Dr. Harold Koplewicz, THE SCAFFOLD EFFECT

Dr. Harold Koplewicz, THE SCAFFOLD EFFECT

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dr. Koplewicz. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Dr. Harold Koplewicz: It’s a pleasure, Zibby. Always a pleasure to be here.

Zibby: This is such a treat because you and I work so closely with the Child Mind Institute which you founded in 2009, and which you run amazingly, which helps everybody in the world with childhood mental illness. Do you mind talking just for two seconds about Child Mind Institute before we talk about your amazing book, The Scaffold Effect?

Harold: Sure. In 2009, we decided, a group of us, that we needed an independent nonprofit that was exclusively dedicated to children’s mental health disorders. If you think about it, this country has done this before with other disorders. St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, for over fifty years, has focused with laser precision on childhood cancer. While that’s a very important thing, there’s only 15,000 kids in the United States who have cancer. There are seventeen million who have a mental health disorder which means that everyone listening knows and loves one of these kids. It’s one out of five. If it’s not your child, then it’s your niece and nephew or it’s your best friend’s child. We thought that we needed that independent nonprofit that would play with everyone and collaborate with everyone but only be focused, no matter what, on the mental health needs of kids first and foremost in the United States and now, frankly, globally.

When COVID hit, we had to close the doors to the Child Mind Institute’s physical sites in California and New York. In forty-eight hours, we became a tele-mental-health product. We now seen over three hundred kids every day on screens and a few kids in person in both sites. More importantly, we recognized that parents were desperate for information during COVID on how to deal with distance learning, how to deal with kids’ anxiety on their demoralization because they’re losing so many things big and small. We produced over 160 Facebook Lives on parenting during COVID. Every day, we had one for a while in Spanish and in English. Now it’s once a week. We started to realize that parents want authoritative, scientifically sound information. Because of that, we don’t take money from the pharmaceutical industry, from liquor, from tobacco and guns so parents can trust childmind.org. It’s turned out to be very rewarding because the need is there. Parents, more so than ever, are reaching for information that can make them better parents and make their kids have an easier time.

Zibby: It’s so great because you have this amazing website, childmind.org, which has been such a resource for me. You can google anything. It’s always Child Mind that has the right answers. Then of course, you do all of this work to combat the stigma of childhood mental illness, which is so important, and the research to find a biomarker.

Harold: It was really interesting with stigma. For years, we’ve run a campaign called #MyYoungerSelf. You get important, influential individuals who will discuss in a minute or two, their struggle as a kid with either ADHD, anxiety, depression, dyslexia. This year, we went with #WeThriveInside. We got forty remarkable movie stars, politicians, poets who were talking about, how were they managing their mental health while they had to stay inside? What was going inside their head? Believe it or not, Zibby, we got two hundred and fifty million eyeballs, not only four or five billion media impressions, but two hundred and fifty million people came to watch one of those videos. COVID has been a horrific experience for so many kids and so many parents and so many families. It also forced us to be innovative and recognize that there had to be a new way to get information out there to parents and to give kids hope that this too will pass.

Zibby: Amazing. It’s amazing. I’m so honored to be a board member. I know I’m not doing my part enough, but it’s not for lack of loyalty.

Harold: Zibby, as we are about to talk about The Scaffold Effect, one of the most important things — we talk about childcare — is self-care. You amaze me because the word juggling and being a master jugglery — I know you have four kids. I know you’re married. I know you’re a dedicated daughter and granddaughter and sister. On top of that, you’re an entrepreneur. You’re a philanthropist. You really not only talk the talk, you’re walking the walk. The fact that you’re doing this, I think it’s perfect because you’re one of the moms who does find time to read so that the other moms, and dads by the way, who can’t read can get some wisdom from you. I’ve always been a big fan.

Zibby: You’re so sweet.

Harold: That’s why it’s an honor for me, A, to have you on the board of the Child Mind Institute, but to spend time with you.

Zibby: That’s just so nice. Yes, I have to say, and you will be proud of me, that when I read the whole section on self-care yesterday morning, I was like, I am not doing any of these things. I was imagining myself talking to you and you were saying — here, I have to find the right section. You would be saying to me, are you doing this? Are you eating greens? Are you exercising? Are you sleeping? Are you eating well? I was thinking, I am not doing any of those things. I finally got myself on the Peloton yesterday because of your column. Here, self-care checklist. This is for parents, by the way. “Exercise, sleep, green food, affection, nature walks, playdates with friends.” I’m never too old for a playdate. “Alone time, creative time, romantic time, laughter, music, hobbies, volunteering, meditation.” I don’t know any mom out there who is finding time for all these things. If you are finding time for every single thing on this list, call me.

Harold: Think of it as a Chinese menu. You can just have a few, or à la carte. You can pick from the top or the bottom. I have to tell you, every time I’m on an airplane and the flight attendant says, please put the mask on yourself before you put it on your kid, it just seems wrong. If, god forbid, I was on an airplane and the oxygen was missing, I would race to give it to one of my sons. It doesn’t help. You give it to your son, and then you might not be able to put it on yourself because you’ll be dizzy or you’ll be unconscious. The idea that we have to take care of ourselves is not in our DNA, but first ourselves so we have the strength to take care of our kids, and more than one kid sometimes.

Zibby: This just goes to the whole theme of your book, which is so brilliant. I can’t believe it hasn’t been thought of before as the perfect analogy, this whole notion of scaffolding and that, really, it’s your child that’s being built, and the blueprint and the foundation and everything. You are just around the outside. You’re just trying to help as it grows. Then once it’s fully formed, you can start taking down the scaffolding, which I would like to have taken down —

Harold: — And if you’re child’s been paying attention, they’ll know when to put the scaffolding back.

Zibby: Yes, when they need it.

Harold: They go off to college and they’re struggling with essay writing, they’ll go to the writing center to get some extra help. That’s a scaffold. If they need a tutor in math, they will get one. It’s not that you’re hovering all time. You’ve built a confident, strong building. I think the one part that we have to always remember, though, is that as you’re building that scaffold — you use pillars, structure, and support and encouragement. Then you have planks. The important part is to recognize that the building sometimes has decided to become a ranch, not a skyscraper. We can’t force that. Otherwise, you’re all going to be very disappointed. It’s not going to be a sturdy structure. I always think about the fact that my oldest son was great at science. I wanted him to be a doctor. Now, I never said it out loud, but it just made sense. You’re good at science. You’re good at math. I love being a doctor. Why wouldn’t I want my kid to be a doctor? At a certain point, it became very clear, he actually said it to me in high school, he said, “I hate blood, Dad. I’ll have to become a psychiatrist if I become a doctor. I don’t really like kids, so I’ll always be the wrong doctor Dr. Koplewicz.” He then, at a certain point, decided that he loved being a DJ. So totally out of character because he’s a socially reticent guy. Okay, we’re building a split-level. That’s what we’re getting. He was a white Jewish DJ, Mark Ronson, DJ Cassidy, and DJ Josh K. He was really into it. It looked terrific. He was at Brown, which is a perfect match. He was going to go off to LA afterwards.

The summer between his junior and his senior year, he went and worked at Goldman Sachs, which didn’t make any sense to me whatsoever. It was kind of a cultural mismatch. He was still DJing. He was producing a documentary called Pigeon Men about Irish convicts who competitively fly pigeons. The whole thing didn’t make sense that he was going to Goldman. At six weeks, they gave him a review. They said to him, “By the way, you’re a bad communicator. You’re not enthusiastic. You’re intellectually not curious.” To his credit, he stood up and he said, “You know, I could be a better communicator. I’m biochemically not enthusiastic. I don’t smile enough, but I’m always intellectually curious.” He ripped apart the five deals. They said, “We’re surprised.” For the next four weeks, he was a maniac. He would go to work in a taxi screaming at himself in the back of the cab. “Smile! Smile!” Why? It didn’t make any sense to me. Of course, at the end of the summer, he calls us and he says, “I have good news and bad news.” I said, “What’s the bad news?” “I have to tell you the good news. The good news is I got a job offer from Goldman Sachs. If I sign right away, I get ten thousand dollars.” “What’s the bad news?” “I got a job offer at Goldman Sachs.” I said, “This seems like a cultural mismatch.”

I can’t get over the fact that he decided, no, private equity is what he wants to do. He’s running a private equity firm today. It’s an example, Zibby, of recognizing I’m not getting a skyscraper. I’ve gotten used to getting this split-level. Then he says, guess what? I’m building a ranch. If you want to be a good parent, if you want your kids to feel confident, you still support, you still structure, and you still give encouragement. I find it fascinating because he speaks a different language. He spoke a different language when he was a DJ. Now he’s talks this finance talk where I’m nodding my head pretending I know what he’s talking about. That’s what a good scaffold does. It moves around. It doesn’t say it’s set in cement, you have to do this. It happens to all of us, by the way. I think if you remember the pillars, structure, support, encouragement — then there are planks that really are very important. The one plank that I have so much trouble with is dispassion. There’s part of me that feels like, what the hell are you doing? Snap out of it. That just doesn’t work, too much crying, too much yelling, too much laughter. It has to be their building, not your building.

Zibby: I feel like you were hard on yourself when you told the whole story of your son going to camp and how you brought your own emotions about your separation and your unfortunate time at camp. Actually, I found you beating yourself up. I was like, I don’t think you did anything wrong here, personally, by telling your kid how sad you were about it.

Harold: The only problem was that my wife, their mother, loved camp. From the time she was seven to the time she was fourteen, she couldn’t wait. She actually swam in college and played tennis in college. She was a natural athlete. I wasn’t. I was also separation anxious. That’s what it was. I missed my mom and dad so desperately. It was hard to sleep. It was hard to concentrate. My kids were really good athletes, not because of me, because of the genes they inherited from their mother. When they went to camp and I came up there, Joshua was really struggling. He said, “I want to go home.” When we walked into the woods, he said to me, “Dad, there’s no one here to love me,” I felt like, oh, my god. He knows how to throw a ball. He knows how serve in tennis, but he’s got the separation anxiety. I literally got weepy. He then was comforting me. The fact that he then started comforting me was the part that is not dispassionate. It’s all right to show your kid that you’re upset, that you empathize, you have warmth, but it’s not his job to say, “Dad, don’t cry.” It’s my job to say, how are we going to work through this? How are we going to figure out your life at camp so it’s easier, that it’s more fun? There are times where you say, okay, we declare victory. You’re coming home. Parenting, in my opinion, is the best thing you could ever do. I remember distinctly holding my first kid in the delivery room and thinking, this is amazing. All that oxytocin is in the air. Everyone’s so euphoric. The baby actually looks like my father-in-law and my mother. It’s this weird sensation. Then you realize that there’s no book. There’s no test. There’s no license. Yet it can be the most rewarding experience. It truly changes you. Yes, getting married changes you, but all of a sudden, it’s this one-way street where you realize you are the scaffold. They’re not scaffolding you. You really have a terrific job in letting them be who they’re supposed to be and just help them guide the building along.

Zibby: You also bring up this really important point which I think has not been articulated quite as well before about parent burnout and how to tell if you’re — you have all these great ways for parents to identify what’s going on with their kids. You have how you know if it’s a normal level of anxiety versus a problematic level of anxiety versus an anxiety disorder. Then you let us do it as parents too, and how to know if you’re actually going through burnout. You have normal, problem, disorder. “Several times a day, you think, I’m a bad parent. That means you have parental burnout disorder.” Oh, my gosh, I must have it. “You are exhausted.” Well, I don’t feel any resentment. “When you look at your child, you don’t feel the same connection you once did. You feel extreme irritation and frustration as a parent without reason. You react with verbal or physical abuse –” no, of course not — “to your child.” Let’s talk about parental burnout for a minute because with everybody at home with their kids for eleven months now…

Harold: Zibby, I didn’t write the book thinking about COVID. You better than anyone know how long it takes to come up with an idea for a book, write the outline, get a publisher, write the book. Then it takes almost nine months for the publisher to publish the book. This wasn’t what I was thinking about. Now since we’re in the middle of COVID, more so than ever, I think everyone has to scaffold their kids, and they have to scaffold themselves. I think that most of us wake up, and it’s Groundhog Day. Again? Again with the mask? The news is so disconcerting because we’re going in the wrong direction. We’re going in the right direction. We’re running out of vaccine. It’s really important to stay in the moment. If there was ever a time to help you prevent burnout, is to just worry about the moment. Breathe one breath in, one breath out. I think of the fact that I love to hike. I was hiking in Chile. Lots of young people are around me, ten, twenty years younger. Someone said to me, “Oh, my god, it’s so much fun hiking with you because you’re so determined and so gradual.” I’m thinking, I’m trying to get one breath in and one breath out. I’m walking slow because I’m barely breathing.

That’s how we have to deal sometimes. I’m in the moment. I’m going to appreciate the flowers and the sounds of the birds. I’m going to get one breath in and one breath out. I will get through this. I will take breaks. I will step back and say, I need a second wind. I think that right now, to prevent parent burnout goes back to great childcare is self-care. There’s so many easy ways to restart yourself. Can we get back into sleep hygiene? Can we try to get close to eight hours? Can we force ourselves to turn off everything at twelve o’clock and stay asleep until eight o’clock? Okay, seven o’clock? Or can we go to bed at eleven? Can we get on a routine? Routines work for kids, but they also work for us. Even if we just do a minute of mindfulness every day, just sit with our thoughts for sixty seconds and no matter how disturbing the thoughts are, don’t judge them, that in itself will help. I think we also have to be kind to ourselves. My intern has just said to me, “Be careful. After COVID, there’ll be three types of people, hugs, chunks, and drunks.”

Zibby: That is so funny.

Harold: I’ve never had so much liquor brought to the house.

Zibby: Wait, say it again.

Harold: Hugs, chunks, and drunks. If I’m not careful, I’m going to be a drunken chunk. You can’t, tomorrow, lose ten pounds. You can take a walk every day no matter what. If you can’t take a walk, you can get on the elliptical. If you can’t get on an elliptical, you can at least do some stretching. Simple, bite-size pieces. Just think about it. You’re not only doing it for yourself, you’re doing it so that you can be a better parent. If you don’t want to just do it because you deserve it, you’re doing it because without having strength, without having sleep, without eating well, without also having some fun — this is the hard part of COVID. It’s really hard to have fun, especially for extroverts. People like me, it’s one thing talking to people on a screen, but it’s so nice to have human contact. It’s freezing cold here in the Northeast, so you’re not going to be able to have a meal with someone. You’re going to have to have a brisk walk. There’s ways around this if you know what you need. If you take care of your own needs, then I really think, again, you’ll have the energy to offer structure, support, and encouragement for your kids. This is hard. I don’t want to minimize how challenging it is to be a very good parent.

Zibby: Can we talk for just two seconds about anxiety in the time of COVID? I know this isn’t even in your book. I hope that I’ve made a good case for everybody to read The Scaffold Effect. The subtitle is Raising Resilient, Self-Reliant, and Secure Kids in an Age of Anxiety. I just want to talk a little more about anxiety. Typically, anxiety, and an anxiety disorder in particular, is when you have irrational levels of fear about something. That’s part of it. There is actually something to be super afraid of. When my daughter says she’s really worried and talks about it a lot, I’m like, I’m also really worried about it, but who knows because I also have so much anxiety I don’t even know what to say. There is actually a big deal. It’s not like we’re on a plane worried if it’s going to crash and the odds are not really high and it’s irrational. It is actually possible. It’s happening to everybody. Especially in families like ours where we’ve lost people in the family like Kyle’s mom and grandmother, we’ve seen it up close. How do you deal with a combination, basically, of anxiety of PTSD when things in the world are literally anxiety-provoking? Does that still mean you have anxiety? Is it abnormal?

Harold: I think it’s normal, but how do you manage anxiety? Again, the scaffolding works even if you have an anxiety disorder. More so than ever, I think we need to scaffold ourselves and scaffold others. What do we say? We’re wearing a mask. We wash our hands frequently. We do social distancing. We are doing everything possible to avoid getting this virus, but it’s a very catchy virus. If that happens, things are better today than they were last March. The doctors are better at treating it. Even if we get it, we will be able to get a different type of treatment than we had before, but we’re not going to get it. We’re going to try every possible way but still live our lives in a new way. We’re clearly not going to go to a big party. We’re clearly going to only go to people that we know are following the same rules and regulations. It’s normal to be scared. I’m uncomfortable also, but I’m getting used to this new normal. It reminds me, after 9/11, I was doing the Today Show a lot. Katie Couric was the host. We actually were friends. We were neighbors. I was doing a piece with her. I said, “The president’s in charge. Nothing bad is going to happen. We learned from our mistakes.” Katie actually said on the air, “How do you know?” I said, “Because we learned from our mistakes.” I thought, is she going to say, “Chicken Little, the sky is falling”? Once we were off the air, Katie said to me — her husband had passed away just a year before. She said, “I feel like Jay just died again. The kids are back in my bed. We’re so regressed. I’m on TV four hours a day instead of two hours.”

It can overwhelm you. It can distort your cognitions because you get so anxious you think to yourself, I’m going to wash my hands one more time. You have to balance it with saying, I’m going to do everything that I’m supposed to do to keep my kids safe and keep my husband safe and keep me safe and, if possible, my parents, but I’m going to live a different kind of life. I’m not going to indoor restaurants. If I do go into an indoor restaurant, I know there’s a certain amount of risk and I’m willing to take it. I think that’s what we have to do with our kids. Schools are struggling with this. They’re in session. They’re out of session. They’re online. I think I told you that my wife teaches middle school students art. It is so challenging on a screen. I hear her. It sounds like a reality television show. The kid, Jason, has fallen off the screen. “Jason, where are you?” Then she’s doing stretching. Why is there stretching in an art class? “Everyone stand up and stretch.” She’s not accepting, which I keep saying, everyone has to readjust their expectations for this year. It’s like talking to a wall. No, she is going to still teach the kids perspective. They’re going to make Greek masks. How are you getting the material to all the kids? She’s writing progress reports. She actually will tell you, “I’m doing it because I think it’s good for the kids to know that there’s still a routine. We haven’t given up yet.” There is limitations. I think that’s all right. That’ll make you less anxious if you think to yourself, this is not a year where I’m expecting everyone to get As. Some of us are driven to always do our best. That’s part of the anxiety. This is one of those years where best is actually going to be different. Zibby, being a podcaster, this is a year for podcasts. This is a year for reading books. This is not the year to go to the theater or go to movie theaters or go to the ballet.

It’s a different year. Managing that for our kids and modeling that for our kids is really very, very important and very hard because you don’t want to tell them, don’t worry. You have to say to them, what are you worried about? The other thing that I have to tell you that in The Scaffold Effect I would hope people will take away is there’s one piece where we’re talking about awareness. It’s very interesting to tell kids and tell ourselves what is wrong. We’re hardwired to fix things, particularly parents. If you could remember, can I catch my kid doing something good? Can I say three specific positive things to my child for every one critical thing? By the way, as a husband of forty years, it’s not a bad thing to consider with your spouse. I forget it all the time. It’s kind of like, where’s the coffee? Where’s this? Is no one going to iron my shirts? No, no one’s going to iron your shirts. It’s this kind of rapid complaining, complaining, complaining. After a while, it’s very hard to hear the good stuff when you say, god, you smell great or you look so beautiful. I think that if we consciously are aware that we have that negative tracking — it’s part of the things that we do all the time. We are looking to fix things, so we’re always watching what the kid’s doing wrong. Then the second thing we do is confirmation bias. We’re watching only Fox. We’re only watching MSNBC. Most importantly, we see certain children as bad and certain children as good. Then they can’t get out of the box. We have to pull back. That’s the whole concept of making a new blueprint. I think that’s so important, Zibby. Otherwise, COVID is just going to make parenting extra hard. Scaffolding is going to make it somewhat easier. It gives you that structure, no pun intended, to try to make things easier for you on a day-to-day basis. It’s a do-over. I love the idea that parents are allowed to say, I think that was a mistake, I’m taking a do-over. It’s not written in ink. It’s written in pencil. We’re erase. We’ll do it again.

Zibby: I love it. That’s one of things that was so effective about this book. Instead of just giving theories or general ideas, you give such specific advice that is really actionable. I think that’s something that we’re all — I speak on behalf of parents everywhere — very grateful to receive in such a non-judgmental way. It’s awesome. Thank you. Thank you for coming on this podcast. Thank you for this amazing resource, The Scaffold Effect, for parents everywhere. It is a must have on your bedside table, really awesome, particularly now. Congratulations on the book.

Harold: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you so much for having a conversation with me. It’s always a pleasure.

Zibby: Now you see why I am often too busy for board meetings. Because I do this all day long. No, I’m kidding. I’ll be there next time. Bye.

Harold: Thank you.

Dr. Harold Koplewicz, THE SCAFFOLD EFFECT