This is a really tough time for pre-teens and middle schoolers. School is closed. They’re hunkered down at home with their families. Add to this the transition from childhood to adolescence, and this moment presents a precarious moment in their lives. Friends are their world, but, suddenly, they’re forced to keep a social distance. School days and after-school activities have given way to distance learning and Zoom chats with the grandparents. Phyllis Fagell, licensed clinical professional counselor and author of Middle School Matters, returns to the podcast to help the parents of pre-teens navigate the coronavirus crisis with compassion. She shares ideas on how kids of this age can cope with – and take command of – this unprecedented situation. Phyllis explains why now is the time to focus on connecting with your middle schoolers and look to expand the definition of learning beyond school work.
Listen to this episode to learn:
For more information, visit www.phyllisfagell.com.
Pre-teens and quarantine
Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast, brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, and if you have a middle-schooler at home during this pandemic, you could probably use some extra guidance right now. I'm pleased to welcome Phyllis Fagell, back on to the podcast. She's a licensed counsellor and author of the book, Middle School Matters. Phyllis is with us to share some important advice, about how to help your preteens deal with Coronavirus school closures, social distancing from their friends, and being stuck at home with the family. We talked about screen time and devices, managing confusing emotions, regaining control and more. Have a listen.
Phyllis, welcome back to Equal Parts. I'm really glad that you could join us again, though I wish it were under more normal circumstances.
Phyllis Fagell: Thanks for having me. It's good to be back.
Emily: Having kids of any age stuck at home right now is really hard, but you've pinpointed some special challenges that middle-schoolers may be facing, and that their parents need to be aware of. Can you share those with our listeners?
Phyllis: I think we have to keep in mind that for middle-schoolers, connecting with friends and socializing-- Friends are everything to them. They also really thrive with structure and consistency and the ability to check in with caring adults other than their parents, who they're pulling away from, and they thrive when they feel a sense of control. Right now, we have untethered them from everything that is routine. We have taken away a lot of activities that they might have enjoyed, whether it's a birthday party or a team sport or a graduation ceremony, and we've also at the same time eliminated all person-to-person interaction with their peers. Put all of that together and you can imagine just how discombobulating this is for them.
Emily: I think you mentioned this, but just to confirm, I know for younger kids, because I have them, we've been told to try and keep schedules and routine in place, but can you just confirm how we should be handling this with middle-schoolers?
Phyllis: With middle-schoolers, we do want to be giving them a little bit more of a sense of control within reason. I love the puzzle metaphor that Dr. Ken Ginsburg uses, where parents create the borders of the puzzle and that safety. In this situation, safety is keeping them home, keeping them away from people outside of the family, but in that metaphor, everything within the puzzle, all those irregular pieces are the things that we can be handing over control to our middle-schoolers.
In this situation that would be things like, creating their schedule, figuring out how much time it’s going to take them to do their work. It doesn't mean that we don't help them create those structures or that we don't make suggestions, but we do want to give them back a little bit of empowerment. If they're able to get their work done- and I know for a lot of the online learning programs, it doesn't take more than a few hours for them to complete the work. If they'd like to sleep in and start a little bit later, there's really no downside to letting them do that. They get to feel like they're the architect of their plan and they still get their work done.
Emily: I know before we started recording we were talking to one another about how we were feeling both physically and mentally. It's so essential for all of us to check in with each other right now. What would your advice be for parents on how they can encourage their kids to keep their minds and bodies active and healthy during this time?
Phyllis: This is a time when you really want to be encouraging them to surround themselves with the people who make them feel good, and obviously right now that's virtual. But we don't want them to be spending all of their time online just passively scrolling through other people's feeds or feeling left out. One of my concerns right now is that because kids are home and because they're stressed that there's more likelihood that they might act out online or that they might say something that they regret or they might, in a bid to get some attention, try to come up with a good story or share a secret.
We want to be making sure that we're giving them pro-social healthy outlets for that stress whether they're escaping into a book, whether we're encouraging them to get exercise, whether we're having them doing mindfulness activity. We also want them to have a chance to process their emotions. We don't want to hammer them with questions, "Are you okay? Are you okay?" and make it seem like all we want to know about is the negative because some of them might be feeling some relief right now too that they're not in school all day. What I explain to kids is that the only way out is through when it comes to emotions. Really giving them an opportunity to let you know or to voice to their friends even how they might feel disappointed or frustrated or that it's difficult to learn online. Just giving them that outlet to talk about it is important right now as well.
Emily: You mentioned that kids' social life is digital right now. What is your take on screen time usage for kids right now? Should parents be monitoring it regularly?
Phyllis: With middle-schoolers, I think parents should be monitoring social media use anyway. Not so much to shame them if they make a mistake, but to use it as a teaching moment. I think right now because they're spending so much more time online and because we're almost feeling like it's impossible to have reasonable use, what we do want to do is make sure that we are helping them prevent the formation of bad habits.
This is a time when we want to really make sure there's no screen in their room or that they're not going back and forth between texting and social media and doing their work, that they're carving out different time and space for each activity and that we're also giving them some time away from this screen. I recently heard about a school that had decided to coordinate with all the teachers to ensure that nobody had any reason one afternoon a week to be online, that all of the activities were offline. I think that's going to be critical as well. Then starting from a place of curiosity and asking our kids questions to get them thinking critically about how they're using the social media, how does it feel if they're just online for hours at a time? Is it putting them in a bad mood? Is it giving them a headache? I know with my own child, he was complaining of a headache. I said to him, "Is it possible that all of the time you've been spending on a screen is giving you the headache?" He said, "I didn't think of it, but yes, I do think that that's possible." They may not even be aware of how it's impacting them.
Emily: We all know that middle school is the time when work tends to get more intense as well. As we've talked about, school just got flipped on its head. Some districts are doing distance learning, others are more relaxed with the rules. What's your perspective on how we can keep our kids learning and engaged during this crisis?
Phyllis: I really want parents to take a deep breath and recognize that learning is happening all of the time whether or not they're actively engaged in a math lesson. Right now, everybody is trying to absorb so much massive change in their life, in their world, in their home that I think we need to give these kids a chance to catch their breath and adjust before we worry about whether or not they're acquiring content. This is a time to really focus on connecting with your kids and helping them feel safe and secure, to reassure them to the extent that you can, and then to spend a lot of time doing things that involve just helping you around.
It can be helping you around the house or helping you cook. This is a chance to expand your definition of learning and to share stuff that you enjoy with them. You can read a book together. I think that if we focus too much on acquiring those academic skills, we're going to miss the boat because kids are not going to remember anything that they learned in these few weeks. But they are going to remember how they felt and who supported them through it.
Emily: This situation can feel outside of our control. It can be especially hard for preteens to handle some of these emotions and stress. We've talked about, they're stuck at home, they're sequestered from their friends, and they're prevented from doing a lot of the things that they love and that they're used to doing. How can we help them feel a stronger sense of autonomy and purpose and control about this whole situation?
Phyllis: They're still tweens, and they still have a need for privacy. They still have a need for a feeling that they can contribute. For every child, it's going to be different, what gives them that sense of agency. I think we want to be talking to them about what would make them feel good and what would make them feel like they do have that space. So, this is not the time to pry too much. This is a time to really brainstorm with them. Kids are doing a lot of really cool things right now. Some of them are writing letters to senior citizens who are not allowed to have visitors, or to patients who are in isolation wards. Kids are raising money for food banks, kids are putting stuffed animals in windows for neighborhoods scavenger hunts for smaller kids who are walking around to look for those stuffed animals.
Doesn't really matter what they do, but we do want to be focusing on what's in their control because there's so much out of their control right now. The good news is that if they're able to learn that skill right now while they're home, if they're able to learn how to self-regulate and distract themselves, even if it's cleaning their room or calling a friend, at a time when the whole world seems topsy-turvy, they're going to be so much more resilient when this is all over.
Emily: Do you notice any differences between how boys and girls are handling this?
Phyllis: 100%. In my own home, I have an 11-year-old son. I've noticed that he has a completely different way of engaging socially with his peers in general. He's so used to seeing them at sports practices or just hanging out with them and playing and it's much more physical. I think it's more of a transition for him to stay connected. One thing that's worked really well for him is to have an established time every afternoon, from three to four when he does Xbox Live with his friends, which tamps down some of that need for the conversation skills, but also gives him that structure and that opportunity to connect. I think girls have an easier time just chilling and hanging out and talking to one another. That's something to keep in mind as well.
When it comes to executive functioning, there's no hard and fast gender differences, but you might find that one of your kids if you have both boys and girls, or it doesn't really matter the gender, that one child is struggling more with coming up with that routine or adjusting to this new way of learning, and we might need to give them a little more assistance and ensure that they have a place to work maybe that's closer to us. Somebody else might be able to work in their bedroom, as an example.
Emily: You just may have given me permission to finally get that Xbox that my 10-year-old son has been begging for for a year now. [chuckles]
Phyllis: I just did that myself. I have to be honest, desperate times call for desperate measures. I think a global pandemic is a time when all bets are off. There's even a lot of things that I thought I personally would never allow my child to do in sixth grade that I've allowed him to do. I think that is going to be key to getting through this phase that we are giving each other some flexibility, that we're recognizing that we're learning as we go and we're all winging it, and there's no right or wrong. We just want to get through this difficult time and do the best we can to ensure we help our kids stay positive and stay optimistic and recognize that they're going to come out on the other side stronger for the struggle.
Emily: That might be hard for some of us to do right now. I think, as adults and parents, we may be struggling a little bit to set a good example for our kids right now. What would you leave our listeners with about how they can set a good example for their kids during this time?
Phyllis: Under ordinary circumstances, I always advise parents to try to be the thermostat as their kids are the thermometer going up and down, but in times of crisis, it's even more important. It's really critical, now more than ever, that parents do what they have to self-regulate themselves, whether they take five minutes to go into their room and close the door or whether they go for a walk. It's not frivolous and it's not self-indulgent, it's actually going to be the difference between whether or not your kids adjust well to all of these changes or whether they end up having a lot of anxiety. They really are looking to us right now as a mirror to see just how alarmed they should be.
Emily: Phyllis, thank you so much for joining us again. I always appreciate all of your guidance and advice, and I know that I will definitely take some of these things into consideration right now.
Phyllis: Thanks for having me on.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.
Emily: Wait. Before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.