102: Caring for Your Child’s Mental Health During Uncertain Times, with Shelli Dry, Ph.D.

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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We’re in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and filled with uncertainty and a lot of intense feelings. That’s true for most of us as adults, and it’s doubly true for our kids. There’s a lot of helplessness during uncertain times like these and that lack of feeling in control of life can be extra tough for kids to navigate.

In this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Shelli Dry about how we can help our kids navigate their big emotions and care for their mental health in the midst of uncertainty. Dr. Dry offers several parenting strategies and resources we can provide to our kids to help them move forward, despite the uncertainty. When we give kids resources — things they know that they can fall back on — when the world is saying, “We don’t know what’s next,” your child can say “I don’t either, but I know that I have these things I can do to help me feel better about myself and what’s going on in the world.”


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My Guest

Shelli Dry, Ph.D.

Shelli received her Master of Education degree in special education from the University of Louisville. She earned her doctorate in occupational therapy from Eastern Kentucky University. Since 1998, she has dedicated her career to pediatrics and mental health. Her interests include early childhood development and working with children with autism and Down syndrome. Shelli has earned a distinguished reputation within the mental health community as well as with local government health lawmakers and the media. Considered one of the most knowledgeable experts in her field in the US, she is often consulted for her opinion on public policy changes.



Shelli Dry, PhD (00:03): They've lost a lot too, our kids. They've lost the opportunity to go to school and sit with their friends. So a lot of children are feeling grief at this time. Not just the uncertainty, but all the loss they've had in their lives in just a short period that has created some depression and some anxiety.

Penny Williams (00:27): Welcome to the Parenting ADHD Podcast, where I share insights and strategies on raising kids with ADHD, straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, ADHD-aholic and Mindset Mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started.

Penny Williams (00:55): Welcome back to the Parenting ADHD Podcast. I'm so excited in this episode to be talking to Shelli Dry, and we are going to talk about all things caring for your child's mental health during the pandemic, specifically, but also in a broader conversation about just caring for mental health in uncertain times. What do we do when there's so much uncertainty to really help our kids navigate it and stay healthy in their mental and emotional health? Thanks for joining me, Shelli. I so appreciate you sharing some of your time with us. Will you start by introducing yourself, let us know who you are and what you do?

Shelli Dry, PhD (01:34): Certainly I'm Dr. Shelli Dry and I'm the director of clinical operations at Enable My Child and Enable My Child is a teletherapy company where we serve children of all ages. And my career is as an occupational therapist, and I've spent a lot of time working with pediatrics and serving children in mental health units, and then also early intervention and a variety of ages and stages.

Penny Williams (02:06): Fantastic work. And I love that your company is focusing on tele-health. I think that we're really pushing that way probably faster now than we would have given that we're spending a lot of time at home. And a lot of our therapists have shifted to online talk therapy. But I love the opportunity for families to access things like occupational therapy and those sort of supports online as well, when they don't have access to it otherwise.

Shelli Dry, PhD (02:36): I agree, Penny., I think it's crucial that families have that access and they're able to get the help they need despite having to stay home and do things a little bit differently than they used to.

Penny Williams (02:47): Yeah. Such good work. Where do we start with our conversation? What makes the most sense? We're in the midst of this pandemic, it's feeling more and more uncertain every day. I think a lot of us, myself included, thought that this would be a few months and then we would get past it. And here we are, what six months in I think, and there's still no end in sight at this point. So, how do we help our kids navigate that? And even ourselves?

Shelli Dry, PhD (03:18): Yes. And certainly that is really what frustrates, not only children, but families and everybody, they don't know what's next. And especially a child who has a little bit of additional needs for support — when they have that uncertainty, it throws such a damper on their mood and on how they approach things in life. So one of the things that I like to do with children is give them little glimmers of hope and help them learn to recognize, even though there is uncertainty, we can structure your world as much as possible. But we're also going to help you have things that make you feel good all the time, resources for you to fall back on. So really helping kids identify what makes them feel good inside and what makes them feel warm and loved and just feel good about themselves. And I just call those glimmers.

Shelli Dry, PhD (04:20): It's a little bit different from an approach to identify what triggers you instead of knowing what your triggers are, but you really want a child to learn what's going to help them. It gives the child control over an uncertain world. So when you feel out of control, the first thing you want to do is find what makes you feel good. And so each child's different on what they can do. What does make them feel good. You can help them identify some of those things, like thinking about laughing at something funny, laughter's a great, great way to kind of lighten the mood and it helps kids feel good about themselves. So telling silly jokes might be one of their glimmers. Some children like to spend a little time with music or just sitting with mom and dad and snuggling. There's just so many different ways. But the idea behind this is that you give them all of these resources, things they know that they can fall back, on so that when the world is saying, we don't know what's next, the child says I don't either, but I know that I have these things I can do to help me feel better about myself and what's going on in the world.

Penny Williams (05:50): Yeah. That also reminds me of a gratitude practice. That's such a helpful way to help with our own mindset, with our kids' mindsets, to recognize that while there's a lot of struggle, there's always something good. There's always something to be thankful for.

Shelli Dry, PhD (06:09): I agree. And gratitude is one of the things that we know works well when kids know that there are a lot of things in the world that aren't going my way. And so helping kids remember that is going to help their mindset and help them get past some of this uncertainty,

Penny Williams (06:30): What kind of structure can we put in place to help them feel more of a sense of control? A lot of kids will be doing school at home, and so I imagine a schedule for that, but what else can we do?

Shelli Dry, PhD (06:46): I love the idea of schedules and helping kids do things at the same time each day, or similar, close to the same time each day, because that way they do know what comes next. And giving them that certainty. So they know, okay, every day at eight o'clock I get up. And the first thing I'm going to do is have my breakfast. It seems so simple, but even knowing what's going to happen when I wake up, it helps a child then feel a little bit more in control of their environment. So giving them that schedule and letting them know what time they do class and letting them know what their day's going to look like is very helpful. I like to work with kids so that they know in advance what's going to happen. So maybe discussing the schedule the day before, if they're at the right age. But another great thing to do is at night kind of reviewing that day and letting them talk about what happened and how things went. And then, the next day is going to be very similar. So, schedules are 100% important for developing that structure around the day.

Penny Williams (08:06): Yeah. And I like to give choices, even with really little kids. When you give them the opportunity to make a choice, then they feel like they have a sense of control. So for a really, really small kid, "which cup are you going to drink from? Which Disney princess do you want today," right? Or "do you want a ham or turkey for your lunch sandwich?" We're giving measured choices. We're not just letting them run wild, but by giving some choice, it really builds that sense that they have some control over something.

Shelli Dry, PhD (08:46): I agree Penny. I think that is extremely important. And like you said, control of those choices, even "do you want to wear the blue or the red shirt today?" Letting them know that their opinion counts to you also gives them control, but it also gives them that sense of comfort. And "Hey, mom really does want to know what I think."

Penny Williams (09:09): Yeah. And it starts to foster independence really early. And I think that kids are most successful when we start that at an early age, because again, we can control it and still offer a sense of control to a child. We can still keep them safe. We can still sort of help them navigate. We can steer them, but still really provide the opportunity to make decisions, to even problem-solve and give that sense of control. And I think that's even more important now than ever with so much uncertainty. The more control we can offer throughout their day, the better. If they're doing at home school and it can be just done at their own pace, then maybe offer which subject they would like to do first. It doesn't work for everyone. My son's in high school and they have to be on live according to a schedule. But for some kids that would be an option to say, "do you want to do math first or English first, today?" Just really giving them as many opportunities as possible, I think is really helpful as well.

Shelli Dry, PhD (10:20): I think that is very helpful. And I think that does foster healthy emotional health. And we always want to take that into consideration. How can we build their resources? How can we build up their self esteem and their confidence and help the child feel good about themselves? Because we want to make sure that we're taking care of the emotional side of their mental health. As you said, have some control and some choices in this world and just doing whatever we can to help help the child know that even if they're feeling anxious about what's going on outside, that they have options and that we do consider them as valid individuals who can make good decisions and good choices.

Penny Williams (11:14): Yeah. Really building trust. When we do that, really showing them that we value their input and opinion and that we trust them to make some good choices, that's even more valuable for kids with ADHD because they get so many messages that they're not meeting expectations. So it's really important to provide even more of that to try to counterbalance it. How do we have these conversations with our kids about the negative, about the hard stuff — people are dying. It's scary to go out in the world. You might get sick. I think it's even harder for younger kids to have that conversation. But often we try to shelter our kids from this news and the older kids are getting it anyway. They're so connected online that they're learning about these things anyway. Then, if they are knowing what's happening, we have to be talking about it with them.

Shelli Dry, PhD (12:16): Yes, Penny, that's a good point. Especially when you're talking about your older children, your teenagers and your middle schoolers, a lot of times, they're not going to bring that conversation up to their parents, but the parents need to be the ones to initiate the conversation and just check in with their child about how they're feeling about what's going on and opening the door and giving the child the opportunity to talk to them. Because you're right, there is so much negative report now that they may overhear, they may access it online, they may see it on the news, they may just overhear other people talking. And sometimes the kids don't want to worry their family members, so they may not bring it up. So using those open ended questions. And as I mentioned earlier, reviewing their day at night, but also talking to them about anything that could be causing them any anxiety or fear or even grief, because they've lost a lot too, our kids. They've lost the opportunity to go to school and sit with their friends. So a lot of children are feeling grief at this time. Not just the uncertainty, but all the loss they've had in their life in just a short period of time has created some depression and some anxiety for the child.

Penny Williams (13:43): I mean, their world really has turned upside down. I think it's hard for us as adults. It's been a big shift too, but there are some constants in our lives as adults like work. And we tend to interact more socially online or over the phone, than maybe some kids do because kids are going and being around their friends every day at school, they get to do that. And so I think that the shift has just been so much bigger for kids. It's been so much more disruptive, if even it's possible to imagine. It feels so disruptive to me, but I have to remind myself that as disruptive as it feels to me, it's much more so for kids who really had a very sort of routinized day for the most part, and now that's completely different. Some of our kids are going to get to go back to school in person.

Penny Williams (14:43): I don't know that it's going to last. My daughter went back to college and at the end of the first two weeks, they sent them home, closed the campus, because COVID was already out of control on campus. And I see a lot of other public schools and younger kids going through a similar struggle when they try to go back in person. So, your child may get that for a short time and then it could be snatched right out from under them again. And I think it's really hard for them to process why things are different. I think it's hard for kids with ADHD, with time blindness to say, "eventually this is going to get better." It just feels like forever to them.

Shelli Dry, PhD (15:22): Yes. And especially children with ADHD who need to know when things start in this uncertainty and just the changes that can occur, as you said, just two weeks down the road: I think I'm going back to school and then two weeks they say, "Oh no, you're not going to school." I've heard of some schools that tried it for three days and then found out it was not going to be successful. And they had to change. That's so hard for all children, but especially for children who have some of those learning differences and have some of those additional needs, it's difficult for them to accept that, that I thought things were going to be this way and now they're not. And I don't know when this is going to stop, it's going to go on and on and on. So the things we've mentioned, building structure, as much as we can, is one of the things we can do.

Penny Williams (16:24): Yeah. I think it's a big piece too, just for ADHD. In general, I talk a lot about creating structure and routine. And so, saying that our kids need it now more than ever is really helpful in a myriad of ways. If you're new to implementing a structure and you're doing it for the purpose of pandemic, it's also really going to serve you and your child in a lot of other ways as well. It will be even more helpful as well. I know over the summer I've been working with several families, coaching parents whose kids are young six, seven, eight years old, and all they have wanted is to go back to school and see their friends or to meet at the park with their friends. They just are really struggling to understand why it's so different. And they can say, "well, yeah, I know it's a risk. We might get sick. That's why we can't see each other right now." But, over time, that sort of fades for the younger kids, I think, and they really struggle with not understanding why they can't get that social connection. The biggest thing for us as human beings is connecting with others — our mental health is the best when we have really strong, authentic connections with others. And so that's been one of the toughest things during the pandemic that we're losing. How do we help our kids still have social connection and still develop their social skills?

Shelli Dry, PhD (17:56): That's a good point. Children are devastated right now because they feel like they've lost their friends. So we do have to give them events that they can do. One of the things that I was talking to a family this week about was finding their child's interests, it happens to be Minecraft. So we talked about where they can be in a group with two or three other children their age, and then have a Minecraft event or the family is going to even incorporate some problem solving with these children. They come up with what they want to solve, and then they use Minecraft to play and to solve the problem. So they're using what the child's interested in and they're adding in a few friends so they can get the social aspect.

Shelli Dry, PhD (18:49): And then they're also working on some of the aspects that their child needs to work on, which was problem solving. So that's one way to do it, find what your child likes and then set them up with social groups online and focus the event around what the child likes so that they take an interest. Let them help with the planning and let them have some of that time with other children and just let them be a kid. You gotta let them be a child. And we've just got to make do with what we have. And right now it's online socialization, but there's also phone calls. And, there's ways we can help our kids connect with other kids. There's some people who are doing park events where they might be doing some parallel play and in their own separate little pods — they're just trying to keep their kids safe, but still give them the connection.

Penny Williams (19:50): Yeah. It's hard. It's super hard really. And I think most kids do connect with technology. I think some kids still don't as much or still don't even understand that this is just the way it has to be right now. And then you see a lot of behavior come from that. And when kids are maybe even holding inside their feelings about the pandemic, if they're really worried and they're not talking about it, that can start to come out in behavior, we can start seeing anger and aggression or a lot of sadness or withdrawing. And we have to be a detective with our kids and really recognize where that's stemming from and then help them to work through that as well. Really, really validating their feelings is incredibly important, to say that it's okay to be frustrated right now. It's okay to be sad right now. It's okay to be worried. Every emotion is natural and human, and I think we need to give them permission. That's why a lot of times kids hold things in and why adults hold things in, as a culture, we tend to label feelings as either good or bad, or wanted or unwanted. And we need to really give our kids permission to feel whatever they're feeling and to know that it's okay, and then help them to work through it.

Shelli Dry, PhD (21:22): Oh, I couldn't agree more. Giving them permission to work through those feelings is extremely important and you're validating what the child is feeling so that they don't feel like they have to then cover it up. Another thing I've always worked with families on, tell children the change that's going to occur before it occurs. So pre-warning your child if you know that a change is going to occur. So even though we may not know how long schools, will go back, we can give them that ability to know today we're going to go to school. That's what is going to happen for the day. And just letting them know in advance, if a change is going to occur, if you get a message that we're going to now go to online school, then I would prepare the child for that. You can use social stories, you can use a lot of different ways, or you can just talk to your child in a way that honors where they are and what works for them. So incorporating those techniques that you already know, work best for your child and giving them those pre warnings as much as possible.

Penny Williams (22:34): I'm glad you mentioned social stories. I'm a huge fan of social stories because they learn so much from them and they don't realize that they're learning. So it's really easy to get them to engage in social stories very often. And I have seen some print-it -yourself social stories around COVID floating around the internet. I'll try to link a couple in the show notes for everyone, but there are some even specific to what's going on now, but in general, there are social stories for dealing with frustration, dealing with the loss of friendships, etc. There's lots of different things out there. Now there's so many, but there didn't used to be hardly any, and it was hard to come by. And now there's a ton of them out there. They're really amazing. My son has used several at different ages and really, really connected with those that are written well as a story for a specific age group, they can really get into it just as if they were choosing a fiction book to read or choosing a story book to read.

Penny Williams (23:41): And they really can be powerful for a lot of different emotions, a lot of different social struggles, but also, you can find them at this point, even for the specifics of today and now as well. And I think it just makes the conversations easier. Instead of sitting down and saying, "let's talk about how you're feeling," you can sit down and read a story together. And then that might lead to a conversation about the character, which I think is often easier for kids, especially the little ones who are dealing with kind of intense emotions that they're not used to. I think it's easier to talk about characters and things like that than to talk about their own feelings.

Shelli Dry, PhD (24:28): A very good point, using characters and using some of those types of play and social stories are also one of my favorite things. I love to incorporate them wherever you need them. So even when they started talking about wearing a mask, I wrote a quick social story on wearing masks because I know how helpful they are, giving them the opportunity to explore their feelings without it relating directly to them. Using doll houses and playing with the and setting up play events like that helps children explore their feelings in a nice, safe way, too.

Penny Williams (25:09): Yeah. And just talking about them. In our culture, we tend to not talk about feelings as much, and it's so important. It's so, so important. And we have to teach our kids that it's important to think about how you're feeling and to honor it for yourself ,to work through it, to say "maybe this is really hard right now, but I know things will get better." After a few months into COVID I know my older kids were really sort of like, "is this ever going to end?" I'm starting to feel like it's never going to end. And we talked about how there was the Spanish flu in 1918, but we weren't living before COVID like there was a pandemic. So, at some point, they got back to normalcy after that, and we will do the same thing. Trying to relate it to another reality and being able to show them concretely that yes, we will figure out how to deal with this new virus.

Penny Williams (26:16): We will find a vaccine or treatments or whatever it is. We will get to a place where life becomes more of the normal that we knew before. Because I mean, even for myself, I just started to feel like, "wow, is this forever?" It feels like forever, right? When you're stuck at home and everything is different and everything is uncertain, it does start to feel like it's never going to get better. And we have to really focus then on other times where mankind has kind of had a similar struggle and the fact that they did get beyond it, really being able to show our kids that it can get better and that we can have good things while we're in the midst of uncertainty, which is a good circle back to where you started in offering these opportunities to celebrate the goodness in every day, make sure there's something every day that makes our kids feel good or feel good about themselves. And there's really a lot of that available, even when you're stuck at home, it kind of doesn't feel like it. Get creative — if ever there was an opportunity for creativity, I think it's now. And helping our kids with exploration and new things, offering new opportunities, new experiments, new adventures might be another really good way to keep a positive tone for your family in the midst of what's happening.

Shelli Dry, PhD (28:00): Yeah. I love that. I love that. I love everything you just said about being positive and offering new adventures, going on nature walks, finding joy in the little things in life. There's a lot of positivity you can incorporate into your daily routine.

Penny Williams (28:18): Yeah, absolutely. And kids love kind of that explorative adventurous, trying something new approach. There's so many things like science experiments that you can do at home with the things that you have in your kitchen. Really take those opportunities and be together. Where you'd think that we have a lot of connection with family right now, and a lot of quality time because we're all spending more time at home, but I'm finding with a lot of families that I talk to, that we're still separated. We're still going to our own corners and doing our own things. And we have to be mindful that we still need to connect with each other. Right now more than ever, because we're not getting as much connection outside of the family unit.

Shelli Dry, PhD (29:08): Right. So even schedule in time to do a family event, have family game night or do something your family enjoys and schedule that time and be committed to it. We're gonna make this time just for our family.

Penny Williams (29:24): Yeah. Saturday movie night or Friday game night. We can take the Taco Tuesday thing that has somehow caught on and is a thing for everyone, it seems, like everybody knows taco Tuesday... You can make similar things for your family. You could have literally Taco Tuesday and Wednesday is spaghetti or whatever, just things for your kids to look forward to and know what to expect more than usual is a lot of what I'm taking away from your advice here around uncertain times.

Shelli Dry, PhD (29:58): Yes, yes. Definitely. You hit the nail on the head. That's important. Scheduling and giving children something to look forward to and incorporating those positive events into their daily routine and making sure every day that they do have something that they can be grateful for.

Penny Williams (30:24): Yeah. So important. Anything else that you wanted to be sure we talk about before we wrap up? I really think we've hit everything.

Shelli Dry, PhD (30:24): We didn't mention mindfulness directly, but you did talk about being aware of what's going on around you and trying to develop some of that mindfulness is important in children and giving them the aspect to accept things, to understand, recognize, and then let them go.

Penny Williams (30:46): Yeah, it's really powerful. Mindfulness for them and for us is very important. That makes us much better parents when we're really mindfully aware of what's going on with our kids and where they are and what they need. Thanks so much for sharing some of your insights and your time with the audience. I know that everyone is going to get some great takeaways and ideas from this episode of how to really help our kids navigate uncertain times in a healthy way, and to really keep a focus on good mental health as we're going through it. For everyone listening, you can find the show notes at parentingadhdandautism.com/102. And I will have links for you to connect with Shelli and her work and her website as well there. And I would encourage you to connect there and learn more from her as well. And with that we'll end this episode, I will see everyone next time. Thanks again.

Penny Williams (31:54): Thanks for joining me on the Parenting ADHD Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share, and don't forget to check out my online courses, parent coaching and mama retreats at parentingadhdandautism.com.

Thank you!

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it. Have something to say, or a question to ask? Leave a comment below. I promise to answer every single one. **Also, please leave an honest review for the Beautifully Complex Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and appreciated! That's what helps me reach and help more families like yours.

I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

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