Parent Engagement Network hosts virtual stress and anxiety symposium

Amy Bounds, Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.
·4 min read

May 3—The list of potential sources of trauma from the past year is a long one.

The pandemic and its social isolation, racial issues, systemic biases and mass shootings both locally and around the country are all contributing, said Bill de la Cruz, an inclusion facilitator and former Boulder Valley school board member.

"Everyone has been exposed to really traumatic events," he said. "It all compiles and adds on to everything we're feeling."

De la Cruz talked about using the grief process to move through the impacts of trauma in a session he led Sunday during the Parent Engagement Network's fifth annual Stress and Anxiety Symposium.

About 60 people signed up to attend the virtual weekend symposium, which focused on "Moving Forward in an Unpredictable World." Because recordings of the sessions are available to those who registered for the next month, not all attended the sessions in real time.

The weekend's 10 sessions included one on the risks of high potency marijuana and fentanyl-tainted Xanax. Another session covered supporting gifted and twice exceptional young people, while panelists in a third session shared how they have worked through trauma in the past year.

"We've had some great conversations," said Shelly Mahon, the Parent Engagement Network's executive director. "The biggest theme I've seen is there is a strong desire for people to connect to create a sense of community."

In his session, de la Cruz shared personal stories of how he worked through his own trauma, including the death of his older sister from pneumonia when he was 13 and living in an abusive home.

He started in denial, with few coping skills at 13, and said it took years to get to acceptance and start looking at what he could learn from his experiences. His experiences, he said, taught him the value of relationships and gave him the desire to work with people in conflict.

"I created a lot of conflict," he said. "Now I help (people) resolve it."

He also talked about secondary trauma, which many experienced following the mass shooting at the south Boulder King Soopers, and how even being compassionate and empathetic can be draining. Self care — including getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising, nurturing positive relationships and leisure time — is important, he said.

"If you all don't take care of yourselves, you don't have anything to give others," he said.

Natalie Worobel, an individual and family therapist at the Digital Media Treatment and Education Center, talked about how the challenges around digital media use have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

While technology allowed people to continue to work, go to school and connect during the pandemic, she said, it also led to more screen time, more multi-tasking and a decline in mental health. Technology use in moderation is helpful, but concerns arise when it's used excessively, she added.

"It has come at a cost," she said.

She said multi-tasking is ultimately less efficient because it takes 15 minutes to reorient to a task after a distraction, while switching between tasks is mentally fatiguing. Another concern is excessive screen time can make it more difficult to deal with social anxiety and could intensify anxiety as students try to re-engage with the world.

Those at higher risk of technology overuse include novelty seeking kids who crave risk and reward and, on the opposite end, kids with a more inhibited personality who can find in-person interactions uncomfortable, she said.

She said warning signs that a problem is developing include kids struggling with screentime limits, letting academic responsibilities slide, sneaking a device, preferring to be online over in-person activities and saying their only true friends are online. Red flags, she added, include increased anxiety or depression, lying, disrupted sleep, and no longer engaging with the outside world.

"As a parent, you no longer feel like you know what to do," she said.

Her suggested interventions include lower technology phones, setting technology limits, nurturing offline hobbies, prioritizing exercise and outdoor time, and tech free days as a family.

"It's so important to model healthy technology use," she said.

In another session, Michelle Cearley, Out Boulder County's community advocate, shared some of the impacts on LGBTQ young people that Out Boulder County is seeing during the pandemic.

Stuck at home, some kids don't have support and don't feel safe, they said. Some only found their community at school with friends and supportive teachers, but lost that when schools closed. Then there have been family financial issues, including food insecurity and lack of healthcare.

"There's a lot of crisis going on," they said, adding Out Boulder County has seen an increase in students participating in its virtual support groups and youth programs since the pandemic started. "Just having that one adult to talk to who feels safe makes a world of difference."