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One of the oft-cited storylines of 2020, and now 2021, is the toll the pandemic has had on parents, who are trying to manage their own life hurdles while caring for children. We spoke with author and speaker Christine Carter about this difficult era of parenting, and what can be done to ease the anxieties and chaos experienced by children and teenagers.

A sociologist and Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Carter is the author of the nationally acclaimed books, “The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction,” “The Sweet Spot: How to Achieve More by Doing Less” and “Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps to More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.”

A highly sought-after speaker, she writes a monthly advice column for Greater Good Magazine and has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Dr. Oz Show,” the “Today” show, as well as NPR and BBC Radio.

In December, Carter participated in a virtual Q&A session with Punahou parents, helping them with parenting challenges during COVID-19 and beyond.

How can we help kids deal with changes and uncertainty?

Parents can help with this by practicing acceptance. There’s real truth to the saying that what we resist, persists. We don’t have to talk kids out of their frustration, irritation or grief. We can just listen to what they’re feeling, help them identify what they’re feeling and bring our own acceptance of that. I think that naming our feelings is a strategy that helps with loss and grief.

Should this be a daily practice?

It’s great to ask them each day, “How are you feeling?” to get at what they are feeling, instead of why they’re feeling it. Our kids get attached to their narratives about why they’re so upset, and we as parents get caught up in trying to problem solve, but that really doesn’t help them. What does help is getting them to name their feelings.

How can we encourage our children to become resilient, yet remain motivated?

Self-motivation is what we all need, but kids especially need. It can be very demotivating to be in an environment that’s constantly shifting, and we’re constantly having to pivot. The three needs for parents to keep in mind are autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy is something to really consider in this current climate, especially with preteens and teenagers, because their independence has been compromised. They used to have all their privacy, and now, we’re monitoring their every move. Giving them a sense of independence is really important, making sure they feel in control of their own lives and making their own decisions in this rapidly changing landscape. I’m constantly saying to my own kids, “OK, the decision is yours. You get to make an informed decision here.” By doing this, I’m giving them information, but it’s their call. I constantly say, “It’s your call. But I would like you to make an informed decision.”

We foster competency by pointing them back to how they have been flexible a thousand times before. The messaging is, “You’ve got this. I know this is super hard. I know you’re frustrated. I know you’re disappointed. You dealt with this really well last spring. I know you’ve made some mistakes, but you seem to have learned from them.” It’s a matter of constantly pointing them towards their own competence, so that they don’t feel powerless.

Then, the relatedness piece of things or the connection piece of things is also incredibly important. The kids who will be the most resilient are the ones most connected to their family, their peers and to adults outside their family. That’s why the kids at your school are so lucky, because you have teachers and advisors they can connect to, and those are critical connections for helping kids feel grounded. They may feel like they’re in the eye of the storm, with everything moving so fast around them, but adults can be a place of calm.

Kids are spending a lot more time on social media, on their phones and computers. And with distance learning, they’re dependent on technology. What impact do you think this is having? Is this something parents should be monitoring or trying to limit?

I’m always a little bit worried about social media and not too worried about screen time, so just remember that all screen time is not the same. Technology is not inherently bad. It’s not inherently good either. It’s not going away. The important thing is to talk to your kids a lot about the differences between different types of social media, screen time and video games. We know from the data that social media invites insecurity and social comparison, neither of which is really very good for their well-being. And we know girls are much more affected by this than boys.

There’s a big difference between a kid who’s just wasting his time watching TikTok for hours. It might lead them to just feel like they wasted their time, but that’s really different than engaging in a cyber bullying situation on Instagram or on Twitter.

Middle school is the danger zone in my mind, in that middle schoolers make a lot of really bad decisions on social media. I’m a huge proponent of parental monitoring during this time, because kids are going to make mistakes. We need to be on them, so that they can learn from their mistakes. As kids get older, they’ll monitor themselves. They’ll even pull themselves off of it for a while if it doesn’t feel good, and if they have somebody talking to them about what’s healthy on social media and what isn’t.

Any tips to boost happiness during this time?

To be totally honest, I feel like we should be encouraging mental health, which is really different than happiness. Parents may be thinking, “Oh, I just want them to be happy.” But you know what? It’s not that appropriate to be just happy right now. Things are hard, and it’s okay if it’s hard. We can send the message to our children that it’s all right if you don’t like this. We can help them feel a sense of purpose right now, to find meaning in all of this.

With my own children, we talk constantly about what they’re going to talk about when their grandchildren ask them what it was like not just to live through this pandemic, but also the civil rights movement. What role are they playing in this whole thing? How are they contributing? What do they
want to tell their grandchildren that they did? We can give them a sense of meaning, and down the line, this can lead to happiness when that is more realistic.

Last December, Christine Carter and Punahou President Michael Latham ’86 provided insightful strategies in a Team Up virtual event for supporting kids during the current pandemic and beyond.

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