May 26, 2020

Ep. 14 | Dr. Ken Ginsburg | Teens in the Time of COVID

"We only know what our children choose to tell us. And what our children choose to tell us is what they feel safe telling us. For us to have our maximum impact on our kids, our biggest influence, we have to know what is going on in their lives. And that means that they have to know that we are going to be there no matter what."
~ Dr. Ken Ginsburg

In this episode, Dr. Ken Ginsburg describes our current world crisis as a generation defining moment. The loss of school, sports, activities and experience outside of home all cause unique levels of stress for teens. As well, it can be an opportunity for emotional growth. Dr. Ginsburg says, “Children need to learn to fill their own time, manage their own emotions, and solve their own problems. We should be like lighthouses – ever present, available for guidance – but clear we are not steering the boat.”

Episode Guest

Ep. Dr. Ken Ginsburg

Dr. Ken Ginsburg

Dr. Ken Ginsburg is an Adolescent Medicine Specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Co-Founder and Director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication. He also serves as a Director of Health Services at Covenant House, an agency that offers care to homeless and marginalized teens.

Dr. Ginsburg says, “If we want our children to experience the world as fully as possible, our goal will have to be resilience; the capacity to rise above difficult circumstances and to move forward with optimism.” He explains and expands his ideas and work in over 150 publications including 5 best selling parenting books and the wonderfully collaborative and accessible website,


Transcript | Ep. 14 | Dr. Ken Ginsburg | Teens in the Time of COVID

Rachel Cram – Dr. Ken Ginsburg, thank you so much for being with us today. I know this is a really busy time for you, so we appreciate it.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – It’s a crazy busy time but we’re going to be talking about stuff that’s really important and it’s my pleasure and honor to be joining you Rachel.

Rachel Cram – Great. So we’re jumping into this interview in what we hope is a timely way due to our current health crisis. And although we’re going to be talking about COVID and how it affects our families and particularly our teens because that’s your specialty, I do believe what you have to say is timeless because life is always difficult and there’s always a need to care for one another and to care for our teens in the midst of challenges. So I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Yeah. The lessons that we’re going to draw from this time are going to potentially build our own resilience and build the resilience of our young people far into the future. And I think you’re so right Rachel that what we learn now is going to help us think about how to get through other crises. But I don’t want to minimize the fact that this particular moment is the generationally defining moment for these kids. These kids will in 60 years be telling their grandchildren what they were doing in 2020 and what they learned as a result. Just like our grandparents talked about what it meant to scrape every penny when there was no money during the Depression. And we have to hope that the lessons that we can shape for them during this time is going to make this the best generation ever.

Rachel Cram – Which is so exciting and also such a weight on the other hand because we know this is an essential time for our children because of the learning. But we’re dealing with so much ourselves as parents as well. So to wake up in the morning thinking, “I’m shaping the future and I’m dealing with today,” is very complicated.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – I apologize in advance for the weighty nature of that. But it also brings up the first major concept, which is, nobody can do all of this. Perfection is not an option. And if you’re somebody who worked or struggled towards perfection, now’s the time to give that up.

If you’re someone who always thought you could juggle all the balls, now’s the time to look at a few of them laying on the ground and go, “And their stay in there.” Right.

Rachel Cram – Now is the time.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Now’s the time.

Rachel Cram – There’s a lot of emotion in that letting go though, a lot of feeling, especially when we really want to fix it and we can’t.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Yeah, So, so what we’re feeling is, “I feel like I’m failing. How can I do all of this?” Which means you’re paying attention if that’s the way you’re feeling, right. But that means that this is an amazing opportunity to learn self-forgiveness and to model self-compassion.

Rachel Cram – Self compassion. Your meaning for us as parents.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Yes.

Rachel Cram – Right.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – That is a major resilience tool to be able to recover and remain strong during difficult times. It’s about self compassion. Imagine now, if your kids see you forgiving yourselves. See you choosing to leave some of those juggling balls on the ground and being okay with it. That means that when they are 80 they’re going to be more likely to be gentle with themselves. And you have given them a gift far into the future. That ability to be kind with ourselves that so many of us have lost in the rat race, right.

Rachel Cram – We do have this unique time to perhaps slow down and take more moments to be with our children, to strengthen our relationship with them. And the word resilience resonates right now so much, but I think it can be tricky to support our teens amidst their losses and struggles when sometimes they can’t even articulate what those are. And sharing with parents is not always on their radar. So, how do we influence and encourage our kids towards resilience?

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Right. In the now, we only know what our children choose to tell us. And what our children choose to tell us is what they feel safe telling us. Will we reject them? Will we judge them? Will we come down on them? And they are always thinking about what to share.

For us to have our maximal impact on our kids, our biggest influence, we have to know what’s going on in their lives. And that means that they have to know that we’re going to be there no matter what. That we’re not going to push them away. That our love is unconditional. And when we demonstrate that for ourselves, our kids feel safer with us and everything in our relationships get strengthened.

Musical interlude #1…

Rachel Cram – I think for teens right now, they’re dealing with separation from their friends, the newness of online learning, their activities, their sports have been canceled and their celebrations, their ceremonies might be canceled. And on top of that there’s a loss of their independence. So there’s all these items for our teens that are causing them these emotions. And I think for adults we have our items as well.

And I don’t think a lot of us live in the world of emotions on a day to day basis. Identifying what are the emotions that are connected with the tangibles of my life.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – I agree with you emphatically and there’s two things that I really want to dive into that you brought up. The first, I want to talk about emotions in general. And the second, I want to talk about empathy.

So let’s talk about emotions. We want our kids to celebrate their emotions. Too many young people are raised with a sense that display of emotions is a sign of weakness, that strong people move on, that just get past it. And that’s actually not what’s going to make them be emotionally healthier in the long run. People who are raised in that way will end up suppressing their emotions. And when you suppress emotions it means that you may actually just have them explode later. Now is the time where we want people to know to leverage their emotions. To understand that caring is a good thing. That being sensitive is a wonderful thing. That emotions are good. Talking about them is good. Letting them out is good.

Rachel Cram – But in a healthy way.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Yeah

Rachel Cram – Ok.

Yeah, so you don’t want to let them out in a way that is explosive nor do you want to suppress them in a way that’s dangerous. Think drugs. Right. Instead you want to have really healthy ways to express emotions. Whether that’s art or music or talking or prayer or writing or dancing or screaming, there’s so many ways that you can let out emotions in a healthy way. And we reinforce for our kids, now’s the time, we’re all stressed. Cause it’s the stuff that you brought up. You said, “The kids are going through so much.” And then you mentioned all the losses that they’re having. We’re all having emotions and we talk about them.

Rachel Cram – I think sometimes as parents we can look at the lists of the things our children are concerned about and we can be tempted to say, “You know it’s not that bad. There’s people dying.” Or, “We’ve all got to just care for one another.” And we can overlook what is really important to them. And you’ve mentioned empathy Ken and I’m wondering, how do we bring that into this picture? How do you, how do we feel alongside our kids? How do we see things from their perspective?

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Rachel, super important question. The first thing is, it is human nature to belittle our own emotions because other people have it worse. And you know my whole life is about working with the vulnerable. And the worst thing you can do is to say that because you know people have it worse, you deny your own emotions. Because if you belittle your own emotions because other people are suffering at higher levels, then ultimately you will burn out. And one of the best ways of remaining caring and remaining empathetic towards other people is understanding that, yes other people may have it worse and I may feel blessed in many ways, but I still have a right to my own emotions.

Having empathy for other people is a super important resilience trait. And there is no better way perhaps, to build empathy in our children, then to show them empathy. Now is a moment where we can model this. And your questions were brilliant because you talked about what they’re giving up. And when they feel like we’ve understood them and when they understand, ‘I can benefit from being understood,’ they’ve learned that they’re going to want to understand other people.

So let’s talk about it. Kids have lost a lot of independence. Remember the developmental question of adolescence is, “Who am I, separate sometimes from my parents?” That was a really important developmental task.

So when we are setting up new rules. Confining them. Telling them what they can do and what they can’t do, it really hurts deeply because it flies in the face of development. It literally flies in the face of development.

Rachel Cram – And so much of what they have lost directly affects their independence. They can’t be at school, in sports, at activities; all the places where they could be with their friends spreading their wings so to speak.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Well if you understand the adolescent brain, you understand that the brain is actually wired, it is designed for adolescents to want to spend time with their friends. Their reward centers in their brains go ding ding ding ding ding when they’re with their friends. There’s a reason for that. Rachel this is how ultimately you’re going to get grandchildren, right. There’s a reason for this. And this is how they’re going to go out into the workplace and find new romantic partners. It’s because they are designed to want to develop peer relationships.

So when we are saying, “Stay home. You can’t be with your friends.” It’s like saying to their brain, “Sorry, we’re not able to listen to it right now.”

So when we understand this in a deeply empathetic way, we know that we can’t for the sake of their own safety and protection, we can’t give them everything they want, but we can always say to ourselves, “What can we do? Given the confines of reality, what can we do to speak to their brains and pay attention to their needs?”

Musical interlude #2…

Rachel Cram – I read a really insightful article that you wrote for Psychology Today, I think it’s just come out very recently and you talk about living with our kids in this moment and that environment of acceptance we want to offer as parents. You call it a safe haven. Can I read your words to you?

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Sure.

Rachel Cram – You say, “The world is spinning right now. For that reason we are going to make our family and our home a safe haven. That means that we’re going to go out of our way to be kinder and gentler. We’re going to draw strength from each other. We’re going to talk about how we love and care for each other. We are going to let those little things go that sometimes get on our nerves. We are going to create peace in our house and we’ll get through this together.”

Ken, I know you wrote this for families in the midst of this pandemic but I think this is pretty much what we’re always hoping for at any time! And it’s not easy!

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Amen. That’s exactly what we want. We want to be intentional about peace in our homes. Shalombye. It’s a timeless concept of creating peace in our homes. You can’t control the world out there but you can be really intentional about creating the tenor and the tone within your home and it’s hard work.

Rachel Cram – It really is and I’m glad to hear you confirm that.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Yeah. You know, it’s not that we are just saying here everything is peaceful. No, it’s doing the hard work being intentional and during times of extreme stress you say, “Now is the time that we’re gonna go out of our way to be kinder and gentler. To speak those words that too often go unspoken, like, I love you. I’ve got you. We’re gonna get through this together.” You know, these are the words you say out loud and sometimes you ask for extra forgiveness and you’re honest when this is a moment that I can’t handle drama. I hear you. I’m going to be available to you. This is not a moment that I can handle it, but I promise that after I take a shower, go for a run, take a nap, do a prayer, whatever it is, we’re gonna get back to each other.

Rachel Cram – So on the one hand we’re wanting to allow our kids and ourselves to express emotions, feel emotions, but then you also talk about the necessity to sometimes take a vacation from our emotions. And that’s OK isn’t it? To have times where we just decide we’re going to disengage a little bit. We can’t handle the drama as you just mentioned. And so we’re going to take a vacation. Do you know what I’m referring to with that? I heard you speak on that.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Absolutely. That’s a major part of stress reduction or stress management. Of course sometimes you express emotions to be healthy but you also have to get away from them. And we have to model for our young people how to give ourselves these instant vacations. Because let me tell you that if we don’t model it they will find drugs. Drugs are an instant vacation that allow you not to deal with reality.

Instead we can be very intentional about not dealing with reality. Let me give you examples of instant vacations. So there are things that we do to express ourselves; art, music, talking, prayer. That’s not the vacation. That’s the work. The vacation are things like reading a book. Because when you read a book your entire brain is on. You are visualizing the panorama. You are smelling the smells. You’re hearing the sounds. You’re tasting the taste. And most importantly you’re feeling the feelings. In other words your brain is occupied. Try reading a book for pleasure if you want to really escape.

Rachel Cram – Would watching a TV program, thinking how much more screen time kids are probably experiencing right now because they’re in their homes, is that akin to reading a book?

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – So watching TV is certainly an escape but it’s not going to be the full escape that I’m talking about. And you know there’s science behind this Rachel. The thing about TV, and I watch TV all the time so I’m not bad mouthing TV here. But the plot is given to you. You don’t have to work very hard. You are seeing what is there. You don’t have to imagine what the character looks like. As a result, it is not that fully engaging experience that reading a book is; where you have to really access your entire imagination and all of your senses to create a reality. That’s why it’s a bigger vacation. And we know this from brain functional MRIs, like how much of our brain really gets activated.

The other one is mindfulness. When we really learn how to be in the present; paying attention to the things that are around you now, then you are not worried about the past and replaying it in your mind, which is sort of another way of saying depression. Nor are you anticipating all the time the future, what’s coming next, which is another way of saying anxiety. So when you’re just able to be present then it’s a real opportunity for a vacation. Walking in the woods can also be a vacation. But the biggest issue is not having intrusive thoughts.

Musical Interlude #3…

Rachel Cram – Ken, do you ever, are you ever concerned that children will become stuck in an emotion. You just quickly went over drugs and I think that’s a real fear for parents now. I know where we are, now marijuana is legalized. This is such a concern of children stepping into that before their brains are formed. Where do we become concerned that children might get stuck in the moment?

Ken Ginsburg – So this isn’t really a question about children, it’s a question about humanity.

We as human beings can have our emotions be things that allow us to draw closer to other people, that allow us to understand ourselves well, or that allow us to go into other realities that are incredibly uncomfortable. And when emotions get incredibly uncomfortable, it’s when we catastrophes. It’s when something happens and then we begin going to the next step in our mind, to the next step in our mind, to the next step in our mind, so that this becomes the building mountains out of a molehill concept. Catastrophic thinking. Now is a ripe time for catastrophic thinking. But so is every day of your life.

And so it’s really important that people, not just young people, learn how to live in the present and to have a realistic sense of what’s really going on. So this is about catching your thoughts. So we celebrate emotions but we also help to guide emotions towards reality.

Rachel Cram – So, what happens when we have catastrophic thinking? What does it do to our minds?

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – So if a kid begins saying, “This is going to happen, then that’s going to happen.” Or for that matter Rachel, if we adults do it ourselves and we get catastrophic, you can’t think. You can’t access your emotions. So your thoughts are creating a reality that is making you incredibly frightened as if the things really happening but it’s not. Our bodies feel awful. We can’t slow down and plan things. And we also can’t reach out to other people really well during times of catastrophic thought. So you’ve got to stop yourself. Catch your thought and say, “Whoa! What is happening now? Let’s deal with what really is going on.” And when you can catch those thoughts, then you don’t get stuck in your emotions and you can begin processing them.

Rachel Cram – Well, how do you begin to shift that kind of thinking though? How do we reframe our thoughts or habits that address that? Because I think telling someone in the moment, that they are catastrophizing, is not typically the most effective, right?

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Right?

Rachel Cram – It’s tricky.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – So when you have a thought and it’s become huge then you begin coming up with other catastrophic thoughts, which is, “I can’t! I won’t! What if?” All of those terrible words. And then what we want to do is replace those thoughts and replace the pathway. So a thought we want to begin saying to ourselves is, we want to begin adding the word ‘yet’ into our inner voice. So, “I can’t,” becomes “I haven’t yet.” And once you begin framing things that way you stop freaking out because you don’t feel powerless, you feel like you haven’t ‘yet’ achieved something.

These are extremely simple thinking techniques that really can help you. The next thing is if you see a problem as a mountain that you can’t handle, try to remind yourself that every mountain is a series of hills, one on top of the other. Step up on the first one. Pick a hill. Pick something you think you can handle, something you can manage and if you conquer that then the summit doesn’t seem so far away.

So these are all things we do with our minds. So we celebrate our emotions but we also learn when they are becoming irrational and we bring them back to reality and we take control over what we can.

Rachel Cram – I think what you’re describing right now, it fits this time so so perfectly because many people consider this current world crisis an opportunity for an awakening to realities that we’ve long ignored. And we can look at the disorder of our world as catastrophic but perhaps, like you’re saying, it would be more effective to use that word ‘yet.’ We do not have order ‘yet’. So Ken, I’m wondering in this generational moment what’s the lesson we hope our kids can draw as they move into their futures and we alongside them.

Ken Ginsburg – You know, it’s it’s really interesting the way you framed that question because you started by talking about the fact that there is something potentially idealistic that’s happening as well. I hope that this is an awakening.

There are some things that are really becoming clear right now. And on a positive front what’s becoming clear is that there’s a lot of really good scientists in the world. And when people get together and decide to commit to something they actually can accomplish something. So this could be a real awakening.

There is also an awakening that the fact is that there are huge inequities in society and that those inequities and injustices really rise to the forefront when crises strike. And it would be an amazing awakening if we decided to really address those issues. So, what is the lesson we want them to have? I think the lesson that really will change the world is if this generation walks away knowing how much relationships matter.

Musical interlude #4….

So everything that is happening right now is interfering with relationships. We are separating people from each other literally, physically. We are not in schools together. We wish we could be with people that we can’t be with. So imagine what’s going to happen when kids are able to learn in classrooms again, together. Imagine how much they will appreciate seeing their teachers in the morning. Imagine what it’s going to be like to hug their grandparents again. All of this, they will understand how much relationships matter. And I think of it this way, and this really ties together so much of our conversation because not only is about the lesson of relationships, it’s also the lesson of tying us together as people and allowing each of us to be fragile, taking turns, supporting each other. Not being strong all the time. That’s not consistent with human beings. What is consistent is that we take turns supporting each other and borrowing strength from each other.

So there’s this fable from Aesop about human love. A young person’s feeling frustrated, angry and feeling powerless. They were close to their breaking point. Sometimes this showed through the words that were spoken or screamed, sometimes through their flowing tears and most often through silence. A loving adult approached and said, “I know these moments are frightening and sometimes it feels as if we have no control over our lives. Sometimes it even feels as though we will break like a stick about to snap.”

The adult then challenges the youth to break a stick laying on the ground. The young person picks it up and easily breaks the stick in two, really relating to its fragility. The caring adult gathers several sticks, ties them together and hands them to the child. “Go ahead and try to break the sticks now.” The young person tries and can barely even get them to bend. The adult kindly explains, “Each of those sticks by themselves can easily break but when they’re joined with others they become stronger than if we added all of their individual strengths together. We are like this bundle of sticks. Each of us can be fragile at any moment but together we are stronger. In moments when we feel most vulnerable, we gather people around us to draw from their strength.”

And here’s the really driving it home Rachel. You then say, “In time, you’re going to take this lesson and lend your strength to others.”That’s the lesson. Fragility is part of the human condition. Don’t hide it but draw together and lend your strength sometimes and borrow others strengths sometimes. Imagine if moving forward these kids decide to build a better world together because instead of ‘othering’ people, and separating and dividing, we understand that we support others, particularly those who are most vulnerable.

Rachel Cram – I love that parable Ken and I think we can carry that story into so many situations. Thank you for sharing it.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Thank you.

Rachel Cram – So Ken, as we still live these days with our kids at home often with stress and frustration, I think remembering your words; that this moment will bring us forward into a future that can be resilient and amazing because of what we have collectively experienced as a world in 2020. So I thank you so much for your words, for your passion for what you do and for the hope that you have for children and teens.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Thank you Rachel. Your words are going to get me through the day.

Rachel Cram – I really enjoyed speaking with you.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – I really enjoyed it as well. I really really did. Thank you so much. Thank you so much Roy. Have a fantastic day guys.

Rachel Cram – Ok, thank you so much.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg – Bye now.