Episode #201: What is Structure, and Why is it a Protective Factor for Kids' Mental Health?

Research links "structure" to kids' overall mental health and finds it to be a protective factor, helping to prevent mental health crises. What does this mean, and how can you implement it day-to-day?

Transcript:

Sara Olsher:
Hello friends, I'm so excited to start Season Two with some interviews with an expert who I now consider to be a good friend. Her name is Danielle Bettmann, and she is an early childhood development expert, a teacher and a parenting coach. She is also the mom of two girls and is just as passionate about mental health as I am.

In the beginning of the pandemic, I was on her totally incredible podcast, Failing Motherhood. And we really hit it off. And we learned that both of us care a lot about our kids mental health. But we also recognize that the system is really broken when it comes to parenting in this day and age. A lot of the advice that's dished out in essentially every corner of the internet focuses mostly on what we need to do for our kids, and leaves our own mental health out of the conversation entirely.

So for example, there are lots of conversations about screen time being like the worst thing ever. But it doesn't take into account that sometimes that iPad is the difference between the parent having a total and complete meltdown, and not having you total and complete meltdown. And as one of the other experts that I'll be interviewing later on in the season said, "Show me a study that says that a melting down mother is worse for a kid's mental health than screen time. Show it to me, because there is no study."

So by the time I met Danielle, I was in the middle of trying to figure out how to deal with a pretty big realization that I'd had about kids mental health in this country and really our own. So during the pandemic, I had an experience with my daughter's elementary school principal that left me feeling really frustrated, and sent me down a rabbit hole of research that I honestly haven't experienced since I started Mighty and Bright in 2013.

Basically, what happened was, you know, the government gave all of the public schools some extra money to deal with the mental health crisis that kids were, you know, I mean, it had already been happening. But the pandemic really sent it into overdrive, and the government recognized that. And so I asked the principal, what his plan was to deal with those funds, what was he going to do in order to help kids cope with this total disaster that our lives had become? And his answer was, basically nothing? He said, "Oh, um, yes. I think what we're gonna do is probably hire another counselor. I have another meeting I need to go to, bye," and he literally ran away.

And I was left standing there thinking, this is not acceptable. We are in a crisis for kids mental health that is truly unprecedented. That word was so overused during the pandemic, but it really was, I mean, they had shown studies that were, you know, the number of ER visits for kids mental health issues was already at just an insane level, and then the pandemic hit, and it just exploded. And so at the time, I thought, well, you know, I have a new book about change, like that could be really helpful to teachers, maybe I will create a lesson plan so that, you know, teachers can introduce this concept in an afternoon, and I'll just give it to him for free. How awesome will that be? Well, I realized pretty quickly that teachers were overwhelmed to a degree that I personally did not anticipate.

But when I talked to Danielle about this, I said, you know, I think we need to do something about this. And I think you are the person to help me with it. And lucky for me, she was totally on board to help me create something that would help parents teach these skills to their kids. Because when I started doing this research, I discovered that actually, there has been a ton of research into what helps prevent mental health crises in kids. And the problem is that nobody had figured out how to bring that research home. I think a lot of us think that because we don't have a degree in mental health, we can't possibly teach this stuff to our kids, especially because most of us weren't raised with this stuff ourselves. You know, we were raised in a time where there wasn't a ton of research about emotional intelligence. Most of us don't know what we're feeling where it lives in our body. Like how do emotions even live in your body? What does that even mean? You know, we we weren't taught this stuff and so well, we are hearing about how these things can help our kids, we might not know how to teach it.

And so what Danielle and I did was we spent an entire year creating a program, we got a board of advisors, full of experts, mental health experts in kids mental health. And we really took that research and distilled it down into what a parent really needs to know. And nothing that they don't, because we are not coping. And so if we want our kids to cope, we really need to learn this stuff ourselves. But also it cannot be hard, because we have so much that we are struggling with, you know, not even counting, you know, inflation and like how hard things are just getting right now, right.

So, what we're gonna do for these first few episodes is Danielle and I are going to really talk about some of this research, especially the research that shows what protective factors can help prevent a kid's mental health crisis. Obviously, there's risk factors, like living in an unsafe environment where people are shooting each other and kids don't feel safe. But we're not going to get into that, as I promised you already. I am not going to share anything here that is going to stress you out. You already know all of the scary statistics. And if you don't know them, you're not going to be any better off knowing them. Okay? So we're not focusing on risk factors. Instead, we are focusing on what we can do because while there's a lot that is out of our control, there is a lot that we can do.

Sara Olsher:
All right, so we're just gonna talk today about structure and how important that is. There's a lot of research that has been done about the protective factors for kids mental health. And structure is one of them. And mighty and bright was built on structure. And I basically discovered it when my daughter was two and was having a lot of anxiety. And I went to a therapist to try and get some help for her, thinking, you know, it was going to be this, like, really long play therapy for like years to try and fix the, you know, anxiety that she had as a result of my divorce. And one of the things that made the biggest and fastest impact was visual structure. And so Danielle and I are going to talk about that today and a little bit about brain development and why this actually is something that's so necessary for kids. Yeah, Danielle, let's let's chat about it!

Danielle Bettmann:
Hey, everybody, my name is Danielle. And I like she said, I'm a parenting coach, I have a degree in child development and a certification for teaching from birth through third grade. And I'm a positive discipline certified parent educator. And I have two girls myself, they are nine and eight that are big fans of what Mighty and Bright is doing.

The structure and support was how I ended up finding Sara because my girls had a little Pinterest type laminated Velcro, morning and evening routines and a little dry erase calendar for years. And that was something that I recommended to clients right off the bat, when I barely knew what I was doing as a parenting coach, I knew that their kids needed structure, and they needed to be able to feel like life is predictable, because that's what their brain is craving. They're genuinely trying to figure out. What are the patterns? What are the norms? What can I expect, when this happens? What happens next. And for us, we can use our tools of our Google Calendar or message boards and emails and things to help us stay on track. And that helps us feel like we can take on the day at the beginning of the day when we know what's happening for the day and who we're expected to be and, and what's going on. But for kids, it's very confusing when your concept of time is also still developing and very ambiguous. And so that's why they're constantly asking, What day is today is today a school day? When do I get to go to grandma's? How many days to Halloween? All of the things. And when they just have a visual representation, it makes them feel like, Ah, okay, this makes sense. Thank you.

Sara:
Yeah, I also think it's really important to note that kids brains are not developed. And that executive functioning skills, which one of those is the ability just like hold information in your head, that has not developed until you're like 28. And quite frankly, I think once you reach a certain age, potentially parenthood, when you're so tired, I started to lose it all over again,

Danielle:
I probably peaked at 30 and goes right back down.

Sara:
Exactly. But like visuals really help kids. Because if they're not able to retain information, you basically have to repeat yourself over and over and over again. But a visual is going to allow you to, you know, basically tell your kid to check their calendar. And so then the visual is doing the repeating for you. And you don't have to do it yourself. So there's a reason why it needs to be visual, rather than just kind of like explaining to your kid what to expect, right?

Danielle:
Yeah, cuz you've answered their questions and you know, over and over or you have given them some type of dialogue of the agenda, have you know, how many days to Halloween or when when the upcoming vacation is. But if they're not able to hold that in their head, then they have to keep asking you because you're the holder of the information and how empowering for your child to feel like not only are they not inferior, but they have a way to be able to find that information out for themselves, and then be able to feel like they're the ones that are in charge of that information for themselves and their own life. That's so cool. That's so so big of them.

Sara:
Yeah, kids love to feel like they are in control. And if we can give them control in a way - I've heard you say, Danielle - if we can give them control in a way that we can then harness for it for good, that is a total win, because they want control and they will either try to get it in a negative way or you know, we can give it to them in a positive way.

Danielle:
Oh, yeah, yeah, control is like the currency of especially strong willed kids. And we see that as a threat to our authority. When really truly it, we can work with it, we can work with it in these proactive preventative ways that are a win win for both of us, because it kind of takes the delegation works myself out of a job, while also helping their brain to learn these big concepts. And then they're gonna feel more and more independent and responsible and over time, and who doesn't want that as a parent? Right?

Sara:
So can we talk a little bit about? Well, first off, Why might it be scary for a kid not to like why would it be negatively impacting their mental health to not know what is going on every day?

Danielle:
Hmm, yes, yeah. Because the scary is unknown. And the or the unknown is scary, when you are functioning in a place that isn't in like a scarcity deficit of control, then you're going to take any opportunity to leverage it back out to balance it back out. And so then they're going to make power struggles out of care routines, or they're going to use their behavior to kind of communicate in a sideways way. I need reassurance, I don't know what's going on, this feels out of my control. I don't know what you're expecting of me, I don't know where we're supposed to be in an hour, like what's going on. And so all of those questions went unanswered turn into behavior that communicates a message back. And for them over time, when things feel unknown or an unpredictable, then they're going to just develop ways that their brain copes with that by trying to fill in the blanks. And their brain as a safety mechanism, create stories and the stories we tell ourselves kind of narrate our lives and their perception, then of the world becomes heavily influenced with kind of like Swiss cheese, like, like, I don't have all the information, but I need to make this make sense. And so then they're going to start to develop theories, or let's almost coms conspiracy theories of how the world works, or what I need to do to get these answers that just aren't true. But it's just because they don't understand.

Sara:
What would be an example of like filling in one of those Swiss cheese holes, like what would be something that they're doing in order to try to make up for the fact that they've no idea what is going on.

Danielle:
Yeah, like they basically start to believe, "I need to get the answers out of my parents, it's my job to figure this out. And the way that I do that, that works, is to kind of monopolize their time, or to act out in a way that gets a lot of their attention."

Because in a typical morning routine, they're getting themselves ready for work, you know, the parent is off in their own world?. Well, when I have all these questions, and I don't know how to get the answers, I know that it works if I just like, flop down on the floor, and don't ever get ready or like, you know, create kind of like some mayhem, because then it pulls that my parent into my room. And then I'm able to get that either physical reassurance, or I'm able to feel closer to them, which makes me feel more reassured when like I'm function kind of out of fear. And so I need that fear to be met with some comfort. And I would rather have my parents presence, and even when they're angry, then not have their friends at all, and have to deal with these big emotions all by myself, because I don't have the skills to do that.

Sara:
Got it. And so if you can provide, like a routine chart, for example, where they know what is expected out of them, that can kind of, are you saying that that can kind of relieve some of that anxiety?

Danielle:
For sure. Yeah, because you know, even if we you, if it if we give them timers, we say we have an hour until we have to leave, you know, and count down the time. Time is still very hard. It's hard for most of us. I know I have time blindness when it comes to how much I can get done, you know, before I leave the house.

So even when you have those reminders, or you have done the same thing to get ready for school every single day, when they have those things marked out in a chronological order where they know when to go do them and what "done" looks like and how to get like a small sense of accomplishment out of checking some things off, and being able to know how many things I have to do until I can maybe read a book or turn on a show before we have to leave and how much time will I have to do that I like there's so many ambiguities in the day that we can just answer for them right off the bat with that simple routine in place.

Sara:
Yeah, and I also think, you know, going back to talking about executive functioning, we as adults can kind of, I mean, if we're neurotypical, we can kind of forget exactly how much is involved in some of these tasks. And, you know, like, it's not even just a matter. Like, if you take, you know, making breakfast, for example, like we might think, okay, you just pour the cereal into the bowl and then get the milk. But for kids, it's like, there's so many questions that are involved in that, like, where's the milk? I forgot where the milk is? Where are the bowls? I don't like that color of bowl? Where do I get the other bowls? Is the dishwasher clean? Where do I find it? Like, there's so many things that we do.

Danielle:
I didn't want that cereal. Why did you buy that cereal? 

Sara:
But yeah, exactly. I ate all of that cereal yesterday, I put the box back in empty, and I don't understand why there's nothing in it. Like, why didn't you refill it? You know, there's so many things that like we as adults are just like, "Why do you care about this thing? Or why is this so difficult?" But putting on shoes and socks requires knowing where the socks are, knowing where the shoes are, you know, knowing how to tie your shoes, you know, all these things that we kind of are doing on autopilot.

Danielle:
Yes. So that when they're when we're needing them to initiate a lot of tasks and be able to kind of self regulate through and have awareness of where they are at in their plan and what how much time they have left and be able to monitor their time and, you know, like stay on task. And all of those executive functioning tasks are still being developed in real time. And you know, when their language is very expressive, and we know that they've done it before, then it's very easy to have very high expectations of well, "they can do it again. And they can do it every time and they don't need my help." And there's a lot more going on behind the curtain of their brain that we can better understand and give them credit for.

Sara:
So what kinds of things do you think are going on behind the scenes that maybe if we knew about it, it would make us feel a little bit more empathetic?

Danielle:
I think anytime that we see behavior from our kids that is obstinate, or defiant or whiny, or you know, just something where on the surface, the meaning that we take from that behavior is that they're manipulating and that there's, you know, they're choosing to be that way, and it is very personal to us.

And, you know, it's so disrespectful and all these all these things that we make sense of that behavior based on the story we tell ourselves as parents, there's more than likely another explanation that is much more accurate as to the intention behind that behavior and the why or the motivation behind it or what its functioning, what need its functioning to meet or what message is trying to communicate. And it's sometimes very hard to decipher, especially the younger kids are.

But just knowing that there might even be another explanation can sometimes just be enough for us to put our initial reaction out of it to be able to say like, "what might I be missing here? Why is this so hard for them? What else could be going on?" And when they're old enough, you can simply ask. You can say, "I'm noticing that, you know, you're seeming to have a really hard time in the mornings getting ready for school. Let's talk about that." During a time that's not the morning. You might hear about their apprehension that's related to Billy on the bus, or there might be some other explanation about how I just, you know, want to make sure I eat because lunch is you know, really rushed and I'm not able to eat my cold lunch or there's there might be something so unrelated going on in your child's brain that they're just not able to communicate that you might not get it out of them unless you take the time to kind of dig a little bit deeper.

But when when we know that there has to be another explanation that, you know, our initial reaction is probably not likely the most accurate response, then we can take the time to better understand where they might be coming from and then set them up for more success to deal with that deeper root of the issue. And sometimes it's simply that they just don't feel like they've gotten enough time from us. And you know, that's a whole nother thing that we have a box on as well. But we there there's so many other things going on in our child's head sometimes that we just don't know. 

Sara: 
Yeah, one of the things I think is really interesting is I've had parents ask me, or basically expressed concern that they don't want to give their kid a daily calendar or a weekly calendar because their child is already really rigid. And they they're worried their child might have like obsessive compulsive disorder to the degree to which this child like has to have things happening in a certain order. And then they like lose it, if anything changes.

And what I always say to those parents is that is your child saying, "I need to understand what is going on, I feel totally scared and out of control, because I don't know what to expect every day on a daily and weekly basis." And if they are given that control, and they're able to see what is expected, they are a lot more able to handle those little transitions or those little changes where we can just say to them, "I know that was the plan. Sometimes things change, sometimes the order changes. But yeah, you know, it is like, you can still expect that this is going to happen on this day, et cetera."

Danielle:
Totally, totally. And I hear that a lot as well. And I'm helping families that have maybe an oldest child that's really needing to thrive off of that structure. Because they're a little bit more anxiety prone, or, or just have a lot of questions about life. And that's great. So there's a dynamic that happens, especially with kids where they create the expectations for the day in their head, that are very unsaid, and then the day plays out, and then the day doesn't meet their expectations based on the agenda that they setup of how they wanted things to go or hoped things would go. And whenever there is compromise expectations, there can be meltdowns.

And so we can really get ahead of some of that dynamic by just being able to be clear from the from upfront, saying, "Here's what today looks like, here's what we need to get done. You know, it is the Sunday that we clean your room. And you know, you do have to practice your instrument, or we do have to do these things that you don't like." But being able to help them understand that from, you know, first thing in the morning, and they can build up the resilience to be ready for that later in the afternoon. Rather than them imagining that it's going to be a day full of video games and video games only. And then, you know, crushing that hope at 3pm when they have to get off and they have to do all these things they don't like we're gonna have a lot better, more productive conversations about the realistic needs of the day as opposed to the lofty expectations that they set in their head.

Sara:
Excellent, excellent point, I think every kid, every parent has probably had the experience of a kid completely losing it because they did not realize that they were going to have to do something. So when we talk about structure, there is both daily structure that can be helped using a daily calendar or a daily routine chart where you're seeing like, basically your to do list in the morning and your to do list in the evening. Or, you know, if you're if you stay home with your little kids during the day, as well, where you can help them transition to doing things that maybe they don't want to do or help them to feel empowered to get their to do lists done.

And then there's also the weekly sort of structure where that's more of the how many days until the holiday how many days until I go see Grandma, you know which days are school days, and which days are not school days. And so what would you say the benefit is to teaching a kid how to use a weekly calendar

Danielle:
Yeah, yeah, it can be very challenging for early elementary kids to even understand more than yesterday, today and tomorrow, because they're still learning the days the week. This is, you know, concepts that they're being taught. So of course, they're not mastered and expert level understanding, like being able to function with a calendar. So then of course, you might think, well, then they shouldn't have one.

But that's even more reason to use something like this because it helps it make sense in their brain in a way that is visual, and that is meaningful, because it's customized and individualized to their life. So it's the best way to teach this type of concept around time. And you can add, you know, the other levels of detail once they're older, but the biggest thing it helps them see is the passing of time in a way that means the most to them because it's representing the things of their life. That makes the most sense.

Like I know a lot of families have maybe like a command center where it's like a big month of August calendar and everybody's stuff has kind of thrown up there about like soccer and you know, camps and things like that. But that's not meaningful to that child who is still in a very egocentric frame of mind that just wants to say like, but what does this mean to me? What am I doing, and when is the thing that I'm looking forward to. So when you just boil it down into their extracurricular activities, their countdown to the next playdate or birthday party they're going to, and you put them in charge of updating it, then they're gonna not only going to be able to learn and integrate these bigger concepts, but that's going to just help them understand that passing of time in a way that feels very empowering. And important in the long run for those like longer frame thinking skills, and that executive functioning for planning and delayed gratification, and you know, all these other higher concepts as well.

Sara:
Absolutely. And the the, I think what your point is about the command center versus like an individualized calendar is so important that, you know, there's a lot of parents, I think, that come to me and are asking me for a whole monthly calendar. And I in the very beginning of Mighty and Bright back in like, I don't know, 2012, I had a monthly version of my co parenting calendar, and decided to discontinue it after reading a lot of the research about how much kids can track and what actually can cause them more anxiety and looking too far down the road can be actually stressful because of what you were saying with them not not really understanding the concept of time, like they can handle longer periods of time when they get a bit older.

But really just having a week or two at a time is totally sufficient, and having them have only their stuff on it. And I always use the cat's vet appointment as an example of what not to put on there. But it gives them a sense of ownership and a sense of pride that this thing belongs to them. And again, that reinforces that sense of safety, that knowing what to expect provides. Because they know this is my life. These are the things that have that effect it and it's not it's like very simple to look at. It's not overwhelming with like all of the sibling's things that they're doing. If it doesn't affect that child that shouldn't be on the calendar. Right?

Danielle:
Right.

Sara:
Awesome. Well, if you haven't any questions about structure, or you know why this is an important thing for your kids, we have the ability to ask us a question. So if you go to mightyand bright.com/podcast you can click on the button that says, "ask our experts a question" and we will answer it for you. Thank you so much and we will chat with you next time.

Search Mighty + Bright