Teens who are alone unstructured for hours at a time are prone to anxiety and depression. Social media overuse leaves adolescents vulnerable to all kinds of pitfalls: fear of missing out, feelings of inadequacy, self-judgment and a false sense that others are doing better. In Barbarians at the PTA, I show how adolescents, the internet, and social media can be a dangerous cocktail. Pre-teens and teens need to get out and socialize. They need structure and purpose. Phones should be turned off at bedtime, no exceptions — no texts coming in at 2 am and waking them up. Technology and social media use should be limited.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Stephanie Newman.
Stephanie Newman PhD is a clinical psychologist/psychoananlyst, Visiting Scholar/Supervisor at Columbia University, faculty member at PANY, affiliated with NYU School of Medicine, author of the recently released Barbarians at the PTA (Skyhorse) (Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com) and Madmen on the Couch (St Martin’s-Thomas Dunne), and a co-editor of Money Talks (Routledge)/regular contributor to the online edition of Psychology Today.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Inoticed that wherever I was — at my psychology practice, supervising doctoral students, dropping a child off at school, speaking to a friend from the west coast, or sitting with a neighbor at my kitchen table — I was hearing different versions of what essentially boiled down to the same story: people were struggling with questions of identity, as parents, as adults and community members. Mothers in particular have a difficult time with identity and forging a path forward when their children grow and develop. Some stumble as they try to figure it out, and become lost, falling into patterns of social aggression, getting tangled up online and with social media, and even if unintentionally inflicted, the collatteral damage to others — especially children — can be huge. I wanted to start a conversation about modern parenting, bullying, maternal identity, and hopefully help people deal with some of what they were encountering at schools, on the community level, and personally, in their family lives. Working with individuals in my practice, consulting on parenting issues, volunteering at schools as a professional and as a parent, have allowed me to help others address some of their parenting concerns. Writing Barbarians at the PTA has allowed me to start a conversation on adolescents, technology, social media use (and misuse), bullying, and parenting that has come to be practiced as a contact sport.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
A lady never tells! Clinical Psychologists are bound by strict ethical proscriptions, so I cannot talk about the work I do in my office. I do have what for me was a very exciting story and it even impressed my kids and most parents know how challenging that can be. One day I was reading an interview with a very famous performer and was hanging on to his every word. I’d written a book about the TV show Mad Men, in which I “analyzed” the main characters of the show. I have always been very interested in media and pop culture. The reporter asked a question about the direction certain shows might take and this particular actor that I’d admired for so long quoted something I’d said in the book. I was really flattered. That’s my only brush with fame. My 15 minutes is more like 3 seconds!
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
Some years ago I was trying to balance the impossible: taking care of young kids, commuting to a city office, seeing patients, participating in meetings with colleagues, but every obligation was spread all over the map, like an obstacle course. One particular day I put out breakfast and threw on a work outfit, brushed my hair while walking the dog, dropped my kids at school, raced to the office, fighting 60 minutes of traffic, saw patients and got back home in time for pick up, homework, and dinner. A little later we all piled into the car and raced to make the arrival of my husband’s commuter train. As he took the driver’s seat, I raced towards the train and managed to jump on as the doors were closing. I made it back into the city on time (barely) for a late meeting with colleagues. It all sounds seamless (or exciting, like an episode of “Amazing Race”), but in reality, it was a mess. The kids begged me not to leave, I ripped my pants on the car door and dropped my planner as I ran to the platform (a good samaritan later dropped it off at my home), and worst of all, as I was rushing to the station, I unwittingly ran a red light and was pulled over. The officer who wrote the ticket was polite, but my kids were terrified and began sobbing. Cue the Excedrin! Days later while I was paying the fine for my moving violation, I thought: never again. I don’t have to do every single thing each and every day. It’s ok to slow down, do less. Since then that has been my mantra.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
After earning a doctoral degree in psychology, I went to an Institute called PANY to receive additional training as a psychoanalyst. Yep, just like in the movies: faculty members with white beards, reading Freud, offices with black leather couches and woven rugs, the works. The training analysts I studied under were very invested in the teaching. If you had a question or wanted to study something in depth, they always made time to explain or work with you. One luminary in the field, whose modesty makes him insist on remaining nameless, went above and beyond. He read drafts of my papers, took my frequent calls, and endured endless discussion of various papers and theories relating to working in deep and long term treatment. When he agreed to hear about a case I was working on, I was thrilled to have exposure to this teacher — I’d get to sit at the knee of a master! It was great until two months later when the patient I’d been discussing moved away. Since this supervisors practice was to hear about only one patient — no exceptions — we would no longer be able to work together. It was a crushing blow! But I somehow managed to convince my senior colleague to work with me on a second case, which he did for several years, during which time I learned how to listen and use analytic technique. My supervisor contributed to a book I was co-editing, participated in panels and discussion groups with me, and read drafts of my writing. From him I learned how to be an analyst but also how to be flexibile, seeing differences in individuals, responding one on one to their varying wants and needs. I try to pass it on and make myself available to younger less experienced people in my field; to mentor them and hopefully when they are more experienced, they will do the same!
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Don’t do what I did when I was trying to cram in three full time jobs in one day. Balance. Make time for one thing that isn’t an obligation relating to work or family. We might love being parents but we all need to develop an identity outside of our kids. We might be killing it at work and need to put in tons of hours to make a living but we need something outside of it to sustain us and feed our souls. Work hard in a career, spend time with family and give all you can as a parent, sibling, child, friend, but also find one thing you love outside of all this — doesn’t matter what: gardening, reading mystery novels, volunteering at a soup kitchen. Having one source of identity, one interest or activity that gives you pleasure and provides an escape, something that’s yours and provides a source of enjoyment and esteem, it will combat burnout.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Leaders need to lead and managers need to run the day to day of corporation, but people have individual needs. When they feel seen and heard, with some control over their work schedules and environment, they tend to be more productive. Telecommuting has become common practice with the pandemic. I think it’s here to stay.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
1. Slow down. Do less in each day. Make a “Must Do” list and take one thing off. Add that one thing you took off today to your List of Open issues. Get to those when you can..
2. Make space for your mind. Practice meditation or mindfulness exercises. Learn how to identify problematic thoughts, lean into them, and move on.
3. Practice self care. This can take different forms as in slowing down, practicing mindfulness, and/or making room for leisure, hobbies, and pleasure. What do you like about yourself? A sense of humor? Generous spirit? Remember how you mentored six kids last year or volunteered to emcee the school fundraiser and got everyone to donate by keeping it light and fun? In darker moments remind yourself of the good, the personal aspects and traits, accomplishments, and achievements that make you proud. Don’t beat up on yourself about what you haven’t done. Be kind to yourself.
4. Exercise regularly. Endorphins are generated and create a feeling of well-being.
5. Take vacations from day to day obligations, stresses, and worries. If travel is not possible, escape at home. Order in, binge on a good TV show and a treat yourself to an extra donut, glass of wine, other guilty pleasure, or reconnect with a great book you loved way back in younger days when you had time to read.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
Retirees have much to contribute as emeretus members of organizations, faculties, groups, as volunteers. Find something meaningful even if your mobility and finances are limited. I know of someone who goes weekly to open and read a blind neighbor’s mail and help her pay bills and who mentors young people in his former field. He doesn’t have to pay to play and he is lifted by the contact and good works he performs. .
It’s crucial not to isolate.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
Ditto for adolesncents. I deal with this at length in my book Barbarians at the PTA. Teens who are alone unstructured for hours at a time are prone to anxiety and depression. Social media overuse leaves adolescents vulnerable to all kinds of pitfalls: fear of missing out, feelings of inadequacy, self-judgment and a false sense that others are doing better. In Barbarians at the PTA, I show how adolescents, the internet, and social media can be a dangerous cocktail. Pre-teens and teens need to get out and socialize. They need structure and purpose. Phones should be turned off at bedtime, no exceptions — no texts coming in at 2 am and waking them up. Technology and social media use should be limited.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome was sad but I related to the small town, oppressive life the characters led. They were trapped in a tiny dark village where everyone knew each other’s business. If the pickle jar got a crack and Ethan went to buy glue, everyone in town knew immediately. I set Barbarians at the PTA in a tiny suburb so that I could have people run into one another and be influenced by the taste makers and power people in the small setting. All of this meant the adolescents’ humiliations and bullying were magnified, which I hoped, would move and engage readers.
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. 🙂
Pay it forward on line. Send a text or email with a kind message to someone who is alone, perhaps at an assisted living, and ask them to forward a message. They can get help with the technology or borrow a common desktop or laptop if need me. Eventually people will have network of on line inspiration and support and receive multiple messages to cheer them during lonely times and help combat isolation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
It’s not how you fall down, it’s how you get back up (Confusious said this. No story, as we’ve never met).
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media? My website is: www.Psychotherapistnextdoor.com.
Instagram and twitter: snewmanphd Facebook: barbarians at the PTA.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!