How Can We As Parents-Founders Help Better Our Own Teenagers’ Mental Health?

With Alex Frenkel,
Co-Founder & CEO of Kai.ai

From psychologist to entrepreneur

Just a few years ago, Alex was all in as a clinical psychologist intern, practicing at  two clinics, teaching psychology - when by accident, he found himself diving into the Tech world. It was something he didn’t know had existed before, and he felt like ‘Alice in wonderland’ as he discovered the full power and potential that lies within that world. He decided to found his first company, and poured his energy into it. 

When I asked Alex about this big switch, he shared that from his perspective - it wasn't a big shift, because companies are all about people. As a psychologist, his activity has changed but the essence is still about people. He uses his empathy and wisdom as a psychologist to connect and understand his users and their needs.

When it came to Kai, it started when the time was right. Alex and Netanel reached out to Ziv, who built an earlier version of Kai. They weren't sure about it in the beginning - they didn’t think people would cooperate and use AI, but after weeks of convincing, he decided to go for it - not because he was sure about the idea, but because he was ready to build a company with amazing co-founders to explore with. He said yes to this unique combination between psychological background and technological expertise.

The alarming data

1 out of 3 teenagers will experience severe sadness, the percentage is even higher for teenage girls. Suicide rate grew by 40%, and Covid only accelerated it. Why is that?

Well, the last two years were very hectic - teenagers stayed an enormous amount of time at home without having any certainty about the next day, they were more exposed to the stress in their home life and had nowhere to escape to. Add the absence of time outside in the sunlight and in nature, and the twisted mirror of social media, which filled all their time with watching the illusion of the perfect lives of others - it’s a ticking time bomb.

Although it’s scary and hard to admit as parents - we don't necessarily always know what happens to our children, and what’s going on inside their heads. And when we do know eventually, it’s often too late.

How can we as parents be there for our kids?

- Spending quality time with them - there's no way around it

- Creating space where parents bring more vulnerability 

- Normalize sharing about emotions through asking how they’re feeling, letting them know that it's super normal to feel pain and difficult feelings - everyone goes through them in their lifetime

- Address their questions, even and especially when they’re difficult or uncomfortable to talk about

- Nonjudgmental attitude

- Modeling - we often don’t teach our kids tools to handle their emotions, and then they find unhelpful and even harmful ways of coping. It’s our responsibility to teach them about the most powerful and basic part of being human - expressing our emotions.

- Talk with other parents to know you are not alone dealing with those things, and also learn from others about the tools they give to their kids. 

Reacting to Kai

Alex found that the different age groups react differently to Kai. Adults tend to use technology in different ways and for different reasons than teenagers, and had a resistance to Kai - they expected it could replace a human, and tried to find the holes that will trick the platform. They were very skeptical. 

The younger Kaiers on the other hand, didn't expect it to be like a human at all. They trusted the tech more, and it allowed them to share without feeling shame, and have a safe space.

We might have a hard time understanding this, but teenagers have new ways of interacting - they’re used to interacting through apps like Discord - a platform for managing conversations. It started for connecting  while playing online games and expanded to servers that are building huge communities for a lot of interests like anima and music - they use more group chats, messaging and sending voice messages, they’re use to interacting through gaming with avatars that are not even humans, and have the shield of anonymity. Teenagers don’t use one app anymore for interaction, but are constantly on a different conversation experience - that’s where the future is heading .

Tech as the problem and the cure

Technology is a big part of the problem and the solution together. It’s the channel we can harness to reach out to teens. Just like Duolingo is making learning languages accessible, the goal is that Kai will make emotional tools accessible for everyone.

I asked Alex to demonstrate Kai’s work, and we chose the example of a girl named Amanda who's struggling with body image. The first and surprising thing that Alex mentioned, is that many times, she won’t know she's struggling, anxious or depressed.

They found that the first thing that helps a teen like Amanda is to ask her - how happy are you right now from 1-10? - This question is a very important trigger for them to gain awareness about themselves.

From there, the way Kai works is simple - daily short interactions where Kai allows them to pause, recognize what's good in their life through questions and be proactive about it, and describe their feelings. 

As a user of Kai for almost 2 years now, as well as a coach to many founders, I know that for most of us, even stopping for a moment and verbally saying what we want in a coherent way and speaking our emotions is a very hard task, but so incredibly crucial.

Alex adds that paying attention to the good things is even harder from a neuroscience perspective, because of our brain’s negativity bias. We are all programmed to pay attention to the negative things, and don’t notice the good things naturally. This muscle of noticing the good things and feeling gratitude needs to be practiced every day to rewire our brain for happiness and joy in life.

Alex sees a future where everyone has an AI companion and the more they engage with it, it will get to know them and help them more. A big uniqueness of Kai is that their team is a combination between therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists that come from both research and clinical work, and create the best toolkit. They focus a lot on tools from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

- Learning to control our breath

- Learning the ability of observing our thoughts and emotions and create healthy distance from them

- ACT - acceptance and Commitment Therapy - teaches not to fix challenging emotions, but allowing them to be

- Learning the skill of psychological flexibility

- Learning the skill of positive psychotherapy 

And the amazing thing is that Kai also learns and improves itself through its users. A therapist will see 1K of patients on average through their entire career, but Kai will see more than 15k users every single day. 

Machines on their own have many limitations, and humans on their own have many limitations - but the combination of humans with the machine is stronger than any human or machine on its own. 

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