In episode 10 of the Academically Speaking podcast, Laura Perillo — Oak Knoll's Marketing Content Strategist — sat down with Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney, Upper School psychologist, who talks about tactics parents can use to address the social and emotional impact of COVID-19 on middle and high school students. This is the second in Oak Knoll's special four-part parenting series, Parenting During the Pandemic.
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Laura Perillo: [00:00:00] Welcome everyone to our special four-part parenting series of Oak Knoll’s Academically Speaking podcast. My name is Laura Perillo and it is great to be here today as your host. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of our daily lives, including parenting.
[00:00:19] Today's children have adapted to pivoting between learning remotely via a hybrid schedule or learning in person with many safety precautions in place. While some children and teenagers have had a smooth transition with changes the pandemic has brought, others are struggling. This parenting podcast will cover all of your burning questions about how to best protect and support your child's mental health, their social life and development, and the ins and outs of virtual learning during the pandemic. We will also hear about how one family spent their time during quarantine and the lessons they've learned in the process. Welcome to the special podcast edition, Parenting During the Pandemic.
[00:01:03] In today's episode, we'll be speaking with Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney, Oak Knoll’s consulting psychologist, about the impact the pandemic has had on children's social life and development. Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney, a 1992 Oak Knoll graduate, has a master's degree in psychology from Holy Cross. She did her master’s and doctoral work at Fordham, Columbia and Seton Hall universities.
[00:01:25] Jennifer has been a psychological consultant at Oak Knoll for the past 10 years and works closely with the administration and student support services in both the Lower and Upper School. Additionally, Jennifer has a private practice in Parsippany, New Jersey, working with children, adolescents, families, and couples, and predominantly supportive and cognitive behavioral therapy.
[00:01:49] Welcome Jennifer.
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:01:50] Thank you very much for having me, Laura.
Laura Perillo: [00:01:52] Thanks so much for being here. Let's get started. So, with the loss of so much social interaction this past year, should parents worry that their children are missing developmental milestones during the pandemic? Such as sharing, interacting, playing, getting along, etc., what milestones would our older students miss?
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:02:14] So, yeah, of course parents are going to worry about those types of things because we're, you know, we're social creatures, right? So, when we are placed in a position of not having those social outlets, you're immediately going to worry that your child will fall behind or, you know, not be exposed to the types of things they need to be exposed to.
[00:02:33] So, there's no way to not worry, but I think in terms of milestones, as an example, I guess. Thinking positively, you have to realize there's going to be other opportunities, however, delayed for those milestones to exist organically. So, for example, something like, you know, for an older child, a prom, they might miss out on their end-of-the-year prom, which is, you know, obviously very tremendously upsetting, but there will be something else like that in their life to, you know, sort of look toward, right?
[00:03:02] And say, whether it be a, you know, celebration at the end of the year or something that feels like it's not the prom, right? So, I think I would say that you have to kind of acknowledge that and, and sort of, for lack of a better word, acknowledge the loss of that, but then remind them that there will be other things in their lives that will feel like that.
Laura Perillo: [00:03:24] Right. Shifting the thinking, that, yes, we lost this, but yes, we have this time.
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:03:25] Exactly. Exactly. And as far as younger children are concerned, with things like sharing. You know, that is where, and we can get into this a little bit later. That's where parents can get creative in terms of exposing them to other people safely. And then sort of emphasizing those types of things in a way that you would not have been so intentional about under normal circumstances, if that makes sense.
Laura Perillo: [00:03:52] Right, right. What can we do as educators and parents to help kids who are struggling and starved for human attention during the pandemic?
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:03:59] Well, you know, it's interesting, there's been so many different things that have come up over the last year. You know, both here at Oak Knoll and in my private practice work, I'd say one of the biggest things that kids will tell you they struggle with is the sort of lack of transition time, right? So, you get up, and whether you're hybrid or virtual or completely in school, like some Oak Knoll students are, it's still very different, right?
[00:04:19] So yes, you might physically be on campus, but you're socially distant. You don't have the same, you know, outlets at recess or lunch or where, you know, the socialization typically takes place. So, I think as educators, we can get a little bit more creative, and I've seen some of that happen so far in the Upper (School), you know, different games - we had a thing where there's, uh, kids are separated in say their advisory and they each come up each week with a different game.
[00:04:46] They're doing Kahoots, they're doing HedBanz, so that the context of the advisory doesn't feel so academic. And it feels a little bit more social. So, there's been some creative things going on up there recently to address that. So, it's social in nature and it's still following socially distant rules, but it's an area that would normally feel very academic.
[00:05:06] And instead it feels like they just had some fun without even realizing it. So again, intentionality is the word, you know, that's something that we can do pretty organically. We just would not have had the need to do that before.
Laura Perillo: [00:05:19] Right, right. What are some good resources for parents to help ensure your child is getting adequate socialization in a safe way?
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:05:27] There's obviously so much out there. Everybody can do a Google search and sort of say different things that they could try. I would say from a parenting perspective, you have to live within the organic culture of your family, you know, and, and maybe utilize other parents. So, for example, your parents were really, really good at, you know, when their kids were little, they were the parent that did a bunch of crafts or something like that. And then this person was great at board games, but this person says I never made a craft with my kid ever.
[00:06:01] So, I would say trust yourselves that the culture of your family is what you are an expert on. And you say, OK, you know, this child just a little bit better coming up with things. So, I'm going to task him with what game we're going to play tonight or what movie or whatever, but you don't want to reinvent the wheel on everyone's personality and all of a sudden, because that sets you up for failure, right?
[00:06:23] I need to come up with all these different things that my kids are gonna love. And if they know that that's not sort of natural for you, it's going to seem disingenuous. So, I would say to kind of get in touch with the culture of your family. And do the things that you as a family enjoy, obviously however limited, but there still are options.
[00:06:42] And then again, a huge utilization out there for parents is other parents, because there are those people that have that skill set, right? So, you say, you know, what are you doing? What are you? You know, I have, uh, some parents in my community who, when the kids get together for a practice, they rotate through who takes them out for pizza afterwards because it's elongates the social interaction kind of thing. And if the weather is not cooperating, they do something else, you know? Because those kids are together anyway. So they have been sort of like in their pod, if you will, how do we elongate? You know, then being able to hang out safely. Exactly, exactly. You know, go get a soda, get, go, get a smoothie, you know, anything.
[00:07:20] And that sort of thing. So, I have a bunch of parents, it was a friend of mine in the community who suggested that, you know, I take them for a smoothie on the way home from practice. They have already been together for hours. I go and do something for half an hour and they have their smoothie and they chat, you know?
Laura Perillo: [00:07:36] As parents, you always hear that, limiting screen time is healthy for development. But with many schools using virtual learning, should parents be concerned about the amount of screen time?
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:07:47] Again, I think there's a concern, but I also think it's sort of a necessary, um, I don't want to say necessary evil because it sounds more negative than, I mean it, but it's a necessary utilization right now, particularly for kids who are all virtual.
[00:08:00] So again, to act as though that's something that we can't recover from, it's just about mindfulness, right? I know that you need your laptop. For example, one of the things that I would say that I hear from Oak Knoll students, as well as students outside of this campus, is just that idea of one big, long day.
[00:08:24] Right? So instead of the transition time in the car to school, back home, practice, what have you. It's sort of one long, 24 hours. Right? So yeah, the idea that during the school time for parents who worry that they've had too much screen time when they need that for school, it's better to, in my opinion, to just sort of allow that to take place.
[00:08:42] But then, you know what, tonight after dinner, we're going to do that. Cut it off at a certain point. Exactly, exactly true for parents too, in their professional lives, you know, you're being asked to do something. Say in the evening that you normally pre-COVID wouldn't have done.
[00:08:58] It's very important to have those boundaries that just, that's not, even though you could work a 20-hour day because you're home and you're utilizing things, you know, really assist a time. I would normally be working. And if the answer to that question is no, then you shouldn't be.
Laura Perillo: [00:09:13] And is it good for the kids to take a break for homework? So essentially shut off. So, say if they are virtual shut off and then. Do something maybe physical and then come back to the screen time if they need to do homework …
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:09:24], Absolutely. And again, you know, most of these kids, their outlets do have screen time for games and fun stuff and things like that.
[00:09:33] So they don't just associate it with school. So again, the creative piece of it. That's fine. You can have your game, the same thing you would do pre-COVID, right? You wouldn't allow your child to necessarily go to school and then play video games all night. There would be times where you'd say, OK, we have limits to that and we're going to eat dinner. We're going to go to the store or we're going to, you know, what have you.
Laura Perillo: [00:09:57] I think you mentioned some of these, but do you have any other suggestions for parents on activities they can do with their kids to kind of expand their imaginations and interactions during the pandemic?
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:10:05] So, one of the things that I actually worked with a family who was doing this, they have four kids and each one of the four kids, obviously it's hard to find something that's age appropriate, particularly if there's a little bit of a gap in your children's ages, but she would have each one of them, you say on a Friday, come up with whatever their game night was going to be, and it didn't have to be a game.
[00:10:26] It was just a family activity night. And so they were very different given their personalities and the siblings had to kind of tolerate what each sibling wanted to do. So, if it was age inappropriate, oh, well your turn is next week. And it was just talk about it. It was really utilizing the imaginative piece.
[00:10:41] Let's come up with something a little bit different and she would rotate through just like you do with chores or anything else. And they, they came to kind of enjoy it and look forward to it. But again, what I was saying earlier, you know, maybe once or twice a week, it's not organic, right. Because to do something as a family, with everything that's going on, not forcing a free evening for set from six to nine, that wouldn't have happened pre COVID.
[00:11:04] So to make it feel intentional, but yet still organic to your family's culture.
Laura Perillo: [00:11:11] How has Oak Knoll provided opportunities for students to socialize safely during the day?
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:11:16] So, as I was saying earlier, I've been noticing a lot of different things at Oak Knoll that, again, the creative piece and the intentionality and a good example is the advisory program is, I don't recall if I said this earlier, generally speaking an extension of the classroom. You know, where they go over things that are academic or, you know, sometimes psychoeducational in nature, but still kind of a classroom format. And, but yet there's smaller and obviously socially distanced. So, I know the eighth grade in particular is coming up with different suggestions to their advisors of activities that are non-academic in nature. So, a good example is the Kahoots game or Hedbandz or something like that. And they can break it up and they can stay on opposite sides of the classroom. And they have just had 20-minutes of social interaction, almost unknowingly because it's a part of their day, but they walked out of there, you know, smiling and playing a game as opposed to an extension of the classroom.
[00:12:11] So that's something I've been hearing about. That's been having great results. Similar to the older kids, spreading out in the Campion Center. I think we're going to have some more, um, outdoor activities that are scheduled, but again, they're scheduled without an academic purpose, which usually becomes social right.
[00:12:29] As the weather gets nicer, I would have said we're going to have a lot more options.
Laura Perillo: [00:12:35] Well, talk a little bit about what you're seeing in your practice. Are you finding that kids are now just adjusting to this or are some still really struggling? Like where are the kids at now?
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:12:44] And it's funny. There are kids who appear to be adjusting to it because it's gone on for so long, right?
[00:12:57] It's like anything in human nature, the longer you do it, the longer you would get used to it. And we, and we figure out different ways to cope with it. But what I'm seeing predominantly. For the kids who appear to be adjusted as sort of like a COVID complacency, which is a term I've made up recently where they almost don't want things to return to normal because they're used to, you know, sleeping a little bit later or not getting dressed or not having to worry about X, Y, and Z.
[00:13:24] From a social perspective, if you're a student who tends to be a little bit more introverted. A little bit less social by nature. This has been almost a welcome respite from peer dynamics, which obviously in adolescents can be very challenging. So, I do have a concern that the longer that goes on the longer, you're not almost pushing yourself to reenter those organic communities and figure out your peer dynamics.
[00:13:50] Cause that's something we have to.
Laura Perillo: [00:13:52] Especially in high school
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:13:55] Exactly. So, you know, focusing on the future that this is an unusual way to habitate, this is an unusual way to do things and we're all gonna learn from it.
[00:14:06] But the idea that it's somehow normal or somehow typical is something that I usually challenge, right? Like it's, I understand that you've had a little bit of a respite from dealing with say social anxiety, but eventually we're going to have to acclimate back into the school environment.
Laura Perillo: [00:14:27] And any informal kind of setting it up for them, so you have to kind of reinvent yourself getting back in the game.
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:14:27] Exactly. In the very beginning of COVID, there was something that came out from the American Psychological Association and it was who do you want to be during COVID?
Laura Perillo: [00:14:47] Colleges will be looking at how these high school kids, what did they do with their time?
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:14:54] Just to the idea of an identity during COVID. And I understood the point, which was to sort of say, you know, you don't want to be afraid of it.
[00:15:03] You want to continue to live your life. But now as we transitioned into hopefully more. Um, you know, just, just more hopeful times with this entire situation, right? Not only because of the vaccine and all things that are happening, but just because of winter ending and you have spring sports and spring activities, hopefully being a little bit less effective than winter activities, where etc., you know, I see that as who do you want to be in general?
[00:15:27] Right? Because if it's the caveat during COVID, again, we don't want this to become part of anyone's identity, but adolescence is the time when your identity morphs. It's a little bit different for adults because presumably our identities are not that we don't all grow, but we grow it in different ways.
[00:15:45] Whereas in adolescents, they're growing at a rapid pace every minute.
Laura Perillo: And they don't always understand what they're doing or how it's working.
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: Exactly. They don't, they don't, and they need our help to sort of say, this is a period of time and that we will look back on and learn from because you know, you will.
[00:16:01] Talking to them again with parenting, a lot of parents feel like they did get some quality time back with their kids. And, you know, instead of running in 7 billion directions, I had family sitting home for dinner and all that, and that was great. But then it was like, OK, this is not normal.
Laura Perillo: [00:16:16] There were silver linings. But I think the parents are just like, OK, that was a little bit too much. Certainly, that's a great perspective to have and how to. Kind of view your last year, you know, like quality times home with maybe teenagers who otherwise would have been out of the house.
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:16:35] Exactly. Or you know, that quick dinner, but everybody has to rush out. You know, there has been some, some, certainly some positives I've been think that there's been, yeah. Another big thing in terms of resource for parents is flexibility, you know, giving each other a break, uh, realizing that nobody's living their best life right now in terms of ease with things.
Laura Perillo: [00:16:59] Do you think it allowed parents and families really to kind of say, OK, I'm going to slow down now. Even when things returned to normal, I'm not going to have that essential rat race of a schedule. Like I really want to slow down. I want to be normal, but I want to slow down yet at the same time.
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:17:17] I don't want this to seem like a cop out, but my answer is it remains to be seen because I think human beings are very, um, habitually oriented. And if you're used to that schedule, that rat race type of schedule and all of a sudden, yes, you enjoy the reprieve from it. Now the anxiety is about, well, when do we get that back?
[00:17:35] And to your earlier point about milestones, is my child missing out on something that they otherwise would have had because this has gone on for so long. So do we now need to overcompensate to keep up interesting. So, I would hope it would return to this is nice because it feels so much more normal, but I did learn that family dinners once a week really are important.
[00:17:57] Um, you know, or having an intentional conversation about what we're going to do this weekend is important as opposed to just running around like, you know, in 10 million directions. So, I would think that what we've learned we'll turn into. Yeah. You know, but I don't, I don't know. I, it it'll be interesting.
Laura Perillo: [00:18:17] So in the beginning of the pandemic, I would assume that you were dealing with like immediate issues now that you've had like a year, almost a year. Do you think we're getting and families are getting more optimistic generally?
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:18:31] Generally speaking? Yes. I would say generally speaking, as you have a lot of, um, people that are talking about certainly, you know, their spring and summer plans and behaving as though those things are going to happen without the restrictions of the, of the recent past.
[00:18:47] So overall yes. As I said before, there's always that concern of, of, of the you know, well speaking from a child's perspective, really helping them reacclimate to what once was. And depending upon the age and the personality of the child, you know, parents might have to be very specific in how they do that.
[00:19:07] But if generally speaking, yes, I see more of a positive attitude then I've had seen in recent months.
Laura Perillo: [00:19:16] Well, that's a great note to end on. I appreciate you being here so much. If people need to get in touch with you, how can they do that?
Dr. Jennifer Butler-Sweeney: [00:19:24] I have an Oak Knoll email here at the school, and then I have a Gmail that everybody, all the administrators at the school have. So, if somebody needed to call, say the front office, they would be given both my email addresses and my cellphone number, because again, with virtual being, as it is, that would be the best way to get in touch with me.
Laura Perillo: [00:19:43] Thank you, Dr. Butler-Sweeney. I appreciate you being here. For more information on Oak Knoll’s, Academically Speaking podcast, visit oakknoll.org.