hawkins@growyourgiving.org Individual & Family Giving

Supporting the Mental Health of Kids and Families: A Conversation with Barbara Unell

As we approach one year of the start of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, many parents and caregivers are worried about the toll the pandemic is taking on children. Barbara Unell, an expert in finding solutions to everyday challenges that foster positive relationships and overall wellbeing, recently joined Senior Philanthropic Advisor Whitney Hosty on the Grow Your Giving podcast. During this episode, Barbara shares how safe, supportive, and loving relationships between adults and children can mitigate toxic stress now and into the future.

Listen to Whitney and Barbara’s conversation online, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. A transcription of this episode can be found below.

All episodes of the Grow Your Giving podcast can be found at greaterhorizons.org/podcast.

Authored by: Ashley Hawkins, Content Specialist


Episode Transcription

Introduction:
Welcome to the Grow Your Giving podcast, powered by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, and our national entity, Greater Horizons. We aim to make giving convenient and efficient for our donors through donor-advised funds and other charitable giving tools. The Grow Your Giving podcast discusses philanthropic topics to help you enjoy giving more. Find us online at greaterhorizons.org.

Whitney Hosty:
Hello and welcome. I’m Whitney Hosty, Senior Philanthropic Advisor with Greater Horizons. I work to support the giving of a number of individuals, families, and companies. At the time of this recording, which we’re doing remotely today, it’s mid-February, 2021, which puts many of us just shy of one year from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. So much has changed in the past year. Many of us are continuing to work remotely. There are also many children who are not yet back in their classrooms full-time. And we’ve faced collective stress and grief as a community. For my family, like so many others, with kids spending more time at home, there have been some particular challenges. Like many other caregivers, I’ve worried about the stress the pandemic is having on my young kids.

Whitney Hosty:
Today on the episode of the podcast, we’re going to discuss a very important topic. We will be looking at toxic stress in children, and how we can support children’s mental health, and create a supportive network for parents, and those caring for our children now and into the future. Today I’m thrilled to be joined by Barbara Unell, author and co-founder of the Raised with Love and Limits Foundation. Barbara is an expert in finding solutions to everyday challenges that foster positive relationships and overall wellbeing. Welcome, Barbara!

Barbara Unell:
Thank you so much, Whitney. I’m thrilled to be here and thrilled to talk about this topic that means the world to me. And I hope that at the end of this, our time together, that people will be just as fired up as I am about this topic. Is that too much to ask, Whitney?

Whitney Hosty:
No, no, certainly not. We’re so excited to explore this with you.

Barbara Unell:
Thank you.

Whitney Hosty:
Could you please start by giving us some insight into your background, and how your experience relates to the current stress that kids are facing today?

Barbara Unell:
Sure. In reflection on my experience, as well as passion I have for this subject area, as I mentioned, it’s funny to think about the current crisis being as I look at it, in a, you might say a specific aspect of this is the combination of genetics and experience. How’s that for a really weird answer, right? You were expecting me to list all the books I’ve written, or all the programs I’ve done, or any of that stuff, but I am thrilled that I have done that as well, but I also have been struck by the work that Jerry Wyckoff, a psychologist in Kansas City, who’s done work nationally as well. I’m struck with the work that we’ve done really for the past 40 years in realizing that the source, parents, caregivers, any really caring adult, of their genetics combines with the environment, the culture, to really help us be who we are.

Barbara Unell:
And there is absolutely nothing that shines a bright light on that more than this crisis, I would say, that really touches all of our lives. But as you mentioned in the introduction, children’s lives. And so when we can go to the source, how we respond today, not necessarily to the pandemic, but to the stress it causes, is really determined by the genetics of us, the adults, in other words how we were raised, and who we are, and both the genetics we inherited from our parents, but also then, how we pass that along to our kids, the environment we pass along to our kids. So, that old adage of, will this really matter in a hundred years? And the point is, yes, it will matter in a hundred years. So you’re spot on to be thinking about this with your own children, but I have got some really good news in this time together. So keep that positive thinking because all is not lost, let me make sure I tell you that.

Whitney Hosty:
Oh, good, good. I can’t wait to hear it. So it sounds like this is certainly not something that is new or unique, or certainly caused by the pandemic, but can you tell us a little bit about what current research is telling us about toxic stress for children?

Barbara Unell:
Sure. You mentioned, I think in the introduction that I am the co-founder of the Raised with Love and Limits Foundation, the nonprofit, that really was founded in 2016, not too long ago, that grew out of the challenge by the American Academy of Pediatrics to change the, what they call the underutilized platform of pediatric clinical practice and nonprofit, social work, et cetera, to help reduce the dangerous health and learning and behavior risks to children and adults. And so your question about how the research, what that tells us about toxic stress for children today, the topic of the day I think is, What Toxic Stress Does to our Brains and our Bodies, and then how that affects health learning and behavior. So to peel it back a bit, I thought I might share a bit about how that works and we hear about toxic stress, Oh, that’s so toxic, or, Oh, that’s just a situation that is so toxic.

Barbara Unell:
But what I think is, again, back to genetics and environment, so fascinating about this, is to realize, and that’s really what the American Academy of Pediatrics realize, is that the impact of the mitigating toxic stress can then reduce the risks of the major, really public health issues that we’re dealing with today before the pandemic, and indeed, no doubt will be here when the pandemic has changed again, after the different things that we are doing, hopefully to mitigate that risk. So what does it impact? Bullying, obesity, depression, drug abuse, cancer, anxiety, heart disease, violence. You think of that, and you think of all those public health issues. And then you look at the antecedent of that or you look at the source of that and realize the amazing opportunity we have because the data also shows that, that we can look at those early childhood experiences that children have and figure out how that caring, supportive, protective adult can mitigate the risk of all of those public health issues.

Barbara Unell:
So you’re like, “Wait a minute, really?” And that’s exactly what I asked and the co-founders of the Raise with Love and Limits Foundation, and I think all of us working in this field, really around the world, are really looking at, not necessarily the stress itself, because we all have stress, right? But how do we prevent it from becoming toxic to children’s brains and bodies so that we can prevent those health learning and behavior problems I just mentioned. And that’s, as I said, the exciting part about what parenting, in that very simple word, can do. Now at this point, probably many of your listeners are thinking, “Oh no, no, no, don’t put more pressure on parents. Don’t make it crazier for me than I’m already crazy.” So remember how I said, this is the good news?

Whitney Hosty:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Barbara Unell:
Okay. So stay tuned. We’re getting to the good news, right?

Whitney Hosty:
Let’s talk a little bit more about parents. You’ve mentioned that, and I think there’s been an increased awareness of that support is needed for parents in addition to obviously, we all know how important it is to support and nurture, and develop children, but I’d like to talk a little bit more about why is it important to support parents, and what does that look like?

Barbara Unell:
Yes. Yes. It’s yes. Well, they are, as has been said in other circumstances, can I call them the secret sauce? Can I call you a secret sauce? Is that okay?

Whitney Hosty:
Sure.

Barbara Unell:
And that’s what I was talking about before, is the research is telling us that indeed there is a pathway to reducing the toxicity of stress, to mitigating stress so it doesn’t become toxic to kids’ brains and bodies, and result in these issues that we’re talking about, that you were saying you’re worried about your kids, and I would venture to guess that worry is on the minds of every single parent today, to mitigate those worries, and to support parents, I think runs the gamut of so many different things as we know, financial support, employment support, over a million mothers have been leaving the workforce today because of the pandemic, three fourths of parents with children eight to 12 years of age, say that the uncertainty around the school year is causing them stress. This is definitely a mental health crisis, not just for kids, but particularly I think the revelation in terms of mothers is no surprise to the moms out there. In fact, almost 70% of mothers in a study at the University of Oregon on the impact of the pandemic on families say that worry and stress from the pandemic have damaged their health.

Barbara Unell:
So what we’re really talking about here is supporting those who support kids. And so what can we do? How can we turn this tide so that, as I call it, the parenting pandemic does not lead to these negative public health outcomes. I think that’s, I hope the takeaway from today. And for just this reason, to reduce the risk of toxic stress, these positive adult child relationships need to be built. And that’s the secret sauce, is that the data is showing that a positive nurturing, consistent, caring, supportive protective adult, doesn’t necessarily need to be the parent, although, again, remember the genetics and the environment, so you can’t forget those genetics, but a caring, supportive, protective adult relationship is literally been demonstrated to be actually the most common factor for children who develop resilience, executive functioning, and self regulation. And those fancy words, resilience, executive functioning, and self-regulation is I think what we all want so that kids can cope with stress, can make good decisions, can learn patience and frustration tolerance, and be able to learn, be able to get along with others, et cetera. That’s from a Harvard Center on Developing Child Study.

Barbara Unell:
So their study the work around the country in adverse childhood experiences, the work from the CDC, all point to this amazing capacity for being a caring, supportive, protective adult. So the question about supporting parents is such a great one that you’ve asked. So how do you build that? Don’t you wish we could just take a little round pill or something, right? And create this caring support. And what does that even mean, caring, supportive, and protective? And that’s where the sweet spot. The sweet spot for me is the conversation of the day, because so many parents have this, Oh gosh, shame, or judgment, or feeling that they can’t ask for help, that they can’t say, I don’t know what to do about these tantrums, but I’m telling you, I got to get this work done. They particularly, let’s go back to their environment, and remember how I talked about how they were raised? So if you don’t have the capacity for frustration tolerance, that is so difficult for you to teach your child how to have those skills.

Barbara Unell:
And when you asked the question, why is it so important to support parents? Again, in this particular way that we’re talking about today, around building these relationships, that is the work that I think has been demonstrated to be, as I said, literally the number one factor in building these protection, should we say immunizing, if you use a popular term today, against toxic stress, and guess what? It’s not two doses, and it’s not a shot. You don’t have to go anywhere. It’s all inside. It’s an inside job. So the programs that do that, that build parent child relationships, or adult child relationships, those are the ones I think we need to be focusing on because, again, resilience requires relationships, not as might be thought of rugged individualism, the capacity to adapt and thrive, despite adversity, develops through the interaction of supportive relationships. And again, those biological systems I talked about before.

Barbara Unell:
So there’s an erroneous belief, I believe, that people need to draw on some heroic strength of character, but actually it’s the reliable presence of at least one supportive relationship and multiple opportunities to develop these coping skills that’s strengthen the capacity to do well, even in the significant adversity that we’re talking about today. That is a really long, I think that was all one sentence.

Whitney Hosty:
No, that’s great. It is really good news that you’re sharing, but as a parent, sometimes you struggle a little bit with where can I find a quick and easy answer? And so I’d love for you to talk a little bit about, I know you and I before have talked about Behavior Checker.

Barbara Unell:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Whitney Hosty:
Can you tell us a little bit about that? What is Behavior Checker, and how is it currently being used by parents and in healthcare settings?

Barbara Unell:
Sure. Sure, sure, sure. I’d love to. Yes. Well, back to, okay, the good news, right? Is that these relationships, and even a report from the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, I want to just make sure I note the science that’s underneath all of this, and the research that’s going on across the country about this relationship, because it almost sounds too simple, right? It almost sounds like, what? No, not really. Well, again, the consistent caring, supportive, protective adult takes the toxicity out of stress and neutralizes it. So as the National Academy of Science says, is the single most important factor in promoting positive psychosocial, emotional and behavioral wellbeing, is having these relationships with a mom or a dad, or other primary caregivers. That’s according to the report, Vibrant Kids from the National Academy.

Barbara Unell:
So the question that my colleagues and I asked in founding the Raise with Love and Limits Foundation in 2016 is, Hey, armed with this data, armed with understanding the source, right? Then who is the audience, or who are the professionals, who are really giving the, to use the language, again, of today, the first responders, right? In terms of helping families. And those would be those in pediatric healthcare, those in education, right? Those in social services. And so we looked at what tools they had, these folks, to do just what I’m talking about, of building these positive relationships. Again, if that’s the antecedent then surely in place would be these parent skill-building practices. And so the first stunner, if you will, was that no one gets trained in parenting skill building. None of those audiences I just told you. Now, okay, I told you there’s going to be good news here, and now all of a sudden, you’re going, “Whoa, wait a minute. That is not good news,” right?

Barbara Unell:
But here’s the good news. We developed Behavior Checker to fill that gap, right? To say, well, wait a minute. We have the science that tells us there’s this gap, so what if we create a tool that address the parenting skill building for all as the gold standard of care? And why isn’t there what we call Behavior Checker? And thanks to the major philanthropic donation by many, the least of whom was DEG here in the Greater Kansas City area, that is now a national, not now, has been a national company. We created the signature tool of our nonprofit. It’s the only comprehensive evidence-based online, systemic tool, systematic tool, in alignment with the standards set by the American Academy of Pediatrics to answer parents’ questions about that very thing you were just saying, okay, I got this tantrum going on, right? And that’s where the rubber meets the road.

Barbara Unell:
That’s where these adverse childhood experiences start to happen, is when there’s neglect, when there’s emotional distancing, or worse, where there is a sense that a child doesn’t get the coping skills, because the response to these behaviors all be them common every day, right? Those who are parents are raising kids or teaching kids in the audience know this, right? These are normal behaviors, but how we respond to those behaviors is what Behavior Checker is all about. So we have put on in the Behavior Checker site answers to over 150 of the children’s most common behavior problems that are predictable, but potentially, and this is the key point here, I think in our discussion, what we call incubators for toxic stress, that can be addressed in medical offices, in pediatric offices, in social service agencies, in anyone, in the schools, anyone who touches the life of the child.

Barbara Unell:
And with one click, these professionals can search, print, and share, to get answers they need. Remember there is not the education, right? In medical school or nursing school. So how would they have these answers? So we’re like, okay, we need to start there. And I’m thrilled to say that we have begun to work with healthcare providers and social service agencies and school districts and County health departments to put this, as I like to say, in the water, so that we can reduce the stigma of asking for these answers, but also help those professionals know what to say as opposed to when we were starting, one of the answers that one of the nurses gave about biting? We said, “Well, how would you respond to biting?” She said “Well just bite them back.” And I’m like, “Well, that maybe, probably what their mom or dad told them.” Right? But on the other hand, right? We’re going with the American Academy of Pediatrics standards here.

Barbara Unell:
And so that’s why we developed that tool, not in isolation with what all of these wonderful agencies and hospitals, et cetera, are doing. But the response to it has been so exciting because people are saying, “I wish I had that when I was raising my kids,” or when we’ll be at a meeting or something, and we’ll be looking at Behavior Checker and all the nurses and the docs, and they’re looking down and we’re like, what are they doing? Why are they not looking at us? And then we’re like, Oh… We’ll ask, and they’ll say, I’m trying this tonight with my child. So they’re already on Behavior Checker. Right? Which is the best, I guess, response of all, is that we’re meeting a need for the professionals as well as for the families that they serve.

Whitney Hosty:
So is Behavior Checker available to the general public? Is it something that can be found online currently?

Barbara Unell:
Yes. You can go to behaviorchecker.org. Now see a lot of your listeners are going there right now. They’ve got their phones out, looking it up and they’ve stopped listening to us, but don’t do it yet. Don’t do it yet. We have more to say, but the exciting piece is that we want to tether it to these organizations so that as a first line support system, which is what Behavior Checker is, we want to make sure that the agencies and healthcare that families receive, also have that support system with this tool, so that when you go to KU, for example, .behaviorchecker.org, or to children’s.behaviorchecker.org, which is Children’s Minnesota, the seventh largest children’s hospital in the country, that is full on with Behavior Checker, that they know what this tool is. They’re promoting this tool as well. And again, thanks to philanthropy that supports the Raised with Love and Limits Foundation, we can make this available. The idea is that it is available to everyone so that they have access to this information.

Whitney Hosty:
Great. Thank you. This will be, I know a great additional resource for me and for other parents to be able to add to our toolbox and support children. You did mention the importance of philanthropic support here. And I think, as we all become more aware of the mental health needs for both children and parents, that are so important in those efforts to reduce toxic stress, in the few minutes we have left, I’d love to go a little bit deeper and to talk about how specifically can philanthropy help to support these important issues and needs in the community. Could you tell us a little bit about programs that you’ve seen that have been supported by donors to address these important issues?

Barbara Unell:
Yes. Yes. Yes. Someone might ask, “Well, how can philanthropy help a parent have a positive relationship?” And that’s not philanthropy’s business, I’m not in your house. And I don’t see what you do every day when… Let’s just say, just for pretending, that your child doesn’t want to eat what you made for dinner. Let’s just pretend.

Whitney Hosty:
That never happens in my house. No.

Barbara Unell:
Never happens, never happens. All right. So it’s like, well, wait a minute. How do we bridge that gap between the foundation over here, or the fund over there, and your, let’s just make this up, your daughter not wanting to eat, or mine for that matter, or my grand child, or someone else’s. So the point being that if we can promote and we can support those relationship building agencies, whether or not they already have a parent education program, or can start a new parenting education program, I think we need to start having a new, healthy respect, not just for the mental health crisis that’s being caused by the parenting inequities we’re seeing, but also, again, remember the good news, on the flip side, we have tools to help build those relationships, particularly digitally now, when we maybe can’t literally go in person to a support group, or attend a parenting class, or something like that.

Barbara Unell:
So, you asked for examples, the parent education programs that we’re seeing at Children’s Minnesota, for example, they started a parent support line that is supported again by philanthropy, where then folks can be triaged to this parent support that they need. And the connection between this parents support and mental health is direct, which I think is what we’ve been discussing today. But to look at the counselors in schools, for example, who refer children and their parents to agencies, ask when you’re doing philanthropy or thinking about how I can make a difference in this area, if I hope you’ve been excited about it from our conversation about how you can help support the mental health and emotional health, and physical health of children. Ask, is there a parent support program in those agencies? Every agency from a mentoring organization to a women’s shelter, let’s say, for example, can have a parent support program that we’re talking about, and can build it if they get the funding for it.

Barbara Unell:
And I think what we’re looking at is, from our foundation standpoint, is the major national medical groups that we’re working with to start to begin new programs, because I don’t think the science is that old in terms of the ACE, Adverse Childhood Experiences study, or toxic stress, to have even trickled down to, well, how can we work with birthing centers, or how can we work with, again, back to postpartum emotional support programs? How can we then support that? The answer is philanthropy, just to make sure that there’s equal access for all to these programs, that it’s the gold standard. And regional mental health alliances are now shifting some of their support, again, through different social service agencies that we’re working with, and perhaps ones in communities that folks who are listening know about. But ask the question, is the mental health mission, are you looking at, you, the agency, looking at how creating safe stable, nurturing relationships fits into that mental health mission?

Barbara Unell:
They may not already be in place, or there could be partnerships and collaborations that are formed. That’s where philanthropy comes in. We at the Raised with Love and Limits Foundation, if you go to info@raisewithloveandlimits.org, we’re happy to help you look at how to build those coalitions so that we can marry, if you will, mental health, philanthropy and parents skill building, philanthropy, so that we can, as we say, create that single most important factor to reduce the risk of bullying, obesity, depression, anxiety, cancer, stroke, all of those things that we all really worry about with our kids, worry about with ourselves, but it’s philanthropy that makes the difference, which is why I haven’t said it yet, I’m so grateful for this time with you all, and with you Whitney, and working with the foundation in this capacity.

Whitney Hosty:
Yes. Well, thank you so much, Barbara, for taking the time to join us, to talk about such an important topic today. And I, in addition to checking out behaviorchecker.org for my own challenges at home, I am really looking forward to seeing how opportunities and education in parenting, and children’s mental health evolve for both caregivers and children, as we emerge from the pandemic, I think, as we mentioned earlier, this is something that is not new, but I think has increased awareness around it. And I just really look forward to seeing what the future might hold in this space. So again, thank you Barbara. Listeners interested in using their charitable funds to grant to nonprofits that support kids and parents, and eliminate toxic stress in their communities, can contact our team at any time. Our experts would be happy to help you research and find a 501(c)(3) charity to support. Thank you again for joining us today.

Conclusion:
To hear more from the Grow Your Giving podcast, visit us online at greaterhorizons.org/podcast. Thank you for listening.