Play, Anxiety, and Resilience: How to Help Kids in a Pandemic

Dr. Pam Davis, Associate Professor of Counseling at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and Director of the Counseling Department at Charlotte campus, joins Dan and Rachael to engage the immense difficulty of parenting in a pandemic and speak directly to those working with children. You’ll hear understanding affirmations and how Dr. Davis addresses the oftentimes overwhelming challenge of needing to care for yourself in order to care for children, the importance of play, and other vital resources to utilize in this season.

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Episode Transcript

Dan: What we know from the experience of living in this last year is if there is any group of people most affected, and I know that’s kind of a hard debate, but what I have seen some of the most significant struggles have been for parents. To be a parent in the middle of COVID and all the complexities of what we have faced in a divided political realm: racial trauma, the realities of loss, grieving, struggle. We really want to engage parents and grandparents, people who are tending to these beloved ones. We need a lot of help, and we need a lot of reflection. And so today we have, Rachel and I get to introduce one of my dear friends, Pam Davis. And Pam and I have known one another and Becky for you know, if we do dog years, it’s what, we’re well into the hundreds here. But I’ll say that Pam is an associate professor at Gordon Conwell in Charlotte. She’s head of the counseling program there. She taught at Wheaton. She was a missionary in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is where we met initially. So, Pam, to join us you are indeed, nobody likes to be called an expert, but you really are a thoughtful expert in the realm of dealing with children and adolescents, and as well, parents. So welcome. Welcome, dear friend to this process.

Pam: Thank you. And thank you for having me. It’s always good to be with you. I actually, Dan, remember I first met you in 2006 when you were on sabbatical. So as you said, yeah, that’s a lot of years in dog years, but thank you so much to both of you. For this opportunity, children are so close to my heart.

Dan: I can’t help but say, remember when we had our first meal together, it was spaghetti, and I remember saying to you, I am so surprised. Spaghetti is fantastic! But apparently somebody had told you that we hated Thai food, which couldn’t be any more untrue. But anyway, we have a lot of stories. I know, I know we have a focus, but I just had to say, it is the great joy to have you with us. So, Rachel, as we begin this process, we know that parents are in the middle of a lot of struggles and you as a parent, other parents, certainly with the experience of being grandparents, but also watching my own children attempt to parent during this period, it has been fraught with a lot of conflict, a lot of heartache, a lot of confusion. And I just think it’s important to begin the process of naming what are parents in the middle of. What are they having to address?

Rachael: Yeah, I think I would just say, like, I’ve been really excited about this conversation as a step parent and a new step parent, right? Because we’re dealing with all kinds of attachment issues and just normal things that would be disruptive for kids with a lot of newness. And so, with the addition of COVID and all, I would say, the systems of inequity that have been really exposed and the limitations of them and the oppressive realities of them and how that impacts kids, you know, that’s something I think about for parents. And you know, when I say parents, I do include care providers who are working, right? My teachers, to be honest with you, were some of the greatest care providers I experienced. So I’m also aware kids have lost a space that oftentimes is a primary space. They’re getting healthy attachment, right, with some. So when I think about what parents are experiencing, is, having to figure out how to work and provide for childcare and do home schooling, even if your kids are doing virtual school and be your kids’ primary social engagements when they’re in seasons of learning to differentiate and social interactions are so key and also, trying to do this while understanding what their mental health struggles are as you’re trying to tend to your own mental health struggles in such an unprecedented time. So for me, as someone who has a lot of skills to say, we need help, we need help. So I think it is an overwhelming season where you’re at the mercy of so much so any skills, any insight right now just feels like whatever you have, it’s so valuable.

Pam: Well, you know, Rachel, you’ve said so many things that we could kind of use as a jumping off point for this conversation, but for sure, one of the things that I want to affirm is what an overwhelming time this is for kids, for their parents, for their caregivers, for their teachers. For anyone who works in the realm with children, it is such an overwhelming time and what we’re seeing, at least and I’m seeing in my work with children as well as in supervising counselors who work with children, is this increase in anxiety across the board when we have children who were previously disposed to some sort of anxiety challenges, now those kids are just on overdrive and anxious about everything. And then we also have kids who were never really predisposed or anxious. They also are experiencing significant symptoms of anxiety as are their parents and caregivers. And so we really are seeing these increased mental health concerns for our kids across the board.

Dan: Well, given that and the reality of– I think the word for me is exhaustion. As I interact with my daughters. My son. They’re doing well, terribly. I’m so impressed with my children’s parenting, but they’re really in a level of exhaustion where, as we know, when we’re exhausted, it’s another form of stress. When we’re in that level of stress, we often resort to some of the things that are least helpful relationally for ourselves. Self care, the consequence is that we’re going to focus on children. We also have to underscore that parents who are not tending to themselves– and when can you tend to yourself? yet the bind is if you don’t, then you have less to offer. And, I’ve heard you say, and others have said, look, you’ve got to pretend you’re in the airplane, the masks drop down. You know, if you don’t put your mask on first, you’re not gonna be able to tend to the people who are sitting near you. Yet. The challenge of that is overwhelming.

Pam: Exactly. It is overwhelming. And yet, this is, I think, something that’s really key and can’t be stressed enough as we talk about. How can I help my kids, or how can we help our kids. I think a lot of times when I talk with people who want help for their children, we have to start first with the conversation: How can you help yourself? Because the reality is, as you mentioned, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you put on the oxygen mask of the person sitting next to you and particularly with our children, children mirror their caregivers. And so, if the caregiver, if the parents, the grandparents are experiencing a lot of anxiety, kids will pick up on that. And even though we’re sometimes saying different words to them like we don’t have to, you don’t have to worry about that, we’ve got that under control, the reality is they’re hearing what we’re saying as they listen to us on the phone as we play the news in the background as we listen to the radio in the car and they’re picking up on this immense amount of stress. So I would say it’s really important to be careful and to pay attention to what your children may be hearing or picking up on in the background that you’re not aware of.

Dan: Right. And the reality is, we may not be able to resolve the level of stress and tension and exhaustion, but there are times where five minutes, a five minute period of time where you lock yourself in your bathroom and assume that likely your home will get burned down might just be enough to be able to come back to yourself to be able to come into a new interaction. I just have found, even in this period where I just need to take five minutes to walk outside it is not enough, but at times it’s that extra sip of water that allows me to go the next quarter of a mile. And if that can be brought into honor, this is honoring your children. This is honoring your body and your heart. It will provide at least enough to get the next few steps finished.

Pam: Sure, I think I would agree with that. And I would say, even though there might even be a way that you can do that directly with your children, which is what we like to talk about in child therapy as the 30-second burst of attention. Now, this is something from Gary Landrith’s materials, who has written a lot about play therapy, but he talks a lot about what it means to when you feel like your child is just about to lose it or to blow it, to stop everything you’re doing. 30 seconds. 30-second burst of attention. As he would say it: Focus on the doughnut and not the hole. So focus on all that is good about that child, the good part rather than what’s missing and what the problem is. Focus on the doughnut and not the hole. And those can be just really transforming to stop what you’re doing and pay attention to the child for 30 seconds before you move on to the next thing. I think one of the things I’ve seen so much of during this pandemic is, as we talked about increased anxiety, but also increased behavioral acting out, which is really honestly, it is an outgrowth of anxiety, and we’re not always seeing it that way. I think sometimes parents and caregivers are just seeing things like there’s increased fighting. They don’t, they’re done, they don’t want to do school anymore. they’re lying about their schoolwork. Yeah, my child, who’s never lied that I know of is now lying about their school work. And I think if we can reframe that from the perspective of this is just an outgrowth of increased stress and anxiety that has been compounded for over a year. And what we’re seeing is I like to talk about these experiences and kids and these symptoms as being the siren on the ambulance. And a lot of times parents will bring their kids in for counseling or, you know, to the pastor for help to say, I don’t know what to do anymore, he’s doing this, she’s doing that and it’s like the siren on the ambulance. But I like to remind parents that we can do all we need to do to flip off that siren. But the reality is, what we really have to do is stop and pay attention. Open up the back of the ambulance. What’s going on in the family with the parents with the parents’ marriage that might also be exacerbating and impacting. Why that siren is going off very often the children are the siren and it’s a good thing that they are because they alert us to what’s going on, really in the family

Dan: That opens up the category of, you know, we are under stress. Our children pick up our stress. Limbically, particularly. They resonate with what felt perhaps more so than what said. Yet they’re also, as you put it, well, listening. Often at times, we don’t think they’re listening. But in all that process of trying to shall we say, better our children by caring for ourselves, you’ve underscored a phrase and want to come back to it, and that is, as a play therapist, play is not something we give over to therapists and something we give over to other children playing with our children. You have, at least in many of our conversations, emphasised the importance of play as a framework for actually not just attuning and enjoying, but actually hearing what our children are really saying.

Pam: Oh, absolutely. In fact, what we know about children and the development of children is that for children under the age of 11 or sometimes 12, but often under the age of 11, play is their language. So it is actually the way that they best communicate to us their feelings, their emotions. And it’s also the way that they process the difficult things going on in their lives. And so from that perspective, one of the things we can do for our children during this time is play, allow them opportunities to play, but also to play with them. As the adults, to stop and play with our kids. It doesn’t have to be a lot. It can be 30 minutes once a week, but for now, that can sometimes be hard to come by. But to allow these opportunities where your child leads to play, you’re not telling them what to do and where they can really express to you what’s going on in their lives. Because for children again, play is their language and toys are their words.

Rachael: Mhm, yeah, I think I’m just in that similar vein. I’m hearing you say that our kids are under duress and play is an important portal to have to give them voice to that. I want to go back to what you were saying about for example, school. I’ve talked with so many parents and grandparents: exactly what you said. My child who loved school, whose maybe even been on virtual school now for a year is done with school and they’re lying and there’s behavior that—and I know for myself there can be kind of like, all right, the way we empower our child is to help them get their work done right, because they’re feeling burdened. But I’ve also heard you say in conversation this is not a time to focus on performance. This is a time to focus on mental health. What are some other ways as parents with regard to play or other things that help us actually get inside mental health but also maybe grow some resilience in the midst of this season, both for ourselves and our kids?

Pam: Thank you, Rachel, for just reiterating how important it is for us to emphasize play and de-emphasize school right now. And that’s really hard for parents. It’s really hard for high achieving parents, but the phrase that I hope I want to leave you with today is: parenting is more important than schooling. And the reality is we have this entire generation of children in the U. S who are going to potentially be a year behind, and it’s gonna be okay. It really is going to be okay. They’re all hopefully going to start back to school in the fall. And when they do, everybody as a collective trauma will be a year behind, and it really will be okay. So if as caregivers, you can focus on mental health, as parents, say, what’s most important right now is that I help my child take care of their mental health, and there are things we can do. We mentioned play, and I want to say this because I didn’t get to say it yet. Risky play is so important. What do I mean by risky play? I mean, that play that as a parent or grandparent, it makes your heart kind of, uh, seize up for a minute, like, you know, maybe they’ve gone a little too high in the tree. Maybe you’re going to let them bake cupcakes without any parental supervision. These kinds of risky play allow our children to build confidence, which gives them the idea that they can do hard things. And that’s one of the things we can do for our children to help build resilience. Remind them this is a hard, hard thing. This COVID thing, this loss of life and ritual and things the way that we loved them. It’s hard, but we can do hard things. And this is important: Together.

Dan: Yeah. Mm. Well, can we link these a little bit more? How? How is play revelatory? And how is that revelation part of dealing with mental health?

Pam: Mhm. Yeah, that’s a great question. So for children, play is so revelatory because again kids play out what’s really going on in their inner lives. So I think those of us who’ve been parents or had a lot of experiences with children know this on an experiential level. But perhaps we’ve never put words to it. For example, that we’ve seen a child put a mask on their baby doll in these recent you know, even if they do it with a piece of tissue or we see children when there’s a lot of fighting and arguing, we’ll play with the soldiers and kind of have a big conflict with the soldiers and with the army men. That’s the way that children play out their feelings. And if we are good listeners to our kids, we actually learned so much by watching their play because they will play out the scenes that are bothering them very similar to how an adult might come into our counseling office and talk about what’s bothering them. That repetitive play that the child does over and over. Pay attention to that. That means this is bothering me. So let’s assume you see your son or daughter is coloring, and there is a lot of intense use of that crayon and you see scenes that look a little bit, shall we say, like a battlefield. I did, obviously, it’s asking of you a whole lot to put words to this, but how would you approach that child’s drawing? And I mean, picture interpretation is actually kind of risky because it can mean very different things to very different children, Which is why we don’t, we hold back and resist interpreting at all. But if we can use that picture to provide conversation for with our children, that’s when it’s at its best. So, for example, if I saw a drawing that had a lot of intense themes of war and a lot of heavy drawing Now, by the way, most art therapists will talk about the intensity of the drawing being related to anxiety. Like if you are drawing very, very heavy it can indicate anxiety, but it doesn’t have to. It can also indicate I’m mad right now. Can also indicate I love this pink color. Let me pink, pink, pink, pink, pink, pink, pink. That’s why we have to use questions, something like I noticed in your picture that these guys are all fighting. I’m curious what they’re fighting about. Or I notice that these guys are all fighting. I wonder how they feel when they’re fighting. So that way, we get to understand the content of emotion without interpreting it for ourselves, which is really key.

Dan: Yeah, Well, uh, last night, my granddaughter and I were playing Candyland.

Pam: Oh, that’s a great therapy game, by the way. [laughs]

Dan: It’s a hellish game. Whoever devised that, I hope they brought with the millions they make, but you know, the experience of being sent back. It’s Sisyphian. I mean, Sisyphus had stolen fire from Zeus, and his punishment is that he has to roll the rock up to the very top, and then it falls out of his hands. So I’m so far ahead. And, race, my five-year-old granddaughter is not happy. And I get sent back, and she is delighted. Well, as karma works, she got sent back about six moves later. She’s looking at me and she goes, papa It’s been such a hard year. Do I have to go back? And it’s like, yeah, girl! You’re going to go back, because, and, you know, actually, it was a longer conversation, but it literally set up well, how have you learned to deal with things where you feel like you’re disappointed? Where it just doesn’t work out? So the game itself created conversation. And as it worked out, she was wise enough after about, I don’t know, it felt like about six days of playing this game. She finally said, Papa, are you good to quit? And it’s like, Oh, yeah, this game.

Pam: You know what I love about that story, Dan? What I love about that story is that’s exactly what we’re talking about, which is, children will use toys and games, and we don’t even have to set it up. They will set it up to say, this has been so hard for me. She invites the conversation. I want to tell you that this year of my life has been so hard. Do I have to go back? And I mean, we respond differently as parents and grandparents than we would as therapists. You know, I as a play therapist there’s a different response to that than what we would have in our homes. But for her she was saying, this is therapeutic for me and even at the end, when she said, are you good to quit now? I mean, what a beautiful time to say yes, because sometimes life is just so hard that we just have to say, stop, let’s do something else for a while.

Dan: But it was, it was such a sweet time, and there’s, I mean, literally. This is the first time she has been in our house for a year and she was the one who wanted to play Candyland. And I can’t help but believe that in some sense it was because she wanted to express and wanted to see how I would engage something of the losses of not being together for almost a whole year.

Rachael: I’m thinking about, I’m just taking in that story, right, because I’ve also been with you in the agony of that separation, but I’m thinking about just really coming back to there has to be permission for us as caregivers to pivot, and I think sometimes when we’re in distress and stressed out, we’re in our kind of rigid ways of like, but these are the rituals! Like you go to school, you do your work, you…these are the ways you behave. This is how we talk. So I know the disruption can be so profound. But I love this kind of continued call to like, but we get to determine that together, and I’m just thinking about the ways in which this year we’ve developed rituals as a family that, you know, I find kids want that anyway. But how important our rituals have become, like, Friday night is movie night. And that’s the way we marked the end of the week. And we get doughnuts on Saturday morning and again, these are really simple rituals. What’s interesting is some of them as we come to a new phase of this season, now I’m realizing, oh, maybe we might need to revisit some of these rituals and the other ones, and I can get very much and I like, but these are, but now I’m used to this and you want to change it. You need me to be more resilient, like okay, and so I just I think, especially for those of you listening who just still feel so overwhelmed and even maybe in this conversation are actually going back to like, oh, man, I was not, I’m a talker. I always ask kids questions that they’re like, no, I don’t want to talk about how I feel like, no, I’m not going to tell you that, because I’m trying to engage them as an adult. So I’m constantly learning different ways to give them space, to express what they feel without demanding they do it in the way I would do it. So I think that permission to quit the game.

Pam: Yes. Or to even yes, to quit the game or to even, and again. This isn’t often how we play games. And especially not if you’re playing with several children instead of just one child. But to even say, you know what, right now, yeah, let’s decide together. You don’t go back this time. This time, Grandpa, or what? I don’t know what she calls you. It’s going to help you do the thing that’s easier right now because you’ve had a hard, hard year. That makes that game Candyland therapeutic for that child, she has now said and experienced: I have a safe adult in my life who’s sometimes going to cover for me and let me break the rules so that I can feel better.

Dan: Well, I’m grieving now that, that my you know, if she hadn’t had so much delight initially in me being sent back, I might have been a little bit more gracious. But again, she’s here for another night.

Pam: And Candyland is on my list of required games for the play therapy portable kit in my class! I mean, it’s a fantastic therapy game.

Dan: So the fact that I called it the antechamber of hell is probably not true.

Pam: Right. But, Rachel, I want to go back to something you said about rituals, because I think you’re right, that one of the most pervasive evils of this pandemic has been the upending of rituals not only for our children, but also for ourselves, but especially since we’re talking about kids in this podcast, I mean, kids have lost so many rituals: the rituals of school, the rituals of church, the rituals of going to grandparents for dinner, the rituals of sports practice, the rituals of music, and band, and all these other things that our kids have been invested in. And I do think one of the ways that we help our children be more resilient in addition to reminding them that this is hard and you can do hard things, but also to develop new rituals. As you said, I love that your family does pizza night, does doughnuts.Or movie night. I think you said, because those are the kinds of rituals we need. And not just those, but even like, let’s say you used to take your child to soccer practice on Wednesday afternoons. What I’d recommend is that same time that you used to say, from 3 to 6, we were at soccer. Now we’re going to actually have a new ritual only during the pandemic. This is gonna be our pandemic ritual that on Wednesdays from 3 to 6, we…and whatever that is. We ride bikes as a family, we bake something together. But that you’re creating new rituals. I recently was working with one family who said, you know, one of the things we started doing was Sunday afternoon having dinner together with the grandparents virtually, and these grandparents live in Florida. And so, actually, we didn’t usually get to see these grandparents as much as we have with this new ritual of virtual Sunday dinner, meaning they both just made their own dinners. But they ate together at the same time.

Dan: It’s such a gift, and I fear at some level people may be hearing that as we tend toward a different engagement with COVID and isolation, that these things may not be as necessary. Or there may be regret for not having done some more of this. And so to say again, it’s so important that one of the greatest gifts you give your children is participating in what it means to honor your good effort without judging your failures. Without judging the fact you lost your temper, that you etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It says our ability to receive grace is the very core of what it means to offer our children grace, and so that framework, but also we are about to enter, as we hope that there will be radical changes with regard to our world. We are entering in a time where the trauma is going to be felt even more intensely than it has. So these categories of play, risky play, of rituals, are crucial to even redevelop if you’ve not, or if you have, but also to develop if you have not, for what’s ahead. But before we end, I just want to underscore that: there are some parents who are dealing with really, really complex mental health issues. And when we come back and, grateful that you’re going to join us again Pam, when we come back, we want to begin to engage a little bit more of the issues of anxiety, depression, acting out, things that may actually indicate a need for more care than what we’ve spoken of so far. So thank you for joining us, and we’ll look forward to you being with us next week.