A mother stares into her phone while her young daughter clamors for attention on a playground, over and over again. The moment of tension is brief, but uncomfortable, before the mother puts down her phone, apologizes, and begins to play with her daughter.
This scene comes from a new public service announcement created by Rocky Mountain PBS and the Western Colorado Community Foundation to support mental health in Colorado.
The idea is that parents can help their children build important mental health skills, like resilience and regulation, when they set aside distractions and take time to connect.
Rocky Mountain PBS spoke with two Colorado mental health experts to learn more about these emotional skills and what parents and families can do to learn them.
What is resilience?
“Resilience is the ability to adapt or rebound quickly from change, illness or bad fortune,” says Elizabeth Clark, a mental health therapist for teens and families, based in Grand Junction, who has 35 years of experience. She also works in schools and is a founder of Cyberstrong of Mesa County.
“Some of us go through life, and anything hard is like Teflon and we get over it," Clark says. "But most of us tend to respond big and tragically and it takes a lot of our energy to deal with things that are difficult.”
Michelle Hoy is the Executive Vice President at MindSprings Health, a mental health foundation in Grand Junction. “Resilience is the ability to bounce back after experiencing something tough,” Hoy says. “It could be the pandemic, failing a class, experiencing a new baby – that is a giant change that can be difficult.”
Simply put, resilience is the internal brain muscle to be able to bounce-back, and not be stuck in negativity, depression, or anxiety because of a situation.
“50% of our happiness comes from our genetics, 10% is based on the circumstance, and 40% is based on what we do, and how we think,” Hoy says. "We have huge control over learning and practicing resilience.”
'Dysregulation' and managing 'fight-or-flight'
Clark said that another term that goes with resilience is regulation. Regulation is what you experience when your body is not in fight-or-flight mode. Dysregulation is when you are in fight-or-flight, but there is no danger around.
In technical terms, dysregulation is emotional responses that are poorly modulated, and do not lie within the accepted range of emotive responses.
To help explain this concept, Clark talks about being a parent of a newborn.
“An example of how parents help with resilience and regulation is in newborns. With newborns, everything is life-or-death. Let’s say the baby wakes up in the middle of the night, and there is moisture in her diaper. This isn’t normal to the baby, so she thinks that this must be threatening to her life. She starts screaming. The baby is dysregulated. Dysregulation is contagious. Remember ‘made you look’ when you were a kid? This is like dysregulation. As human beings, if I dysregulate, you will dysregulate. There is no reason I would be in fight-or-flight if there wasn’t danger. The parent wakes-up and the baby’s heart rate is up, so the parent’s heart rate goes up. But, because the parents have the skill of re-regulating, the parent takes a breath. They say, ‘oh, honey, what’s going on?’ They start problem solving. As they start to regulate and take their breath down, the baby starts to regulate. And soon, both are re-regulated.”
Clark says the cycle of dysregulation and re-regulation happens tens-of-thousands of times in a child’s life. Dysregulation, back to re-regulation, and out of fight-or-flight.
“Our brains dysregulate all the time. Our brains are always looking for opportunities of danger, to keep us safe. If I read a headline that comes up on my technology or if somebody on social media says something I don’t like, I get dysregulated. Blood goes to our limbs so we can fight-or-flee, digestion stops, and my frontal lobe shuts down; I don’t stop to consider things so I can be reactive. My whole body is ready to fight-or-flee a true danger, even though it’s just a social media post.”
Clark says that you know you are dysregulated when you are angry, scared, feeling judgmental of others, or very self-critical. These are good signs to know your body is in a protective mode.
She says that highly functioning people can get out of fight-or-flight mode very quickly. First, they are aware they are in this state and have tricks to become re-regulated. People that re-regulate quickly teach this to their kids just by re-regulating every day.
“When the milk is spilled, it is not a big deal. It’s like, ‘Oh, the milk is spilled. What do we do to clean it up?’ They have these everyday responses with their children,” says Clark.
Technology and eye-contact
“Eye-contact is a big part of parenting and helping kids re-regulate,” says Clark.
“There is a brilliant old study, that is not fun to watch, called the Still Face Experiment (on YouTube). This woman and her baby, who is 10 months old, are sitting face-to-face. The mom engages the baby, they mimic each other. It’s adorable. But then, the Mom turns around and puts her face to a still-face; not mad, not sad, just a still face, completely emotionless face. The baby immediately goes into extreme distress, because of this flat face.”
Clark realized that the ‘still face’ is the same face we have when we are really engrossed in technology. We are not smiling, we are not talking back, we just go into this ‘zombie-mommy’ look. She thinks this is a tremendous detriment to children.
“School districts are having really big problems with little kids, like preschool age, being quite violent. In a way, that is surprising, considering their backgrounds. These are not high-risk kids. I have strong feelings about little kids, and how eye contact between parents and little kids has diminished due to technology,” Clark says. Parents are looking at technology so often, children aren’t getting the stimulus of eye-to-eye contact enough during their developmental years.
This is the context that informed the simple message for the “Kids in the Know” public service announcement now running during PBS KIDS programming on Rocky Mountain PBS, supported by the Western Colorado Community Foundation.
Learning new skills and hope for the future
Widespread technology use is what keeps Clark up at night.
“I work intimately with kids. I am seeing the impact on teenagers of naively-unchecked technology use," Clark says. "It is frightening to me. Unchecked technology use has dysregulated so many of us to the point we don’t even know we are dysregulated. We are constantly dysregulated, and have no desire to become regulated.”
Despite this challenge, Clark is hopeful for the future.
“What makes me very excited is how we know so much more about how our brain works," she says. "How quickly, and efficiently, we can become more resilient. I believe the one task of our lifetimes is to acknowledge the dysregulation and become re-regulated. It’s very simple, it’s free, and it’s for everybody. You don’t need therapy, you need skills and awareness. It must be regularly introduced as much as technology is.”
Hoy, from MindSprings Health, said: “There are resiliency skills, and there is an entire school of positive psychology that has all the research in the world to say this is real, and it works, and you can learn it at any age, and you can practice it throughout your life.”
Practicing intentionally gets you in the habit of being resilient, Hoy says. The way we think about things informs our feelings and therefore our behaviors. She refers to this as the cognitive triangle.
“If I’m always thinking ‘this is horrible,’ I am going to feel angry, sad, and depressed. And I will act in negative ways,” Hoy says. “If instead, I think about what I am grateful for, if I practice forgiveness, I then start to experience positive feelings and that nicer brain chemistry makes us happier.”
Practice, practice, practice, Hoy says. You must do it often and It’s hard to change habits without being intentional.
“Identify a place in your day where you will practice resiliency with your family. Decide it. Commit to it. Practice it. Then it will become second-nature. And you will be more easily able to bounce-back. If you are struggling and unsure of what to do, there is always help. There are hotlines, agencies, and people that want to help.”