A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Rev. Amelia Richardson Dress of UCC Longmont to chat about my blog post 7 Ways on How to Mentally Survive Your High School Lockdown. Below is the transcript of the podcast linked above.
In the interview itself, I think it is important to note that I some of descriptors for Dan Siegel’s Brain Model were described incorrectly. To watch the full, correct version of his model as presented by him, please click here.
[Intro Music Begins]
Rev. Amelia: Hi all! You're listening to In Other Words, a podcast where we explore what it takes to talk to kids about the things that matter. I'm Amelia Richardson Dress, a pastor serving UCC Longmont and a writer interested in spirituality, justice issues, education and parenting and especially the rich places where those things intersect. This is week seven of the eight week podcast series where I'm interviewing experts about some of the hard things in modern parenting. On today's episode, I'm talking with Lena Hilder McCain, the counselor at Interfaith Bridge Counseling in Denver where she specializes in working with teens. Lena has a rich faith background herself and a wealth of knowledge from years spent in youth ministry. In this interview though, I'm talking with her specifically about helping kids in the aftermath of a school lockdown. You'll hear us reference a blog post that she wrote on the topic after a threat at a local school and you can find that at InterfaithBridge.com, but I will also link to it on my blog at UccLongmont.org. Just go to the faith and families link and then down to the blog. It's an article well worth reading. Another quick note, Lena and I recorded this interview in a spare moment at the congregations alive conference in February. And the conversation was rich and her information is super helpful, but you will hear the faint echoes of behind the scenes noises. Um, and the sound quality is just not quite as good. It is worth putting up with. And I hope that this information is helpful.
It's, it's interesting to me that the drills themselves or, or the lockdowns, I mean a lockdown to be, you know, a drill can be had for just as a drill and the lockdown, sometimes it happens for a reason
Lena McCain: But we don't know which.
Rev. Amelia: You don't know which is going on.
Lena McCain: Right.
Rev. Amelia: And so the thing that we've experienced in my family with my daughter is, is the drills themselves are triggering a lot of anxiety. And so it was interesting to me as I was reading your post about just that anxiety coming up. And it sounds, I mean I work with kids, so is that a broad scale thing that you're seeing coping with anxiety around lockdowns or drills?
Lena McCain: Yeah, the short answer is yes, absolutely. And in the longer answer is um, there was a lockdown at a school, a couple of months back and I have a lot of clients at that school in particular and it was about 11:00 AM and I got an influx of texts messages from my clients, which is normal in some ways of them checking in if they feel anxious or something. But the fact that each and every one texted me about them being in this lockdown and I was like, cool, something's going on here. And there's no training out there. Right. When you get an influx of text messages from teens being like, I'm in a lockdown, I don't know if it's a drill of what, like I'm feeling really nervous. Everything we've learned together in therapy is not helping me. What do I do? Yeah. There's not training to help you through text message in that. And so I started to think, well, okay, so if they're feeling anxious and everything we've learned together is not working, why is that? And so that's where we started our conversation. And a large part of it is, is the unknown. Like I don't know if this is real or not. I don't know if this is the last time that I'm going to be alive. And I also know what it was like last time when it was a drill and how shitty I felt afterwards...opps! Sucky, opps sorry!
Rev. Amelia: [laughing] It's okay.
Lena McCain: [laughing] okay. How CRAPPY I feel afterwards. Sometimes I cuss.
Rev. Amelia: [laughing] Sometimes I cuss too. [inaudible]
Lena McCain: Um. But that's real, right? How crappy I feel afterwards. And what do I know about that? And the trick with that piece is if we're looking at it on a neurological level, your brain doesn't know the difference between reality and memory. So if you go into a lockdown, your brain is just going to automatically go from a prior experience and it's going to dysregulate itself and then it's going to try and take care of itself. But how do you take care of yourself if you know what it was like before and you're questioning what's happening now, what happened last time, and what could happen all at once. And we don't teach those things. And things like taking a deep breath. They don't work in those moments because you're trying to survive, but you don't know what you're surviving, if that makes sense.
Rev. Amelia: Uh huh. That does make sense. So in that moment, what advice is there for kids?
Lena McCain: Yeah. That's a great question! What advice is there for kids? There's a lot. So in the moment, so if you're in a lockdown, the first piece is if a teen reaches out to you or even a kid, right? They have their cell phone. And they reach out to you, the first is, are you physically safe? That's the number one piece. Because, um, a lot of times I'll have like in that specific example that I shared, three of them were locked outside, outside of the classroom and they were by themselves. And then, um, two more of them were in a classroom with other teens, but no adults. So do they remember their protocol? Do they know how to be physically safe in this? Cool. If you don't know, here's, here's some resources, right? And, and I share that in my blog post, right? Like, take a picture of this and keep it so you know, um, and after the physical safety is going to, okay, let's like, let's take a couple of breaths, even though it doesn't really work.
When you're feeling anxious, let's take a couple of them because I'm going to ask you some questions. So they take their breaths and then the questions are what are you thinking about? What are you worried about and how are you feeling and what are you noticing about yourself? And oftentimes the responses are around I'm feeling worried, I'm feeling scared and feeling confused and I'm feeling angry. Sometimes that's the one that really comes in. So we know those pieces. I usually then go into are you feeling any kind of sadness? And then they can go, yeah, sometimes. Or maybe no, not yet. Um, and then the next question is, so in all of that, what does that related it to? What are you thinking about? And that often is tied to, or my friends, okay, am I going to be okay? What do I say to my loved ones?
Like, can I reach out to them? Um, and what do I do if they come in here?
Rev. Amelia: Yeah.
Lena McCain: And so then I usually switch gears and don't focus so much on what are they going to do if they come in here. But I focus into, okay, list off who it is that you would want to talk to right now. Who are they? And they list them out and then, great, so what is it you would want them to know? And often it's that like, I love you and I'm in this situation. And then providing them the template of how do you say that in a succinct way. And write it out like let's do it because that's what you're worried about. That's what you're scared about. Because what if this is the last time? And that's where the anxiety comes from because they know. They've seen it with Parkland. They've seen it, you know, with Sandy Hook. They've seen it here in Colorado. If they weren't alive for Columbine, they know it was there. It's a huge part of our trauma history in Colorado that's been passed down to us. And so when we look at that, they know what a possible outcome could be.
Rev. Amelia: Yeah.
Lena McCain: And that's there, their brains aware of it. So how do we get them to do the things that they actually want to do versus taking a deep breath and try to calm down cause that's not going to help.
Rev. Amelia: Right.
Lena McCain: And then once they say that, that puts them in connection with the people that they care about, their community. Right. And then that they can start the conversation and it isn't to take away, right. We're not trying to take away the anxiety, but what we are trying to do is give a space for it to exist because anxiety isn't just going to go away. The fear and the sadness isn't going to go away, but it needs to be expressed. Otherwise if it is just a drill, the aftermath, you won't be able to hold it. You'll then just become exhausted and stressed out and it'll just repeat itself until it gets overwhelming.
Rev. Amelia: I'm wondering about the fatigue of that. So I don't, I don't know if it's the same for teens, but at the elementary school level, they have multiple drills a month between, you know, a fire drill and then there's lockdown drills and there's lockout drills. And I mean, I've even lost track. I just, I know there's two or three a month. And so, um, when kids have a real lockdown situation and then they know that was a real lockdown situation, um, it seems like it would really be hard to make the space to handle a drill the next month. You know because you're either taken right back to all of the trauma from being terrified during the lockdown or you're trying to brush it off like, oh, I shouldn't worry. This is just a drill. And so I'm just curious about if there's a fatigue level that ever kicks in with all these things.
Lena McCain: Absolutely. And that is where, that is how anxiety becomes itself, right? Because there's this circle, right? So it's like, it goes from that fatigue, that exhaustion to stress, to anxiety, and it just circles itself. So if we don't make space for it, it never gets reset. And that's one of the biggest things so in doing this work and talking to teens and doing this workshop on how to manage that anxiety, one of the questions I ask is what isn't working in how your school or community is handling your lockdowns in the aftermath. And 100% it's, there's no closure and that's the piece, right? It's not that they want information about what happened, like sure, that's good. They like some information and they understand they can't have all the details, but then it's really in the aftermath piece and the few days to follow. What closure is there?
Why aren't you taking the time 10 minutes in the morning to practice a distraction technique or a grounding technique to help me figure out how to operate through the day? Why isn't there more counselors available? Why aren't you reaching out to organizations that offer pro bono counselors to come in and talk to us? Why aren't we having an assembly on how to share or process? Why are you adding like three days later, this is our safe corner if a shooter comes in. Yeah, because that's too much for me. When we haven't cooled down, it's that lack of closure and support and a 100%. That's what every teenager tells me.
Rev. Amelia: Sort of torn between thinking. Um, that's encouraging in a way because those of us who were supporting teens can help figure out ways to offer that co closure. And that's, uh, that's a, I don't mean simple. It's not easy, but it's not expensive. It's, um, it takes some time and some intention, but that's, it also kills me that they're not getting, that they're dealing with something when you're describing is teens handling end of life questions and then not getting support around that. Right. And, and we give support to people in the hospital when they're facing an end of life question or, you know, emergency services. Um, and then we give closure afterwards, but we're not offering that to our kids.
Lena McCain: Right because for all intensive purposes, they're thriving right? The next day they are still moving and operating. They're going through...they're going through the routine, but we're not slowing down and really looking and seeing, okay, well just cause you can do your schoolwork doesn't mean that you're sleeping well. Yeah. Right? Or that you weren't thinking about it, right? The other piece of this is that it's not also just drills and lockdowns and it happening in your school or wherever it may be happening at. Right? It's also on social media, right, and I'm a big proponent of technology. I'd never tell my teens to not bring in their phones and things like that. Like I used video games and my sessions, half the time, we're real big supporter of using technology and social media. But when you've experienced something like a park, like the Parkland shooting, how quickly did it spread? And when it spreads, everything right back to on that neurological level, your brain can't tell the difference between it being real or something you're reading.
It now feels like it's in there. It's going to start producing those thoughts and then if we're looking at it on a real time, real life level, on a conscious level, you don't even know what's happening. As you're reading it and you're going, wow, why am I having a hard time sleeping? Why am I suddenly more stressed out? Right? And chances are it's because you've now read all this information and if you've experienced a locked down and had that experience like that anxiety, now it's being re-traumatized or brought back to the surface and you're not having any closure because your school maybe didn't do anything about it or your family didn't, right? Because we didn't know that you read it on your Twitter account. And so then how do we implement boundaries? And most teens don't even know that they can mute things on their social media or that it's happening enough to just needing to do that.
Rev. Amelia: Yeah. There was something about the way you gave that advice in your post, you know, that was like this is, here's how it works on Instagram. [laughing] Here's how it works on Facebook and it wasn't the sort of standard advice around turn off your phone.
Lena McCain: Sure.
Rev. Amelia: [laughing] Which I can't even do.
Lena McCain: [laughing] Right? You can't ask a teen to do that! Preposterous.
Rev. Amelia: So was just, it was really um, it just I thought it entered into that space where they're at, but also recognize they may not know, like legitimately you may not know .
Lena McCain: And it doesn't make you a bad person for doing that. Like, I think for me that's the biggest piece when maybe not in lockdowns in particular, or school shootings, but when I'm looking at the news and politics, right. There are things, um, that I really care about and I'm passionate about for human rights AND constantly having it on my feed really intense and brings me a lot of anxiety and stress, stress and sadness. And then I find myself having a hard time moving through the day and it doesn't make me a bad person for muting and then checking in once a month. Or having conversations face to face about it. But I can feel that guilt. It feels that ...because that's shame. That's part of our society. We shame people for putting those filters on because if you're not in the know, you're choosing to not actively participate and make a difference. And with shame the feeling of guilt is quick to follow. It's its best friend.
Rev. Amelia: Yeah.
Lena McCain: And that's not fair to put on people, particularly teens around something like lockdowns and shootings. It's just not fair.
Rev. Amelia: No, it's not. And it's not fair to characterize setting a boundary as being a lack of compassion. When, when you're, you're protecting your ability to engage by doing that. Um, and then by setting a boundary you are so, yeah, separating those things in terms of you're not a bad person if you just need to filter out everybody's comments.
Lena McCain: Right! If you just need to turn off this word for the day or this hashtag or even on Snapchat, I'm just going to silence these people so they don't know for a little bit. Yeah. And then you can make up whatever excuse you want. If they ask why, like you saw it, right. That's okay. Like sure. We don't want to encourage lying, but also your mental health is really important in these times. So let's put these boundaries in place and then maybe at some point you'll be able to talk about it and share it with other teens, your peers, and then we have a domino effect.
Rev. Amelia: You talked about the brain and how it functions in those things and you had that beautiful example of the fist. And tell me a little bit about that and how that's helpful for kids.
Lena McCain: So that's Dr Dan...Dan Siegel, who is mostly known for it and he is phenomenal. I really love him, he's of the No Drama Discipline is one of his really big books. And so what he talks about with the brain is really how does the brain function, right? And it's a survival technique. So when we make ourselves our hands into a fist and we put the thumb under our fingers, right, our wrist and our forearm represent are like spinal cord in our brainstem. Um, and then the fist itself represents the brain. Now when we are calm, cool and collected and everything's jiving for us, like we are being logical. Our fingers are over our thumb, our brain is able to make choices, rational decisions. It is able to speak about where we're at. But as soon as our nervous system gets dysregulated, and that can be anything - it can be as extreme as a school lockdown or shooting.
And it could be as simple as the water not warming up quick enough, right? Whatever it is, it flips its lid so to speak. And so in his example of the fist, your fingers fly up and it exposes your prefrontal Cortex, right? And now we're looking at, okay, why can't I make rational decisions? Because everything that that prefrontal cortex is collecting, right? The midbrain is now exposed. There's nothing there to help it figure out what to do. And so, and that's a survival mechanism that originally came around for from prehistoric times. We hear the rustle of the leaves and our brain goes, okay, I take care of myself. What if that's an animal, right? Yeah. Well our society doesn't really have to worry about that anymore, but it does have to worry about is, is there a stress that's going to come that'll impact my ability to do my schoolwork or my actual work at work?
Right? That's what we're worried about now. And so with our brain, the goal is then to kind of put that flipped lid back down over the mid brain. And it's hard to do that. First you have to know where, what am I feeling? Right? So a regulated nervous system, once again, it's that calm, cool, collected. When it gets dysregulated, we go into hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal. Hyper-arousal is really where like fight or flight is. And that's what most people, um, are knowledge with. They know about, right? And so for me, I'm a fighter. I tend to fight. Everyone can go on into any other categories, but so if I get dysregulated, I'm going to get louder. I'm going to get bigger, I'm going to be more aggressive. Some people go to flight, they just like disappear, right? They isolate themselves. They don't want to engage with community.
Um, and you know that that's happening because in those two categories, in hyper-arousal, because you'll start to get warmer, you'll start to feel jittery. You can't think clearly, right? Um, I like to think of the movie inside out where there's anger, right? All the things he exhibits his fists, he feels tightened. He gets different colors, right? That is hyper arousal. On the flip side, there's hypo-arousal and that is sleep or freeze. So I always use the example of my best friend. So if I'm a fighter, right, and we get in a disagreement, I'm going to be more like, well, why don't you think that way? What is this like? We need to solve this duh...duh...duh... But he goes into Hypo arousal and he sleeps. So he completely disengaged as he's like, okay. Yup. So then if we're both sitting there together, like neither of our needs are being met and then we're just going to keep spiraling and continue to dysregulate.
The other thing about hype…hypo-arousal is that you, um, you'll feel really lethargic. That's more of like the nervous or introverted feelings come out. You might start to feel really cold, right? So all these things are happening. Our brain has the capacity to do all four of these: fight, flight, freeze or sleep. And we all have a tendency to lean towards one. But in times of high stress or intensity, you can't always predict which one we're going to do. So like in a school lockdown for example. Um, if I'm a fighter at this point I might freeze because I don't know what to do next. The anxiety has completely taken over my system and dysregulated. So what are activities that I'm going to use, things I've used before, like taking a lap around the school aren't going to work cause I have to stay here.
And so it's then becoming really knowledgeable of what are different things you can do based on what you're identifying. Your disregulation is happening in. It um, when your lid is flipped so to speak. And it can be as simple as like drinking some water and taking a deep breath. Turning off the lights if you're in hyper-arousal or turning them on, if you're in hypo-arousal. Um, listening to music, sometimes clenching your hands or making fists or even just touching your pants, right? They all have a different way in which they're going to going to interact when your lid is flipped in, your midbrain is really taking over.
Rev. Amelia: It's helpful. It's helpful to have those frameworks. I think. You mentioned something about two paths to self care and that post and I was trying to look it up but I can't find it fast enough. So will you remind me about those?
Lena McCain: So self-care I like to think of as two branches. So there's the umbrella and then two branches come off and self care in and of itself is your ability or your capacity or capability to um, handle what life throws at you given your current experience and the resources made available to you. Right? And your oppressions. So your oppressions, experience and um, resources made available to you, those all tie in. Once you understand that it breaks off...and there is where I call self-comfort and self-management. Self-comfort is the really popular version and it is often whitewashed. So it's like getting massages, getting your nails did, getting a haircut, um, eating your favorite ice cream, taking a bubble bath, right? Meditating. All self-comfort. It also looks like hanging out with your dogs or hanging out with friends, um, playing video games, all that good stuff.
And that's a popular one. However, the other branch of self-management that looks like making task lists and completing your work, it looks like checking in and stating how you're feeling. It's putting boundaries in place, it's eating healthy, it's getting an adequate sleep, right? And so they need to work together. They have to intertwine with one another for you to really get the full, the full self care for yourself. Um, and it also, they have to intertwine in order to regulate your system, right? So all self care is, is really techniques to how to regulate your nervous system and calm your brain down. But if you don't have an idea of which one you need versus what you want, you're not going to be able to do it. Right? Like I always want to take a bubble bath versus doing my tasks list. Like 100%. That is always what I want to do. But that isn't realistic because if I'm feeling stressed out about my school assignments, a bubble bath isn't going to help me and ice cream treat isn't going to help me. Doing one of my school assignments or at least doing a part or a step in that school assignment is going to help me.
Rev. Amelia: There can be almost a guilt then around self care. You know, I'm feeling stressed because I'm not taking care of myself and adding the guilt to the stress. That's not helpful either. We go through stressful periods, we go through seasons of stress and sometimes taking a drink of water or trying for a longer sleep is, is the best we can do at that time. Yeah. And then, but doing it and doing that, well we make the space to kind of recover from it.
Lena McCain: Right? I like to use the phrase this or something better. If this is all I can do, awesome this or something better. And there's no, because there's no guilt in that, right? Like, yeah. And guilt so like, oooh. Guilt is the big emotion that everyone can relate on. Um, well and in some places they say guilt isn't the emotion, shames the emotion and guilt is just your response to it or reaction to it. Um, and if that's the case, like that feels awful, right? That's the stress we're trying to avoid because stress is a good thing. It is how we know how to move forward. It's a motivator. It's how we get to our points of success and milestones. But there is a point when stress is no longer healthy and that's usually when guilt and shame insert itself with it and then it just builds on top of each other.
Rev. Amelia: What about um, for parents, so parents who are helping kids, you know, we're kind of dealing in the aftermath of a lockdown. How much checking in is helpful or what are the things we check in about?
Lena McCain: Yeah, those are great questions. So the first piece is that your teen or your kiddo is their own person. So there is not one size fits all right? So checking in and seeing if they want to talk about it because sometimes they really don't want to talk about it because it'll re trigger everything. And respect that you know and let them know that you're here to talk if they weren't or you're here to be a resource to help them find the people if you are not the person. And that can be really hard to swallow as a parent that you are not the person they want to talk about it with or process it with. But that's the first place that we start. If they do want to talk about it or they do want you to help them find someone to talk about it. The next piece is just checking in and asking, well how are you feeling?
Like mentally, physically, emotionally. They might not have an answer and they might have an answer. If they don't have an answer. The next part is to maybe share you're at. Like...yeah, I know it's probably really different cause I wasn't there but when I found out like my first thought was like, wow, I'm really worried for you because I love you and I felt kind of sick to my stomach, really warm and couldn't focus on anything. And all these images of you and me, went through my mind. Right. And just sharing. That can be the piece that opens it up for them because they often don't want to talk about it with you because they don't think you can relate. But if you can share where you were at and using those I statements, boom. Now they know how to connect with you. And sometimes they might also look like them joking about it and that can be really hard because it is so serious.
But joking about it is a really helpful way...and this is a really delicate piece because right now we're in a time in society where mindfulness is really huge. Bringing awareness to things is really important and we think it's super healthy, healthy, and it can be, but in these high intense situations or traumatic events, mindfulness and awareness is one of the worst things we can do because then we're just going to re trigger everything. So we actually want to provide grounding or distraction. So it might be offering them up an opportunity to stay at home and watch a movie or having their friends over for a slumber party or not putting the pressure on them to complete their assignment. It's okay if you don't do well on this assignment this time, it's okay, I support you in that. Like giving them those opportunities to distract themselves or ground themselves so that they're not actually being aware of it all the time. I think is one of the biggest things parents can do.
Rev. Amelia: That's really helpful. Yeah. Yeah, and like you said that it, well and it goes right back to what you said about the, the two paths, you know that you are doing a balance between, is this a time when what you need is to check out and and not worry about, you know, completing your task list, right?
Lena McCain: Or is it?
Rev. Amelia: Or is it a time when this is what we've been most helpful?
Lena McCain: Yeah. Would it be helpful to go and volunteer somewhere so that you don't have to think about this and worrying about hanging out with your friends and checking your social media. Would you like to help me with this house project? Yeah. Right. Like checking in and seeing and letting them change their mind too. Right. Like that's the big piece of it.
Rev. Amelia: Yeah. That's super helpful. Lena, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and have this conversation and thanks to everyone for listening. I hope that it was helpful information for you. If you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to get in touch. My contact information can be found at UCCLongmont.org and as always, I'll try to link to a few of the resources that we've mentioned, including Lena's blog post on the faith and families link at UCCLongmont.org. Until next time.
I hope you all enjoyed listening to this podcast interview as much as I did recording it.
Until Next Time,
Lena McCain, MA | Teen & Young Adult Therapist, Founder
About Lena McCain, MA
Lena McCain is our Tween, Teen, and Twenty-Somethings Therapist as well as Founder here at Interfaith Bridge Counseling. She holds a Masters in Clinical Mental Health: Mindfulness-based Transpersonal Counseling Psychology from Naropa University and is an LPC candidate. Her drive and passions lie in the realm of Interfaith Relations and Youth Collaboration, which she brings to Interfaith Bridge Counseling with over 12 years of experience and with an emphasis on one’s discovery of self, spirituality, and multicultural diversity. Lena’s expertise in spirituality and the therapeutic world acts as a reminder to our community, teens, and young adults that they are not alone in their experience of life.