Dr Jason Kahn Of Mightier On Raising Children Who Are Mentally & Emotionally Healthy

An Interview With Maria Angelova

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Be vocal about how you manage your emotions. If your child knows you have emotions, and that you use strategies to manage your own emotions, they are going to be more willing to explore and acknowledge their own and build their own strategies for resilience.

Our children are facing challenges that didn’t exist just a short while ago. They are growing up with social media, constantly being connected, and the hurried pace of life today, as well as the pandemic, and the often-frightening news. In short, our children are facing unprecedented mental health challenges. Anxiety, depression, and even suicide is on the rise. As parents and educators, what can we do to raise children who are mentally healthy? In this interview series, we are talking to authors, parenting experts and mental health professionals who can share their expertise and advice on Raising Children Who Are Mentally Healthy. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jason Kahn, Ph.D.

Dr. Jason Kahn serves as the Chief Science Officer and co-founder of Mightier. He combines his expertise in developmental psychology and mental health to create video games that help children build emotional strength and the ability to harness their emotions to overcome behavioral challenges. While obtaining his Ph.D. in Education at Tufts University, Dr. Kahn began his appointment at Boston Children’s Hospital with the Department of Psychiatry and later joined Harvard Medical School as an Instructor.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to hear a little about you. Inspire us with your backstory! What are some lessons you would share with your younger self if you had the opportunity?

One of the things that I was lucky enough to learn (and wish that I had known even sooner than I did) is what the power of entrepreneurship can be. I started my career as an academic. I am still an academic at heart and I believe that anything that we claim can help people needs to be backed up by evidence.

The flip side of that is that if you want to make an impact in the world, you really need to be a part of people’s lives. Making the leap from academics into industry and entrepreneurship has given me the opportunity to work with families directly; to be part of their lives, working with them, helping them, and reaching people on a scale that I couldn’t in an academic setting. The encouragement to make that leap and work with families even more closely would have been something that I would have very much appreciated.

None of us can experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support he/ she gave you to get where you are today? Can you share that story and why you are grateful for that person?

I absolutely need to call out the role that my mentor, a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrick played in my life. Joe, as I know him, is a phenomenal scientist and clinician. He, right off the bat, gave me the opportunity to really explore integrating child development and mental health and helped me build a lens for under which we could evaluate them and observe how they worked and how they played out.

He really carved out that space for me to do it and at a prestigious medical institution — Boston Children’s Hospital. He was so encouraging every step of the way from basic science, to leaving and starting a company. Really without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?

The first thing we came up with at Mightier, a video game app that builds emotional resilience and confidence in children, is a video game that kids play that has been clinically proven to build a skill called emotional regulation. Our insight in working with families for more than five years has been that it’s not just kids who need support. So, we’ve taken the product in this direction where we’ve built more and more materials that are not just inside this video game world but are out in the kids’ lives and out in families’ lives as well. We’re making this idea of emotional regulation not just something the child is building on within the game.

We do know that the concepts learned within the game transfer out beyond it, but the things we’re working on now also make emotional regulation something that the entire family experiences. We’ve observed that when we incorporate the whole family, conflicts get reduced. We’ve seen parent-child stress get reduced and as a result, we’ve then seen positive interactions increase. And so now we’re just starting to realize new products and will start putting them out there in mid-2023.

Ok, thank you. Let’s talk about raising emotionally and mentally healthy children. In the Western world, humans typically have their physical needs met. But what has led to the tremendous downgrade in emotional and mental health that we are seeing today, especially for children? What is lacking in the mental health arena? Why are so many of our children struggling today?

Just because emotional and mental health are more visible now does not mean that they have not always been a problem. One of the things that we’ve gotten much better at as a community is the ability to measure mental health, the ability to name mental health challenges, and the ability to find evidence-based ways to approach mental health challenges. Those are all good things, but a side effect of that is that we are now far more aware of the mental health challenges that go on around us than perhaps we were even 10, 15, or 20 years ago. Now that we can name this… now that we can see it… we can measure it. We were never set up to be able to treat the level of need that we’ve discovered so we do not have enough clinicians, therapists, or psychiatrists. So, while doctors can prescribe medicine, we don’t have enough systematic resources to be able to help the people who need it.

Before, where we might have just identified children as having discipline issues or behavioral problems, we’re better able to respond to a mental health need and at the same time schools are now faced with responding to these growing mental health needs. Now there are increased expectations on teachers and parents and the community that didn’t have language for talking about these issues and struggles 20 years ago. Now that we’re better at seeing things, I think the system itself needs to evolve.

How are we going to solve problems in a world where we know clinicians are leaving faster than new cases are being identified? We have this tremendous wealth of technology that is always growing, but we need to figure out how to take technology and turn the eye towards mental health. We also must be flexible about what intervention looks like. Office (or zoom) visits will continue to be part of the story, but where can technology play roles and do things that aren’t possible by a therapist alone?

How does technology play into the equation of mental and emotional well-being? What about social media?

I think we’ve all come to realize that technology is a double-edged sword. The best answer I have comes from one of my colleagues at Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. Michael Rich. Dr. Rich talks about balance in our technology diet and how we approach that, especially with children. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle on social media or on-screen time. Kids are in these spaces. This is how they interact. This is how they grow up. And so really, we as adults need to do two things. Those of us that are responsible for caring for kids need to help our children understand that the screens in their lives are just one part of their lives and we need to do everything in our power to make sure that they have other spaces where they can express who they are.

That’s going to look different for every kid. There’s no one size fits all solution. It’s just making sure that there’s a balance and those screens are part of that balance because they’re not going away. In fact, these screens are going to be part of how kids thrive. They’re going to be part of how they participate. But they’ve only got to be part of the equation. So, whether it’s sports, music, academics, playing with friends, reading, etc., it’s all just part of the story.

The other part of this is that those of us lucky enough to be able to build new tools and impact policy need to start looking at technology as the answer. That means building tools and finding tools that can extend the reach of our mental health institutions and within our mental health structures so that we can provide help and access for more kids as we know that not enough kids are getting the support they need today.

Obviously, this is a huge issue, and it seems to be growing. What are some small, practical tips, or tweaks, that parents and educators can easily implement to help their children who are struggling?

The simplest answer is to talk. I think one of the things, especially as we’re talking about parents and educators, is that schools have gotten smarter about how they use their resources. It’s important for parents to understand that the school can be on their team and the school can be a big help and advocate for their child. But parents don’t always know what resources are available. Parents should embrace the opportunity to approach educators and say, “I know this is a problem, but what tools are there? What resources are in your school that can help?”

Any parent who’s willing to talk to a teacher or a pediatrician, or anyone else who can help direct them to the proper resources, must understand they’re already doing such a huge favor for their child because that’s a hard first step and they’re going to get ideas. There are lots of ideas. There are things you can do in the home. Things like incorporating Mightier, but there are also things that the professionals in your life can do to support you.

In your professional opinion, what are certain triggers or signs that the state of a child’s mental and emotional health is not at its best? What is the best way to be proactive and address these signs from the get-go?

In my professional opinion, I think one of the things that’s hardest for parents is that they don’t see their child in relation to where other kids are. When we think about developmental milestones, a lot of times like those are built with the “typical” kid in mind and there truly is no one typical kid. So, if you’re the parent of a very young child, think newborn to three years old, then you can go online and go to the CDC website and you can look at just very typical developmental milestones, highlighting what kids should be doing by a particular age. Every child is different, and small variations in development are typically nothing to worry about. That said, early intervention can do a world of good so enlisting a doctor who can formally assess the situation and refer services if needed is never a bad step.

There are two simple things that can really help parents. First is simply watching their kids with their friends and just building a sense of what the social skills of their child look like to see if they’re comparable to the kids around them that are on the playground or the like. The second is feedback from the teacher. It can feel like a lot when you’re getting behavioral feedback from a teacher. Some teachers are better at providing feedback than others. And so oftentimes a parent will get this feedback and it just feels like you’re being judged as a parent. That’s the hardest part to step through, but that is when parents will want to speak with people they can relate to.

Often the first step in that journey is going to be your child’s pediatrician — being comfortable with your children’s pediatrician is important. The pediatrician has a lot of mental health expertise, especially these days. From there, the pediatrician might refer you to someone else. The current trend is for there to be a co-located social worker in the practice who can then do a more formal evaluation to help you understand if there’s anything of significance going on.

Do you think we can do a better job of educating our children about their emotional and mental health? What would that look like?

The answer to this is very simple. Yes, we can. I think one of the things that we are hoping to see is a parenting up-level. Emotional health and emotional wellness are front and center to their development. When a child attends elementary school, we start spending a lot of time talking about academics. Things like reading and math, but emotional wellness and kids’ social skills are just as important, if not a better predictor of that kid’s future success than their academic skills. Talking about emotional health and building emotional health capacities right from the get-go is so important to kids — every kid.

The other part of this are the kids who have certain struggles like ADHD and anxiety. For those children, these skills become vital as they don’t develop as quickly or rather, they don’t develop on their own. For these kids, we need to be able to put up scaffolds to help them develop. What’s nice about this outlook is that these skills that we build are going to be valuable for every single kid who runs into them.

The flip side it that we still need to consider that these are still kids, right? We’re not going to be able to sit them in front of a social-emotional curriculum and read to them and talk to them through naming all their emotions and strategies for managing them. Kids’ primary method of learning is play and exploration. The best example that I can give is comparing it to how a kid learns to ride a bike. You would never throw a bike manual in front of a child and hope that they read it and then expect them to be able to take a ride down Main Street.

How we teach kids to interact with their emotions also needs to be playful and that means we need to build safe spaces where kids can interact with their emotions, where they can explore the entire range of their emotions. That means they can practice being sad, angry, being frustrated and understand that those emotions are part of who they are. At the same time, they need to understand that those emotions don’t necessarily define who they are and there can be healthy ways to work through those emotions and healthy ways to channel those emotions so they can get through the challenges that they face.

Okay, fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 things parents can do to raise children who are emotionally and mentally healthy”? Please share a story or example for each.

Unfortunately, there’s no one set of tricks or right answer for every child. Parents often underestimate their own intuition about their children, even though they spend the most time with them. There are a few things to keep in mind that are always helpful.

  1. Remember kids aren’t little grownups. Their emotions aren’t like grown-up emotions. It’s not just that they don’t have the same experiences. Their brains are quite literally built differently, and growing brains feel emotions differently than adults. That means a lot of our adult strategies won’t work the same way with kids.
  2. Work to really get on your child’s level. As a follow-up, you can spend a lot of time asking questions to understand how your child sees things. It may be different, but different is not wrong. Often when I ask my own children when they’re frustrated, they come back to an action that someone (usually a teacher) took. Perspective-taking (what someone else is thinking) is a developing skill that is associated with early adolescence, so when we have time to talk about these moments, we spend a lot of time recentering the actions through the lens of my kids and their wants.
  3. Be vocal about how you manage your emotions. If your child knows you have emotions, and that you use strategies to manage your own emotions, they are going to be more willing to explore and acknowledge their own and build their own strategies for resilience.
  4. Teach your child age-appropriate problem-solving skills. Kids need to learn how to navigate the world, relationships, and their own emotional states. They don’t necessarily have the tools or cognitive capacity to figure out all the difficulties they face (social, emotional, academic, etc.). Rather than solving problems for them or asking them to problem-solve in isolation, set them up to learn and practice problem-solving skills in collaboration with you. This helps them build the skills, as well as build confidence in their own abilities to handle and solve problems in the future
  5. Let it be okay for kids to make mistakes. Trial and error, and learning from our mistakes are how we grow. Set kids up to feel okay with making mistakes. Help them feel comfortable with that process and teach them to look for the value in the lesson and how they can grow from the experience and what they’ve learned. When kids feel a lot of pressure to get things right and are fearful of making mistakes, it encourages them to either not try at all, or to put so much additional pressure on themselves to “get things right” or “be perfect” that it can lead to feelings of increased stress or anxiety.

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources you recommend to our audience reading this interview?

I already mentioned Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician out of Boston Children’s Hospital, and his work is fantastic. RITEC (Responsible Innovation in Technology for Children) is policy-oriented but can be great for those creating a digital world that prioritizes the well-being of children.

Both Dr. Michael Rich and RITEC have put out a set of resources that are broad across a set of ages. Just like no one kid is the same as another kid, no one family is the same as another family. Being able to find resources that speak to you and your specific circumstances is important.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I think the one place where I would like to see the most amount of change in the world is on the policy side of things. I think that our policies on the delivery of mental health care are heavily grounded in one-to-one care and while one-to-one care is fantastic, it only does a lot of good for the people who can get it. Unfortunately, the waiting lists are sitting in the months, if not years ranges and the costs are astronomical.

We need to redefine what care is and I would love to see more people following the lead of Mightier in building evidence-based tools that can help a broad range of children and adults, that are accessible and engaging.

What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

Mightier.com.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher, and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness, and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at angelova@rebellious-intl.com. To schedule a free consultation, click here.

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Maria Angelova, CEO of Rebellious Intl.
Authority Magazine

Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl.