Lynn Lyons  12:36 

Yeah, that’s always what we try to do, isn’t it and we just have to make sure, as always, that our fear and our worry and our what iffing and our imagining doesn’t get in the way of what we need to do in the moment. Because remember, worry is not problem solving. And how many times have you had some sort of interaction or conversation in the future and you plan it out in your head? And you lose sleep over it. And then it actually happens. And you’re like, “Geez, that didn’t go so bad.” That can happen here, too. So, if you are what iffing, if you’re, if you’re a parent who’s lying awake at night, sort of imagining how it’s going to look before you even know how it’s going to look, give yourself a break from that. You will be able to handle it as it comes.

Worry doesn’t prepare you. Worry doesn’t make it easier. It just keeps you up at night.

Robin Hutson  13:26 

Getting back to that listener question. I’m curious if given that she has teenagers, three teenagers and tweens. If she doesn’t, if she doesn’t have a history of leaving her kids at home much alone, or if there was something specific that happened.  And if her kids are going to be left alone, I wonder if she and her, if she’s married, if she and her partner want to start taking walks together where they’re leaving the kids at home alone and asking them to take certain things on or to start easing back into that. I mean, maybe we’ve been so on top of one another and so connected by force that maybe we’re just out of practice giving space again.

Lynn Lyons  14:06 

Yep. And that’s a good point. And even think, even in normal times, when I talk to families and maybe one of the things that’s going to happen is a child has always gone to an aftercare program because the parents work. And now they don’t want to go to the aftercare program because they’re 11, and everybody else in the aftercare program is 6. And so they practice, before school starts, the child’s walking home from the school alone, letting themselves into the house, texting mom, or you know, Mom, or mom or dad or dad or whoever, Grandma, whatever, texting them and saying, I got to the house, and then going over what they’re going to do in the two hours before parents come home from work.

So, there are ways to practice this and think about this. But you don’t have to do it in your head by yourself at two in the morning. That’s really my main point. But you’re right, Robin, is that is that this is a natural evolution of things is that kids can spend time alone They can get practice doing it. You can go over what the rules of the road are. It feels a little forced upon us because you’re not making that decision. It’s being made for you. But it still is really important for kids to have that practice and have that opportunity.

Robin Hutson  15:13 

I spoke with a friend last night, and we were talking about this is the chance for our kids to know what… I’m a Gen Xer. This is what it was like growing up as a Gen Xer, and I was a latchkey kid. And starting in fourth grade, I walked home alone from the bus and sat in front of a rerun of the Brady Bunch eating a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios before I did my homework, you know, and that was the early 80s. You know, it’s an opportunity for the kids to really understand that and I have one child who was who’s who I’ve really focused on teaching certain skills and then my younger one this school year, even if he’s going to school, I’ve made a decision that cooking, cleaning, and other at home lessons are now critical. Like you just have to be as independent as possible.

Lynn Lyons  16:00 

Yeah, this is just forcing our hand. And it doesn’t feel good because of the context of it. And it doesn’t. It’s not in our control. And it feels it’s rather abrupt, and some of the changes are going to be very dramatic.

But these are opportunities to teach kids about autonomy and take advantage of them and try and keep your fear out of it as much as possible.

When you parent from a place of fear, it does generally not instill your kids with really proactive skills. It’s just… fear and teaching your kids autonomy do not go hand in hand. And we know that when a parent is controlling… and generally control oftentimes comes from fear, that is one of the fast tracks into anxiety for kids. So, we really have… you have to pay attention to your own stuff. You’ve got to recognize what’s coming from you, and then really work to… Again, acknowledge that. I understand where this is coming from. And let me still move proactively into giving my kids the skills that they need. It’s hard work, and you do it every day. Parenting happens every single day, every day.

Robin Hutson  17:06 


Lynn Lyons  17:07 

Forever. For those of you who have little kids and you’re like, Oh, it’s gonna be so… it is easier when they’re older, for sure. You know, I’m parenting them every day. We’re just doing different things.

Teens Self-Diagnosing Bipolar Disorder

Robin Hutson  17:22 

All right, so we have question from one of the listeners and she says this. “My daughter’s always been quiet but outgoing with family and friends. She started spending more time alone in her room during the pandemic. And when asked to join the family, she would say she had schoolwork to do. She is in honors and AP classes and has all A’s so we understood and left her alone. But yesterday she comes to me and says she thinks she has bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder and she needs to talk to a counselor. We talked about why she thought she had bipolar disorder and what kind of anxiety she thought she had. And I told her, we could make an appointment for counseling.”

“Are you seeing more of this during this time? Is this something that could just show up at the age of 16? Are there any books or other ideas? Help!”

Lynn Lyons  18:06 

Okay, so there’s a lot here that we can talk about. Am I seeing more of this during this time? If you mean the pandemic, the answer is yes. If you also mean in the last few years, the answer is also yes, because there’s just such an enormous amount of information that teenagers have at their disposal, to both wonderfully learn about their mental health, but also to get a little catastrophic and self diagnose-y about it.

First of all, I think it’s normal that she’s spending more time alone during the pandemic. And that’s what’s happened. It’s really been great. The teens can connect to friends with technology, that they can FaceTime, but it also means that they’re spending a lot of time thinking about themselves, it means that they’re looking things up. They’re just diagnosing themselves. Again, this is not new to the pandemic, but it’s certainly they have time and opportunity at this point and a little bit of motive because they’re not feeling like themselves. So, they’re worrying about themselves. They’re focusing on themselves. They’re certainly feeling distraught about what they’re missing.

So, all of these powerful emotions, there’s a lot of self-diagnosing going on, and perhaps even more unhealthy or unhelpful. There’s a lot of diagnosing going on with the assistance of your friends. So, peer to peer diagnosis of mental health conditions, is generally not a good idea. But it happens a lot.

That doesn’t mean I’m saying peer-to peer-support isn’t a wonderful thing. But they tend to diagnose in a way that, as a clinician, is generally not helpful. So, it’s interesting that she says she thinks she’s bipolar.

The thing about access to clinical terminology is that teenagers, in particular, do give themselves pretty dramatic diagnosis.

Bipolar doesn’t mean that you’re moody. It doesn’t mean that you have bad days. It doesn’t mean that you’re really excited about something, and then a few hours later, you’re really disappointed about something. Bipolar is a serious condition. It’s not moodiness; there has to be both a manic episode and a severe depressive episode. But teenagers tend to use this term a little loosely.

Robin Hutson  20:31 

What would a manic episode hypothetically look like in someone? Because if she’s been really reclusive in her room, how would her mania present? She would do something very dramatically different right? Right?

Lynn Lyons  20:42 

So yeah, so a manic episode is not subtle. If you’ve ever experienced somebody who’s going through a manic episode, they don’t sleep; it’s hyper arousal, sometimes hypersexuality, extreme irritability, delusions of grandeur, believing that you have skills and powers that you don’t have. So, I remember very sadly, when I worked in inpatient psychiatry, a freshman in college coming in who was clearly having a manic episode, and he thought that he had learned how to play the guitar. And he was playing the guitar in a way that was just, you know, noise. He believed that he had written these incredible 19-page papers that explored huge philosophical questions.

So, it really is out of control behavior. Overspending sometimes. So being up being in a good mood and then being down. Yeah, that’s not a manic episode. So, I would find it very unlikely that she’s bipolar at this point. Now, the anxiety part, right? So, you said that she takes all AP classes, she has all A’s. I wonder if there’s a little bit of perfectionism going in there, that she’s having a hard time managing all the changes that have gone on worrying about what her future is going to look like. If she’s taking AP classes. This means that she’s probably a junior, maybe a senior in high school. So, I would imagine worrying and wondering about what’s going to happen, maybe fueling this.

I think it would be a great idea for you to be able to contact somebody for her to talk to. I don’t think that’s a bad idea at all. She’s saying to you, my moods don’t feel right. I need some help. So really take that seriously. I think that’s a great first step.

The other thing that I would do is if we think about mood management, is that let’s not forget the basics. Is she having contact with friends? And if she’s not, I want you to help facilitate that. So, it can be socially distance contact, but she may be missing out on having those kinds of activities, physical activity, if she’s holding up in her room. What’s her sleep schedule, like? What’s her diet like? Really paying attention, mood management is based on all the things that we do to make sure that our minds and our bodies are as healthy as possible.

So, pay attention with that. And I would think here’s an opportunity for you to help her really make that connection between her mood and her actions is a really helpful thing. And enormously helpful thing for, for teenagers to talk about.

 They have ideas that sort of just all of a sudden, these issues just show up, and they don’t just show up. So, when you say is it normal for these things to show up at 16? Oh, yeah, you did say she was 16. show up at 16.

Yeah, it’s normal for anxiety to show up at 16. But I’m guessing it didn’t just show up. I’m guessing it’s sort of exacerbated by what’s been going on and the fact that she’s been isolated and worrying about things. So yeah, so find somebody for her to talk to but really think about teaching her the skills of mood management.

Books to read. There is a great book that I recommend to so many parents and adolescents called The Keys to Unlocking Depression. I mentioned it, I’m sure in previous episodes, it’s by Michael Yapko.

And then another great resource for you, mom, and for your 16-year-old, is Reid Wilson’s website, which is just Anxieties.com. He has a ton of free resources and things, videos that she can watch. There’s a self-help program on there really, really helpful stuff for parents and for teenagers to learn about their moods, to learn about stress, to learn about what causes anxiety, and what keeps it going.

Robin Hutson  24:40 

We list his video series; you can go directly to the resources section on amomsretreat.com because his Noises in Your Head series is outstanding. And really, it’s both funny and educational about the process of anxiety and living with it. So, I just want to mention that that also available.

Lynn Lyons  25:01 

Yes, thank you. And that’s what that’s what I’m thinking about. And it’s also free. So really, really great resource.

Robin Hutson  25:07 

Let’s talk also about technology. Because you know, that’s why we talk about and you know, we recommend the Circle, because if there is a way for you to limit screen time, between certain hours, if there’s no opportunity to spend time online after she had done her schoolwork, it might bring her more naturally out of her room and seek some kind of conversation or activity outside. I mean, unless maybe she’s reading or, you know, if she’s, if she’s not on her screens, maybe she’s reading, maybe she’s practicing an instrument or drawing or writing and those things are obviously still better than endless scrolling online, right?

Lynn Lyons  25:44 

Absolutely. Yeah. And I would have that conversation with her. And remember that if you can put it in the context of these are the things that we do to manage our moods, rather than “You’re on screens too much!” or “You need to get out of your room!” Right? So, don’t make it sound punitive. Really, you’re saying “Let’s figure out what makes you tick. Let’s figure out what makes you feel better. Let’s figure out what makes you feel worse.”

“And sitting on a screen, you know, doing scrolling through your social media is probably not going to help your mood when you’ve been doing it, you know, week after week, month after month.” So, offering in a positive way rather than you know, “you’re doing this wrong way” can really get you a lot more traction.

With teenagers in general, the goal whenever I’m working with teenagers is, I’m talking to them about their operating system.

What makes you sick? What makes you feel better? What makes you feel worse? And your job as you’re growing into an adult is to figure these things out about yourself. They might change over time, but let’s figure out what works for you and what doesn’t work for you.

And having those conversations are incredibly valuable.

Robin Hutson  26:53 

So, I’m very excited to announce that we’re actually going to relaunch this podcast on August 31st. Lynn and I quickly created this podcast in a really short amount of time earlier in the spring because of the pandemic, because we had actually planned to do in-person events with parents. And then obviously, the pandemic came.

So, we decided a podcast was a great way to reach even more people. So, we launched the podcast very quickly as A Mom’s Retreat, because this was supposed to be a continuation of our retreats. But now we have our real name and the new podcast model. And that’s coming out on the 31st. And we’re just telling you this now to look for the surprise. And please follow the Facebook group, which is in the show notes and on our website, and you’ll be the first to know what everything is coming for the pipeline in the fall.

Lynn Lyons  27:50 

I know, and it’s really good. Because we didn’t do it. I mean, really, it was completely, unbelievably impressive what Robin was able to put together logistically when all of this happened, because, like a lot of you, sort of the world was upside down. And we were trying to figure out how to adjust. But we’ve had a lot of fun now that we’ve had a little time on our hands to be able to really do some fun stuff. So, it’s gonna be good.

So, thanks, everybody, for listening. We’re so happy that you’re joining us and giving us your comments and your feedback. Some people have sent us some emails that were, you know, like, got me right in the feels. So, thank you for that. We really appreciate it. Join the Facebook group, and we will keep answering your questions and while we make a fall happen.

So, bye, everybody. Bye, Robin.

Robin Hutson  28:51 

Bye, Lynn.

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