Monday, January 17, 2022

COVID-19: Helping Teens Cope

vlog

In case you are suffering a migraine, or your contact lenses are too strong, or you can’t find your reading glasses, or you just plain hate to read, I am offering this post as a vlog. You can even blindfold yourself and pretend it’s a podcast. On the other hand, if you can’t stand the sight of my face and/or are teaching somebody how to read, scroll past the video ... the entire text awaits. Don’t miss the artwork from my daughter Lindsay!

Introduction

Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic is a grind for everyone. It’s tempting to think teenagers have it easier since they’re invincible, invulnerable, and impervious to disease, or at least think they are—but actually, the pandemic could be especially hard on them. Why? It’s because they’re in the very flower of life as opposed to those of us who kind of gave up long ago and are just running out the clock.

If you’re a parent of a teen or young adult, perhaps this post will help you support your child. And if you’re not a parent, but have a taste for schadenfreude, you should read on, too.


The pitfalls of COVID for the young

According to this article, typical teens’ reactions to global crises like the pandemic include feeling “stressed or overwhelmed, frustrated or angry, worried or anxious, restless, agitated, … teary, sad, fatigued or tired,” and they could be “losing interest in usually enjoyable activities or finding it difficult to feel happy.” Unfortunately, these are also totally normal symptoms of being a teenager, so it’s really hard to tell how, or whether, the pandemic is affecting your teen or young adult.

Some problems are undeniable, of course. Outside of the anxiety and stress, there’s the simple matter of not getting to hang out with friends, or doing so with all kinds of restrictions. Resentment can develop when your kids’ friends have cooler, more permissive parents. On top of that, kids are understandably just sick of everything: the online schooling, the distancing, the masking, and the hand washing. Yes, we parents are sick of these things too, but at least we grasp that they’re actually important, since we don’t have delusions of invincibility.

So what is to be done? Articles like this one and this one recommend getting more exercise. This is a fine idea, except that a) it’s so eye-rolling-ly obvious, and b) the likelihood of its adoption is empirically low. According to this article a study has just found that only 1 in 10 teens is getting enough exercise right now, vs. the (already poor) figure of 16 percent who were exercising enough pre-pandemic.

Can parents help? Well, you could start by setting the right example. If you suit up and go running or biking, there’s a chance your kid will notice. Better yet, try taking an online Zumba class with your kid. That should help, I think … though I’ll admit I haven’t tried it. (I just mentioned it because I like the word “Zumba” and am hoping it’ll help this post show up in Google searches.) My wife and I did do an impromptu dance party today, which got our eighteen-year-old giggling quite a bit, while also introducing to her the novelty of actual rock music coming out of actual speakers instead of just earbuds. (I would explore this dance party concept even more, except that my wife made fun of my moves, and my kid gets gobs of exercise anyway.)

Self-care

As pointed out by this website, you should “teach self love,” starting with self-care. Unfortunately, the advice is given only via an infographic so there aren’t actual instructions, but I have a few suggestions. First off, it’s not enough to just advise self-care; you need to practice what you preach. I’m talking about that stupid COVID beard you’ve grown. It doesn’t make you hip, and there’s too much grey in it, and it lowers the effectiveness of your KN95 mask, for crying out loud. Shave it off already. And if you’re a mom, keep your legs shaved and make sure your daughter notices. (Note that leg-shaving can be a highly political matter; if you leave your legs hairy on purpose, point this out, and celebrate it. Tell your daughter, “I want my legs lush, like I’m a coed at UC Santa Cruz. And I always shampoo them when I shower.”)

Self-care isn’t limited to nice things we can do for our bodies; it’s also about the damaging behaviors we should avoid. Remind your teenager not to seek comfort in drugs or alcohol. According to the CDC, “These substances can weaken your body’s ability to fight infections, and increase the risk of certain complications associated with COVID-19.” Beyond that, it’s obviously harder to remember to wear a mask or socially distance when you’re totally tripping or drunk off your gourd.

You should also bear in mind that there’s more to self love than self-care. Self love can include a bit of good old fashioned vanity and/or self absorption. Maybe it’s time to finally give your kid that “DAMN I’M GOOD” bracelet your dad bought back in the ‘70s and passed down to you.

But don’t go overboard with self love! When people are suffering, there’s always the risk they’ll become insufferably self-absorbed. It’s important to try to remind them of the larger world around them and the unique problems others face. Start with the fiscal waste of the pandemic. If your child is in college, bemoan the already egregious cost of their tuition and dorm fees, which are basically being totally wasted. If your kid is in high school, talk about the heinous property taxes you pay to support that school, and how it’s all for naught because so little actual learning is happening. Explain how you’re being robbed blind on these KN95 masks, and how rising inflation, fueled by supply chain problems, could be the next great economic crisis. (In general you should try to work the phrase “supply chain” into conversation whenever possible, because it totally improves your cred.)

How to draw teens out about COVID

Where can teens and young adults go for advice, sympathy, or just someone to vent to? Certainly not their friends, to whom they have to present a brave, stoic front. And their teachers—overwhelmed with technical issues such as remote learning, COVID tests, and contact tracing—clearly don’t have time. Once again, the job falls to us parents, as if we asked for this. So the question becomes, how do we get our kids to open up?

Here’s one way: announce to your kid(s), “Let’s all sit down in the living room. Your father and I are creating for you a safe space to share your feelings while we listen without judgment.” It might take a moment or two before your kids open the floodgates, but as long as you just sit still, with your hands in your lap, gazing at your children with pure love and devotion spread across your face, they’ll launch right in before you can say “mindfulness training.”

Naw, I was just screwin’ with you. Of course that would never work. Let’s turn to the experts for suggestions. Dr. Lisa Damour, a psychologist and school counselor, advises here that you should “make space for relief and joy.” Sounds easier said than done, eh? I for one have no idea how such a thing could be accomplished. But remember, our kids are smarter than we think. Why not put it to them to figure this out? You can say to your son, “Brent … I know this pandemic is hard on you. You’re hurting, I get that. But the thing is: you need to make space for relief and joy.” Then just watch as he tries (or doesn’t even try) to keep a straight face. Smirking, giggling, or outright laughing at you isn’t exactly the same thing as joy, but it’s somewhat close. Obviously this is a short-lived pleasure, just a little burst, so follow it up with another: use the word “quaranteenagers” in a sentence. Then hit him with the one-two punch of “lean in” and “show up.” He’ll be in stitches.

It’s crucial to show your support by communicating with your children on their own terms. It’s tempting to hover over them dropping bits of advice here and there, like shaking bacon-bits on a salad, but remember, lots of modern kids are vegetarians, figuratively speaking. (Okay, that metaphor got kind of screwed up … sorry.) Suffice to say, words are not necessarily what our kids need. Gestures, behaviors, and actions “speak” louder. For example, my younger daughter doesn’t exactly gush when I meet her eye and say, as sympathetically and authentically as possible, “How are you doing?” But recently I bought her a totally sweet camera and she really responded well. I mean, she didn’t talk too much (other than to say thank you, having not been raised in a barn thank you very much), but weeks later, she spontaneously kissed my forehead. (I’ll confess I flubbed the moment, because as she approached I instinctively recoiled, but so long as I remain gainfully employed, I’ll surely have other opportunities like this.)

Managing our own distress

This helpful article reminds us not to snap at our teens, pointing out that “this is good advice at any time, but it’s particularly important right now.” Well, this is a simple enough concept, but what about us parents … aren’t we totally stressed too? What if venting like this is necessary for our own coping?

It’s tempting to ignore this “don’t snap” advice as wildly unpractical, but actually, there is a way forward. If you have a cat, you can berate her as a proxy for your child. “Now Fluffy,” you can say, “you’re an absolute disgrace. I’ve seen you washing, which looks life self-care, but I know where that disgusting tongue has been. And I can smell your cat box from here. Ugh.” Fluffy couldn’t care less (unless you raise your voice, which could startle her). Best of all, you’ll feel terrible after admonishing that innocent creature, so you’ll give her all kinds of love, which makes you both feel better. (Well, okay, maybe it only makes you feel better, but still.)

Note: do not try this with your dog! As tempting as it is to say, “BAD Waldo! You are a VERY BAD DOG!” you simply mustn’t. Dogs are very sensitive. At least, I think they are … I’ve never had a dog. Anyway, if your pet happens to be canine, leave the poor animal alone. Go out and buy one of those Hasbro Ugly Dolls, or even a Yoda action figure or something, and just chew its freaking head off! Tell it how awful it is, how useless, how selfish, how lame. You’ll feel a lot better, and if you don’t, then alternately abuse and comfort the doll, in kind of a lather-rinse-repeat style. Or not. I actually have no idea how/if this would work. Forget I said anything. (Man this pandemic thing is hard!)

Confronting fear

Perhaps the biggest problem for teens isn’t how to wash their hands more effectively, or how to best maintain social distance, or how to tolerate the 0.5-second-long pin-prick of being vaccinated. The real issue is their fear. This kind of global crisis has never before happened in their lifetimes, and none of them ever paid attention in History class during that unit on the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. (If my teachers even covered that, I sure as hell wasn’t awake.)

So you need to confront this fear thing head-on. Convey to your teenager that it’s okay to be scared. Note that teens don’t want to be preached to, so it’s important to let this sentiment seem like their idea. The best way to do this is reverse-psychology. Say to them, “Oh, are you scared? Can’t handle a little stay-at-home? Totally freaked out just because your little world got shaken up a bit? Oh, is that needle gonna hurt too bad?!” (Stop short of the old “Chicken! Braaawk-brak-brak-braaawk braawk!” bit because they won’t get the reference.) When your kids push back and say, “Hey, Dad, it’s a global pandemic, I have every right to feel afraid!” then you know they’ve become true believers, because this will be coming from them. (Just don’t ruin the moment by pointing out that “global pandemic” is technically redundant.)

The tech dilemma

Remember my comment earlier, about the problems that can arise when your kids’ parents are cooler and more permissive than you? Well, you should be careful when your draconian policies extend to the virtual world, with restrictions on your kids’ Internet use. Some experts, such as the authors of this article, are actually advising parents to lighten up on “tech time” restrictions. And yet, others (like this one) warn that too much social media, and too much COVID news, can really bring your kid down. Here’s one way forward: if your WiFi equipment is sophisticated enough, consider removing the time-of-day restrictions, but implement a DNS blacklist so that the only site your child can reach is albertnet. This blog is like 99% news-free and all the hateful comments are directed at me … so it’s a safe space on the Internet for your teen.

Surely some experts would find my solution extreme, and that’s fine … but why haven’t they addressed the increase in bullying and other insensitive behavior our kids can expect as their so-called friendships go virtual? It’s much harder to be sensitive online than in person … meaning the pandemic will just compound the problem. If you’re lucky, your kid will mention to you the anguish that is gradually building through this ongoing fusillade of small-scale abuse. This is the time to “be there” for your kid, to make sure he knows you’re on his side. Tell him, for example, “Really, Ricky posted that? Well you know what? He’s an asshole.”

What about videogames? I’ve heard they’re a great way to blow off steam. Should parents be worried about violence and other thematic content? Probably not, so long as their kids don’t actually play these games. I know almost nothing about them, but a little bit of research turned up a game called Boyfriend Dungeon, which (according to this Wikipedia article) is “a role-playing game mixed with a dating simulator, in which the potential romantic interests are generally male characters that can turn into weapons that can be used within dungeons,” with “stalking and emotional manipulation of the player-character.” With games like this, who needs a deadly virus?

Now, I’m probably not being totally fair here, since my knowledge of these games isn’t firsthand. A neighbor of mine was going through a divorce some years back, and I asked how his son (aged eight or so) was doing. My neighbor replied, “Oh, he’s got his [World of] Warcraft, he’ll be fine.” I am happy to report that this kid, who’s probably in high school now, hasn’t yet opened fire on anybody. So I suppose you should go ahead and allow gaming to be your child’s pandemic panacea if that seems to be their thing.

What if the pandemic is helping your kid?

Now, is it possible your child is feeling stress or guilt because the pandemic is going just fine, and in fact has its benefits for her? Of course! This article acknowledges that some kids may have “commitments they didn’t want to keep or some people (classmates, teachers, coaches) they didn’t want to see, so this crisis might actually bring some relief,” but assures us this doesn’t need to be seen as a problem, since “it’s also OK to be happy.” The article suggests you tell your kid, “There’s no right or wrong way to feel.” I actually disagree with this (for example, it’s wrong to feel compassion for anti-vaxxers, those fricking savages) but the overall idea is a good one. You can tell your kid, “Look, the reality is, your standard of living has always been higher than that of most of the world’s population; this country was built on slavery and the eradication of the native population; and all your clothing and electronics are made in overseas sweat shops by underpaid children with no benefits. So there’s ample precedent for you to come out just fine while others across the globe are suffering. Why worry about that now? Just be happy that you’re happy!” I’m sure she will feel much better.

Your teen has COVID … now what?

If your teen gets COVID, he or she is bound to feel pretty humiliated, given all the haranguing you did about staying safe, and all the resources available that he or she obviously failed to take advantage of. In this instance you need to take an honest look at how your teen is doing overall vs. yourself. If you’re in an even worse way, then it may be time to go ahead and rub it in, saying, “I told you so!” and “You should have listened!” and maybe even “You’re getting what you deserve!” This will of course be devastating for your child, but it’ll feel so good for you, it’s probably worth it. On the other hand, if your kid has been suffering even more than you, then his or her feelings come first and you need to do whatever is necessary to prevent guilt or shame from surfacing. “Whatever is necessary” basically means saying, with utter sincerity, “Hey, don’t feel bad—it happens to the best of us.” Now, “sincerity” in this case means you speak from experience. That’s right, it’s time to go get COVID. Head down to an indoor megachurch service, replete with a full choir, preferably in Houston, and don’t you dare wear a mask!

But seriously…

Okay, I had a little fun here, but you might be thinking, “Hey, this is no laughing matter.” I would politely disagree—to me, almost everything is a laughing matter—but I will concede that we should take this issue seriously. Perhaps this post at least has you thinking about how the pandemic affects your teen, and if nothing else I’ve linked to ten perfectly sincere and potentially helpful articles.

More reading on the pandemic

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Saturday, January 8, 2022

The DUMB Approach to New Year’s Resolutions

Introduction

Well, it’s that time of year again, when people start sentences with “it’s that time of year again.” What’s worse, it’s the time for countless articles about New Year’s Resolutions, and why people fail at them, and how to finally get them right. As you can see, I’m just adding to the problem—but this post is different because I’m right, whereas all those other articles are wrong. So keep reading!


Why not SMART resolutions?

One of the most hackneyed mnemonics for setting the right resolutions is taken from preexisting theory about goal-setting (another quagmire of behavioral theory). We’re told to make our resolutions SMART: that is, specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Even the New York Times published a New Year’s Resolution article on that theme, here. Now, to be fair, that article does go into some other stuff that is useful, like breaking bad habits down into cues, routines, rewards, and alternatives (for example, if the cue is you’re tired, and the routine is you light a cigarette, and the reward is you feel stimulated, the proposed change in behavior is, “Instead of smoking a cigarette, replace the stimulus with something else, like cocaine”). But all the stuff about SMART is so tired (the NYT cited it in another article here, for example), and it’s empirically ineffective. People have been touting SMART goals since 1981 and yet it’s still just this hypothetical notion of what behavioral framework people should adapt to. If it were that great an idea, its actual practice would be commonplace.

(Note: my fact-checker has just alerted me to a typo in the preceding paragraph. The NYT did not in fact recommend cocaine as a nicotine alternative. They recommended coffee. But it’s too late to go back and fix my error now. Also, my fact-checker has just pointed out that “hackneyed mnemonics” would be a good name for a rock band. Fair enough, but this guy is starting to bug me.)

So, where was I? Oh yeah: it’s bad enough how old and tired SMART is, but actually, I think most New Year’s Resolutions fail because they’re SMART. So I’m going to teach you how to succeed by making DUMB Resolutions.

DUMB? Am I kidding? No, for once I’m not. I believe the best New Year’s Resolutions are duplicate, unimpressive, mealy-mouthed, and best-effort. I shall explain.

Duplicate

This article in Forbes declares that the #1 “really bad” New Year’s Resolution is something you’ve failed at before. The writer snarks, “If you haven’t been able to keep a resolution before, what makes you think that things will be different this year?” To me, this is just defeatist thinking. Is that how life works—if you ever fail at something, you should just give up? I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s advice to Bart (which I’ve repeated, albeit ironically, many times to my children), “If something’s hard to do, then it’s not worth doing.”

This “fail fast” notion is specifically refuted in another article, in the New York Times, which points out that many Resolutions fail because the new behaviors are difficult and have to be worked up to gradually. The writer advises, “No marathon runner ever steps up to the start line in a big race without putting in the training miles. He or she has been practicing for months, if not years. You should do the same with your New Year’s resolutions.” He recommends starting on your Resolutions in December, so that even if you stumble at first and your Resolution feels futile, January hasn’t even started yet so you won’t get discouraged.

Great point, but why limit yourself to starting a month in advance? If you spent the first three months of last year trying to implement a lifestyle change but abandoned it, you surely learned a lot in that time and there’s no harm making adjustments and trying again. I doubt many smokers have kicked the habit on their first try, but many have indeed kicked their habit eventually.

(Note: my fact-checker has just asserted that “duplicate” might not be exactly the right “D” word here, because a recycled-but-tweaked Resolution isn’t in fact an exact replica. He suggests the D should be for “derivative,” and though he has a point, you may be pleased to learn that I just whacked him and told him to shut up.)

Unimpressive

That’s right, I’m actually going to explain why impressive Resolutions are more likely to fail. Why? Well, the question to ask yourself is, why am I even doing this? If your goal is to be able to tout something, that Resolution will probably only last as long as the annual chatter about Resolutions. I read some article ages ago (and I tried to have my fact-checker go chase it down, but he’s not talking to me) which was really interesting: it asserted that boasting in advance can actually lower your chances of achieving something, if the approval of your peers is the main point. Why? It’s because, having enjoyed the accolades already, the person no longer has much motivation to actually do the thing.

I have seen this play out. I worked with a guy over twenty years ago who was, it must be said, kind of a douche. For example, he once called in sick so he could go skiing, instead of just using his vacation time like an honest person, and was found out because when he left his “cough-cough gosh I’m feeling too sick to come in today cough-cough” voicemail for his boss, he was calling from the ski lodge and accidently put the call on hold instead of hanging up, and instead of hold music they had a running ad for the various amenities of the resort. His boss played the voicemail for all of us in the lunchroom, following which another colleague called the guy’s cell phone and left a voicemail of his own: “Enjoy the slopes, dude!” with all of us laughing in the background. (No, that has nothing to do with bragging-in-advance; it’s just to convey this guy’s douchiness.)

So anyway, that spring the douche announced to the whole office that he was going to run some local marathon on such-and-such a date. Seems like a SMART goal, right? And then for the next two or three months I had to endure all his updates about how the training was going, etc., and everyone was really interested and supportive and impressed, which got old since the guy was such a douche. Finally, the day of the marathon came and went but I didn’t hear any updates. So I asked him about it and he said, “Oh, I didn’t end up running it. I got sick.” Where had I heard that before?

An unimpressive Resolution won’t lead you into this scenario, and besides, self-improvement should be private anyway, and its benefits should be their own reward, rather than anything you’d tout. For example, I could resolve to bore people less. You could never try to impress people by sharing this Resolution with them (i.e., admitting something lame about yourself), and isn’t that kind of the point? Instead, if I’m successful with this, people might gradually decide, “You know, I always thought that Dana guy was kind of a tool, I mean just totally boring, always blathering about stupid stuff like farting, or the spelling of “kindergartner,” or his frickin’ colonoscopy or whatever, but lately I find him a lot less annoying somehow … maybe he’s okay.”

Mealy-mouthed

Yes, I sincerely contend that your Resolutions should be mealy-mouthed—that is, I refute the idea that Resolutions should be specific and measurable. Consider this: the NYT article says, “If, for example, you want to stop biting your nails, take pictures of your nails over time so you can track your progress in how those nails grow back out.” Doesn’t this seem like exactly the kind of fussy and annoying task that would cause somebody to abandon this Resolution? You’d have to be really organized to achieve this, and I speak from experience. Last year I went to a dermatologist to have some moles looked at. She said they looked fine but need to be monitored to make sure they don’t change, so she took some photos of them as a benchmark and scheduled a follow-up exam six months out. Just because I’m a very thorough person, I asked her to snap photos with my phone as well, which she seemed slightly annoyed by, but nevertheless did. Well, I went in for my follow-up and she breezily confessed she’d lost the original photos. And this is a medical doctor! Who does this for a living! And melanoma is a matter of life and death! It’s a good thing I’m so organized I had my own photos with me for the follow-up … but of course this is a very rare thing (and I can see why you hate me for it). It’s just not practical to add a lot of extra accounting bullshit to a behavior change that’s already hard to make.

But even if measuring your progress isn’t hard to do, it’s a bad idea. Why? Well, for one thing, when your goals are specific and data-driven, that makes it easier to decide you’ve failed, when in fact you may have made some progress. For example, let’s say you’ve resolved to lose five pounds by February, and so you’ve cut out dessert, and cream in your coffee, and are eating out less, and meanwhile you’ve really increased your exercise. Then you step on the scale on February 1 and you’ve only lost three pounds. Despondent, you cry out, “It’s hopeless! Eating right and exercising don’t work!” and then you chalk up another failure, feel bad about yourself, and go back to your previous habits. And yet what if you’d actually (but unknowingly) lost five pounds of fat and added two pounds of muscle, thus improving your lean-to-fat ratio, which is more important than weight anyway? You just let specificity and measurability ruin a perfectly good health improvement trajectory!

That’s why mealy-mouthed goals are better. For example, you could resolve to eat more fruit—and gauge your performance via something vague, like thinking, “Hey, I was still a bit hungry after my main course and saw that bowl of fruit and actually grabbed an apple, I’m doing okay!” or, conversely, “Oh, crap, I just ate a bunch of chips when there’s a bowl of fruit right over there—next time I’m going for that.”

(My fact-checker, seeing an opening to deride me, has just pointed out that I myself keep detailed digital records of my bike ride data, which practice complies with the M in SMART. To this, I’d like to point out that the data about my rides is actually trivial. I’m not measurably fitter, based on average speed and the times I’m clocking on climbs, than I was a year ago, despite riding a whopping 87% more miles in 2021 than in 2020. So you can see how setting a specific goal, such as “improving fitness,” and measuring it using data, can be demoralizing as we age. A truly mealy-mouthed goal like “stay in shape” or “age well” is clearly better. Take that, fact-checker!)

Best-effort

The NYT confidently asserts, “There’s no single reason that most people fail to stick to their New Year’s resolutions.” This is false. There is a single reason: we fail because we assess. A college student could take a midterm and fill out the multiple-choice bubbles completely at random, but won’t get an F on the test unless somebody grades it. Grading exams is necessary for deciding who passes a class and ultimately gets a degree, but judgment is totally unnecessary where New Year’s Resolutions are concerned.

Instead, we should just consider our Resolutions best-effort. I can decide I’m going to try to eat more fruit and be less boring, and not worry about whether I can ever check these off as “done.” I mean, what if, in late December of this year, I look back and decide I nailed these? Does that mean I can stop now, and go back to eating chips and droning on about Simplex bike shifters or my vasectomy? No, that would undo the Resolution!

Meanwhile, if on March 31 I look back and realize that I haven’t had a bite of fruit in months, and that all winter I’ve been blathering nonstop about family shibboleths and high school wrestling, should I now just give up and conclude that my Resolutions weren’t good ones? Of course not. It’s never too late to try harder.

Finally, if I realize at this time next year that I’ve become truly carpophagous, and that everybody hangs on my every word, I can come up with new Resolutions (though without any fanfare or celebration that would suggest completion of the previous ones). On the other hand, if I’m as boring as ever, still prattling on about mirrorless cameras, epic bike rides, and the metric system, I’ll have my first duplicate/derivative Resolution identified for 2023 … and I already know it’ll be DUMB!

(A final note: my fact-checker, still sulking, has just announced that he’s found a factual error in this post but won’t tell me what it is. If you find anything, please let me know.)

Further reading

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