Fostering a Healthy Mind

By Kevin Tankersley

Julia Becker discusses mental health in children and teens

Pictured: Grace-Marie Brunken

Dr. Julia Becker is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Waco. She earned her bachelor’s and doctorate degrees from Baylor, and worked in the counseling center at Sam Houston State University for two years. She then returned to Waco when her husband, Chris Becker, took a job as assistant director of the Baylor Science Building, where he manages labs and oversees research. They have two preschool-age children.

Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley met with Becker at her fourth-floor office in West Waco to talk about issues and problems that teenagers and college students are facing, and how parents can help them cope.

WACOAN: How long have you been practicing?

Becker: I’ve had my private practice here for nine years.

WACOAN: And your doctorate is from Baylor?

Becker: Yes, I got my [Doctor of Psychology] from Baylor, and then I worked in Sam Houston State University counseling center for about two years and then moved back up here to start my private practice.

WACOAN: In your practice, who are your patients?

Becker: I see adolescents and adults and a lot of college students.

WACOAN: With adolescents, what kinds of issues are you seeing these days?

Becker: With adolescents, there’s a lot of stress. A lot of it’s related to school, and friendships as well. There’s a lot of relationship stress, as far as developing friendships and managing relationship conflict, a lot of insecurity that adolescents are facing in their relationships.

Social media is something that often comes up when I’m talking to adolescents, as well as young adults. It’s often a focus of conversation when they’re discussing relationship concerns. I’ve found that social media, often there’s a lot of interactions, but they’re not the deep quality that the teens are looking for, so it can lead them to feel disconnected and lonely and generally dissatisfied. And they spend so much time on those broader connections, having those frequent, superficial interactions that there’s little time or energy devoted to the deeper ones.

WACOAN: Would that be because they’re not out doing things? They’re in their rooms with their faces in screens?

Becker: Yes. They do engage in a lot of extracurricular activities. Another thing is teens are often overscheduled. They’re going from school to their extracurriculars, and then they might get home just in time for dinner. They have to study, and that’s their time to try to catch up with friends, so they turn to social media for that.

But even when they’re in the presence of friends, a lot of these teens, they’re all on their phones anyway and not having those quality interactions face to face.

WACOAN: Is the overscheduling a problem that you see?

Becker: It is a problem. There’s so many activities for kids to participate in, and they don’t want to miss out. They have a fear of missing out, and parents don’t want the kids to miss out either. They want the best for their kids. They want to prepare them for college and help them be well-rounded, so they say yes to a lot of things.

WACOAN: You said ‘they’ say yes to a lot of things. Is that the kids or the parents saying yes?

Becker: I think it’s both, kids and parents are saying yes. And they don’t know when to cut back a lot of times.

WACOAN: OK. Back to social media for a second. Have you seen that one of the issues that adolescents are having I — it might be all of us — the face that we put forth on social media, that’s our best? And so, are kids trying to live up to their friends, or do they feel depressed because their friends just have this perfect life, as depicted online?

Becker: Right. There’s research showing that spending time on social media is linked to decreases in mood, so greater depression and anxiety over time, because it does create those unrealistic expectations and the feeling that they’re never living up. They don’t have as many friends or as many likes, or they’re not doing the things their friends are doing and feel dissatisfied.

WACOAN: But all we’re showing is just the best of our lives. And so, I assume everybody else does the same thing.

Becker: Yes. It’s a constructed image that you see on social media. And kids know that. A lot of the college students I work with, they know that on a cognitive level, and they’ll say that, but it still gets to them emotionally when they see all of that, even though they know that people are posting the best of things.

WACOAN: Do you see the same issues with college students that you do with adolescents?

Becker: Very similar issues. They’re dealing with identity concerns, trying to separate from their parents and become more independent, trying to find a career path.

It starts even in high school thinking about their future, their career, and trying to choose a college based on that, making those big decisions. And they’re also dealing with a lot of relationship concerns.

WACOAN: Do you see situations where parents are putting pressure on children?

Becker: Yes. Parents are putting a lot of pressure on the kids and also doing a lot of things for them. So they’re not letting the kids have the opportunity to learn and to fail on their own.

A lot of times I see parents are managing their kid’s schedules, keeping up with when their assignments are due and telling them what they need to do on a daily basis. And sometimes, that even continues at the college level. But sometimes, it abruptly stops right at the college level, and then the students have no skills. They’ve never managed their time, they’ve never been responsible, and it’s a very difficult transition because they haven’t learned how to do that, and they also haven’t learned to fail.

So part of it, with parents giving their kids more responsibility, the kids are going to fail. Sometimes, they might miss an assignment. They might forget to study for a test, and the parents just need to allow that to happen so that the kids can learn and do better with time management in the future.

WACOAN: How can a parent better do that? You know, a kid misses an assignment, leaves the assignment at home. What kind of advice do you give to parents?

Becker: So, say the kid leaves an assignment at home and says, ‘Dad, will you please bring that to school?’ I’d tell them that I know their first instinct would be to say yes but to just pause a moment and think about what do they want to teach their child in that moment, and what would they be teaching the child if they agreed and did it? What would they be teaching their child if they said, ‘No, I can’t help you with that’?

WACOAN: About what age do the parents need to start backing off a little bit, with keeping track of assignments and things?

Becker: It has to be very gradual, and it can start even with young kids, giving them responsibilities like a chore chart and telling them, you need to do these chores and have it done by a certain time. And then just let them handle that. That’s practice that even a very young child, probably early elementary school, can do where there’s minimal consequence.

WACOAN: What kind of chores can elementary school-age kids start helping with?

Becker: It really depends on the child. Because some kids are more careful, and they can do things without creating a bigger mess or breaking things. It also depends on how much the parent is willing to tolerate a chore that’s not very well done or maybe a bigger mess made by the chore. So it’s not about having the chore perfectly done. It’s about giving that child the opportunity to do it and feel proud of themselves and feel accomplished.

So they could do things like, they could sweep off the floor. They could take a cloth and dust off the furniture. They could feed the pets. But sometimes you just have to go back and tell them to do it again, point out the missed spots and really teach them to have high-quality work.

WACOAN: What kind of new issues have cropped up since you’ve been in practice?

Becker: I do remember that when I first started working with college students, there was not any discussion [about] social media. It just didn’t exist at that time, so definitely that’s a new issue that has been discussed a lot, and it’s just getting more and more prevalent.

And, other than that, we’ve always had the achievement issues. Our culture really celebrates achievement and being busy and being very accomplished, and so those are issues that I’ve seen as I’ve worked with college students and teens over the years.

WACOAN: What kind of advice do you give to teens and college students when social media is an issue?

Becker: I’ve talked with a lot of the students about taking breaks from social media throughout the day. So instead of being constantly on your phone looking at it every time it dings, having periods of time that you set aside to use those programs. And so, they’ve got these breaks then throughout the day where they can just talk with friends or think about other things. Then, as they’re scheduling their social media time, they realize how much time has been spent on it, and they start to have less interest in it sometimes. They start to see how it affects their lives once they’ve had a break from it.

WACOAN: So they force themselves away from it at first, and then they realize, ‘I can live without this, and it’s OK.’

Becker: Right. Well, most of the time, they go back to it at some level. They may say, ‘I’m just going to delete all of these and never look at them again,’ but they often will go back, and they just find a moderate level of use. And it’s often a work in progress, experimenting with ways to limit it and decreasing and increasing and finding something that works for them.

But, we do talk about what role it serves in their lives when they find themselves wanting to go back and look at it, what is driving them to that and then how do they feel afterward. So, try to make it more intentional and less automatic.

WACOAN: What role should social media play in the lives of teens and college students?

Becker: Well, for most of them, when I ask them the goal for social media, they say they want to be connected to their friends, know what their friends are doing, and share important things with their friends, and maybe see some funny videos and just be kept up on the news. Sometimes they get their news from that. So it is important for them to think about their goals and then think about, how are their actions lining up with their goals? Are they connecting with friends and feeling fulfilled by that, or is something else going on?

WACOAN: How can parents help kids deal with social media?

Becker: I mentioned loneliness before, but spending too much time on social media can lead them to feel disconnected and lonely, and loneliness is linked to higher depression and higher anxiety. So it’s very important that parents are aware of that because it’s possible that kids can feel lonely, even if they have hundreds of friends on social media and even if they’re spending a lot of time with people throughout their day.

So parents can check in with the kids about, do they feel connected, are they feeling lonely, and really have conversations about the quality of their interactions. They can ask about which interactions are fulfilling, which are positive, which are negative and which are neutral — three different categories. And have the kids really examine how much of this is positive for them, how much is negative and how much is neutral. And then, if there’s a lot of negative, find ways to decrease that. And even if there’s a lot of neutral interactions, that’s important too because if they’re spending all their time on interactions that are just neutral and not fulfilling, then they don’t have much time and energy for those more positive interactions.

WACOAN: What would neutral interactions be?

Becker: Oh, it might be just mindless browsing through social media or just commenting on things that it doesn’t make them feel negative or positive or connected to anybody. It may be just commenting for the sake of commenting.

WACOAN: How can parents deal with adolescents who may be looking at inappropriate material online?

Becker: It’s really important for parents to be aware of what their kids are looking at online, and there are controls that can be installed in phones and computers. So being tech savvy definitely gives you an advantage there. But also, to talk with the kids about what they’re looking at, maybe be in the room with them when they’re spending time on the computer or phones and look at that and talk about what are they going to look at, why have they gone there, and decide how to put some limits on that.

WACOAN: Have you seen increases in bullying, either in person or online?

Becker: Yes, I’ve seen an increase in bullying, as well as a fear of being bullied through social media, fear of doing something that might be embarrassing that might be caught on film and then posted, and it goes viral.

There’s this fear a lot of teens have that they’re always being watched. And, that’s a normal teenager feeling anyway. It’s part of the development, this idea that there’s an audience on them all the time. All teens go through that. But social media has heightened that because now everybody has cameras and can record what you do wrong.

WACOAN: Do you see kids who are afraid to get out and do things because that fear is so strong?

Becker: Not as commonly. That is the extreme of social anxiety, avoiding interactions for fear of embarrassing yourself. So, that would be definitely something to work on if someone has that level of social anxiety.

Often, it’s just a fear of being embarrassed. It can be a nagging fear that’s just in the back of their mind as they’re interacting with friends. But it doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of keeping them inside of their room.

WACOAN: What can help with stress in teenagers and college students. Sleep? Exercise? What all can help?

Becker: Sleep and exercise are really important. If a kid is not getting enough sleep, they will have more stress, more anxiety, and then they’re more likely to eat poorly, which increases their stress. And then their sleep is likely to be disrupted more because they drink a lot of caffeine to compensate, so it’s a really negative cycle that they can get into. Working on exercise and sleep are always things that I discuss with college students and teens.

Another thing I teach people is deep breathing. And that sounds very simple, but it’s a lot more difficult than it sounds. Research shows that using deep breathing is associated with calming the body and the mind, and it produces a relaxation response.

Most people, when I ask them to take a deep breath, if they have anxiety, they try to take a deep breath, but I see that their breathing is very shallow. I see their chest moving up and down, and I don’t see much movement lower down deep in the bottom of their lungs. I should see their belly expanding if it’s truly a deep breath and not see movement in the chest. They think they’re breathing deeply and they’re not, so I retrain them to breathe deeply. And it takes some work to train the body to take those deep breaths, but it can be very helpful to learn how to do that and use that on a daily basis and use that when anxiety comes in.

WACOAN: You said it can be difficult to learn how to do that. And it sounds simple, just take a deep breath. So somebody who’s facing a stressful situation, what would they do?

Becker: Well, they would need to practice the deep breathing when they’re not stressed. Because when they’re already stressed, their body is just naturally going to go into that more shallow breathing. I have people practice at least once a day when they’re feeling calm, and twice a day is best, but they practice that, and then their body gets retrained to breathe more deeply, and so then they can use that in a stressful situation.

Babies are born knowing how to breathe. If you watch a baby sleeping, you see their stomach moving up and down. They just naturally breathe deeply, but as we get older, our bodies react to stress, and we retrain ourselves to breathe more shallow. And so, we just have to train that deep breathing.

Also, it’s good, deep breathing can help promote more body awareness so that when teens start feeling anxious, they’re just more aware of what’s going on in their body. They can recognize the anxiety by subtle changes in their body like their muscles getting tense or their breathing becoming more shallow, and it’s important to recognize it at the earlier level before the anxiety intensifies.

WACOAN: OK. You said body awareness, so that brought this to mind. How can parents help, especially teenage girls, deal with body image issues? And I guess teenage boys, too.

Becker: Yeah, that’s true. Boys are increasingly having more eating disorders.

WACOAN: Are they?

Becker: Yes.

WACOAN: That’s interesting. I haven’t heard that yet. What is causing that in boys?

Becker: We’re not really sure. It could be a combination of things. It could be that we have more awareness now, that it’s not as hidden as it used to be.

WACOAN: So how can parents help their children deal with body image issues?

Becker: Well, there’s a few things. For one, parents need to be mindful about how they talk about their own bodies. If they’re always criticizing their bodies or going on a lot of diets or promoting unhealthy behaviors, then the kids are watching and taking that in.

And also, to be really critical of media, of what you see in commercials and in movies. That’s not what a real person looks like in real life. Parents can talk about that. Talk about what do you see on that magazine cover. Do you think that’s how most people look? Do you think that’s how you’re supposed to look? And help them to develop more realistic expectations and try to limit the negative body talk.

And when kids are around their friends, if their friends are talking negatively about their own bodies, then the girls will really internalize that and feel more dissatisfied when they’re around friends who talk negatively.

WACOAN: You mentioned kids not getting a lot of sleep. They drink too much caffeine during the day. How much is too much caffeine for a teenager?

Becker: I don’t know what the research would say on that. But I do know that stopping your caffeine consumption after about 2 o’clock is generally recommended if you want to be able to sleep well that night. But in general, if they can avoid those energy drinks and limit the sodas. As little caffeine as possible is the best thing for a teenager.

WACOAN: How can parents help young children just start out in the right direction in regard to mental health?

Becker: For a young child, parents might just focus on labeling the emotions when they occur. So when the child cries, the parent can say, ‘Oh, I see you feel sad. Tell me about that.’ And just that consistent labeling helps the child learn what the emotion is and [know] it’s OK to feel that way.

And as the child gets older, the parent might ask more sophisticated questions about the emotions and ask them how they would like to cope with it. It’s really important too that the parents are accepting of the emotions instead of judgmental. Accepting would be labeling the emotion and showing some care and concern, rather than saying, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t feel that way. This isn’t a big deal. Don’t be sad about that.’

WACOAN: Is it a problem when a dad says to a son, ‘Man up. Stop crying’?

Becker: Yes, yes.

WACOAN: So how can parents, especially a dad, handle that better?

Becker: Yes, yes. I’m sure, you know, there’s no perfect parent, and you’re going to mess up and say, ‘That’s not a big deal’ because children do react with strong emotions to things that adults know are not really big deals. But to the children they are big deals.

So as much as possible, if parents can take a step back and try to imagine how it might be from the child’s eyes and just really work at having that nonjudgmental stance toward emotions. And certainly, those comments toward boys about ‘man up’ and ‘don’t cry,’ those have been shown to be harmful for boys. It makes it harder for them to express emotion as they’re older.

WACOAN: How can parents help their children, say, after another school shooting that’s all over the news, and the child wakes up the next morning and says, ‘I don’t want to go to school. I don’t want that to happen.’

Becker: That’s a really difficult thing because it really touches on the uncertainty of life. We tend to have this assumption that we’re always safe, and then a school shooting rattles that and casts doubt on that.

One thing is limiting exposure to the media surrounding that. The more they see, the more they think about it and talk about it, the more intense those emotions will be, the stronger their fear. It’s important to talk about it to some degree but also to focus on other things, to focus on what allows them to feel a sense of safety, what gives them their sense of security. So broaden their focus so they’re not only thinking about that school shooting.

WACOAN: If my child was to say, ‘Why did that happen?’ My response is, ‘I don’t know.’ What’s a better response to that question?

Becker: I guess it’s similar to any kind of violence in the world that kids might see on the news or hear about. There’s always a question of why, why would someone commit a violent act like that. And the answer is, ‘We don’t know what was going on in their head, but we do know that your school tries very hard to make things as safe as possible. They’re always reviewing their safety protocols.’ Focus on what we do know. ‘We know that there’s some really great teachers at your school who care about you.’ And yeah, saying, ‘I don’t know,’ that’s OK. It’s OK to not have the answer.

WACOAN: OK. Here’s a fill-in-the-blank question. Society is putting too much emphasis on blank for kids today.

Becker: I would say either appearance or achievement.

WACOAN: OK. And I think we’ve already talked about how parents can help deal with both of those.

Becker: Yeah. You know, one thing I also wanted to say was about problems with focusing. Parents can help their kids learn to focus better by kind of minimizing distractions. One thing research has shown is a lot of young adults will spend only about two to four minutes focusing on, like, academic material, and then it can take up to 20 minutes to regain their focus. So they might spend two to four minutes before looking at their phone or checking email or some other mild distraction that they think is no big deal, but it is a big deal. If they’re getting distracted every two to four minutes, and it can take up to 20 minutes to refocus, that’s a lot of time wasted.

WACOAN: How can they deal with that?

Becker: I often suggest taking a break [from their device] for an hour or 30 minutes and removing that distraction and seeing if that improves their focus. And then, if they see that it improves focus dramatically or they get a lot more done, they’ll be motivated to do it more. Experimenting with that and just showing them how much time and focus is lost by these seemingly small distractions.

WACOAN: What else do I need to know? You answered everything that I’ve asked.

Becker: One other thing that parents can teach their kids is mindfulness. This is growing in popularity, and there’s a lot more research behind it that practicing mindfulness helps with stress and anxiety and depression and can improve attention as well.

WACOAN: Explain a little bit of what mindfulness is.

Becker: Mindfulness is the practice of being present and focused on the current moment rather than thinking about the past or the future or worries, just being in the moment.

When some people think of mindfulness, they think traditional meditation where you sit in a quiet room. But that’s only one type of mindfulness. Mindfulness might be going on a walk and being focused on nature. It might mean painting and being fully immersed in that experience or listening to music or some other activity where it allows for a freedom from thinking.

WACOAN: So, it’s kind of calming, kind of like the deep breathing.

Becker: Right. Teaching them to disengage from thoughts and social media and just be in the moment. The key is being mindful of the moment, being focused on the moment.

WACOAN: Finally, are you reading anything good right now?

Becker: Well, I have picked up this book. I kind of read this off and on. It’s called ‘The Willpower Instinct’ [by Kelly McGonigal], and it’s just about self-control and how the mind works and how sometimes we might sabotage ourselves without intending. And sometimes we do things that we think are good for productivity and they’re not. It’s for anyone who has a goal but they can’t seem to stick with it.

WACOAN: What do you like to do for fun?

Becker: Oh, for fun, when it’s not too hot, I love being outside and being in nature, going on walks. Anything I can do with my kids. I also like to play music. I play the ukulele. I’ve taken up that in recent years.

WACOAN: What brought you to that?

Becker: Visiting Hawaii. That’s the instrument of Hawaii. You can’t walk down the street without hearing someone play that. I got into the Hawaiian ukulele players and really started listening to their music. Then my husband bought me my own, and I started learning to play.

WACOAN: How long have you played?

Becker: About five years.

WACOAN: Really? So, are you pretty good?

Becker: Well, not as good as I should be for playing for five years.