The talk’s title, “The Kids are Alright,” echoed that of a classic-rock song by The Who, a feature film starring Annette Bening and even an episode of a popular television show. It also describes the way most people, including children, continue to cope with the coronavirus pandemic that changed society in the first quarter of 2020.
That was the message of Michael Thompson, Ph.D, to more than 100 people attending his 90-minute presentation Thursday evening, Jan. 20.
Thompson, 74, an Arlington resident, has 50 years of successful professional experience helping youngsters. He began his career as a middle-school teacher and then became a clinical psychologist specializing in therapy with children, particularly boys. A father and grandfather, he is the author of seven books and a consultant to schools and summer camps around the world. See his website >>
His online talk held via Zoom was part of an educational series that began in the fall and is set to continue through spring.
Using an accessible, almost folksy tone during the program sponsored by the Arlington Public Schools, Dr. Thompson told listeners that most people find ways to live with the limitations, stress and uncertainty of the first pandemic in a century.
Assails media portrayal
“We do not have a generation of traumatized children,” he said, particularly in mostly middle-class Arlington. “The vast majority of kids have adapted.” He called any media portrayals of all children being permanently damaged “pop psychology” and “total rubbish.”
Twice he specified that he uses the term “trauma” in its original, clinical sense -- meaning sexual abuse, serious accidents, major natural disasters or daily life in literal war zones or failed states such as some in the Middle East. He said that most American children currently struggling -- he estimated this to be 14 percent of Arlington youngsters at most -- are those who were high-risk before the pandemic due to pre-existing difficulties such as ADHD. He said there is an undeniable all-around increase in demand for psychotherapy and difficulty in finding it.
Meanwhile, parents can help their kids, he said, by asking them age-appropriate questions and then really listening to their answers. "Shut up and listen!"
Parents need to acknowledge any distress, name emotions accurately and be honest about the situation. Adults also can share simple coping skills, such as helping kids start a “worry book,” which can be used frequently to capture, contain and record their feelings; this book then can be reviewed together for perspective.
Most important, he said, is sending children to in-person schools, summer camps and sports experiences to experience normal healthy interactions with their peers. He noted that in his press conference earlier in the day, President Joe Biden stated that 95 percent of all schools are now in-person.
Arlington Public Schools have been back on campus five days a week since May 2021.
For detailed instructions from another mental-health professional on how to creat a simple anti-anxiety kit at home, go here. (As an experiment, after reading the article this reporter created a "coping box" for herself -- in many cases using even more basic materials than those suggested --within 45 minutes using items found lying around the house.)
'Many hard things in life'
“It has hit all of us hard, and we’ve all had moments of discouragement,” Thompson said. “There are many hard things in life.” He acknowledged the length of the pandemic, the opening and closing of activities as Covid-19 numbers fall and rise, and the fact that neither he nor national expert Anthony Fauci nor anyone else can say when things will truly get back to normal.
In an apparent attempt to provide his adult audience with some historical perspective, he noted that his father and uncles fought overseas in World War II and that neither they nor those on the home front knew when or how the situation would resolve.
“The Greatest Generation was able to live with uncertainty,” he said. “We must [also] continue to be resilient.” Adults of today can likewise lead by example and “respond with courage and energy and adaptability.”
Thompson also briefly addressed learning loss, social lives and “screen addictions.”
Learning loss has been near-universal and, sadly, is most profound in disadvantaged communities that were already struggling when lockdowns began nearly two years ago. Better-resourced communities are typically better able to provide an enriched environment.
Based on standardized-testing results from late spring 2021, local schools appear to have experienced slight downturns in language skills and moderate declines in mathematics.
Video of program provided by Cindy Bouvier:
As far as children’s friendships, Thompson noted that “We are social animals,” that children in particular are “wired” to relate best in person and to play outdoors, and that these opportunities should be provided whenever possible.
Between remote schooling and social distancing, people of all ages have spent much more time staring at screens than in the past or than is optimal. Thompson emphasized that parents should not abdicate parental responsibility, show empathy and patience, and gradually bring children’s use of devices back to reasonable parameters.
Advocates preteen device monitoring
Preteen children, in particular, for their own well-being, he said, should have their online activity regularly monitored by an adult. And no kids should take their smartphones to bed.
“You have to have limits,” he said. “Children have to get sleep.” He advocated the approach of a family he knows of that routinely charges children’s electronics in the master suite overnight.
Thompson said that parents should encourage but not force children into group activities. For example, it does makes sense to require them to learn to swim -- but not necessarily to become members of a swim team.
“You can’t want something more than your children want it,” he said. “Try to find something that fits.”
Likewise, common sense and compassion should govern how teachers and parents deal with the near-universal reality that children’s behavior and maturity, in virtually every age group, currently lags due to mostly remote-learning scenarios for more than a year.
Lacking the structure and routine of a physical classroom and its attendant socialization, he said, ninth graders, for example, may act more like seventh-graders. And “kindergartners are positively feral,” often behaving more like homebound toddlers who have never been in any kind of group setting. Other commentators support this view.
He said parents and teachers should be patient and not punitive, while seeking accountability and applying consequences. It is going to take much time and a lot of training to get children of all ages back to their milestones, but “We will get them there.”
Thompson’s talk attracted 101 listeners and lasted from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
This news feature by YourArlington freelancer Judith Pfeffer was published Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022.
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