To the Hurting Mothers

To the mother who has been labeled brave and strong but never set out to be –

   You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother whose heart tells her one thing and photos tell her another –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who never got to celebrate –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who looks down through empty arms to the scars where life once lived –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who stands at the grave to pour out her heart –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who longs for a hug with arms that ache and are heavy –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who wonders if her children will ever know the depth of her love for them –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who worries that she will never make up for the mistakes of her past –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who never planned to parent without a partner –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother whose home is tense and silent –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who repeatedly believes she is not enough–

        You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who is barely scaping by on time, energy, and resources –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who is so exhausted her hair hurts –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who sings the songs just to remind her of the past –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who juggles the schedule to fit in the doctors and the therapies –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who lies awake desperate for a diagnosis –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who cries out for mercy and answers –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who is holding the hand of another that is fading –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who is wrestling with trauma and working towards healing –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who longs for reconciliation

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who is trying to navigate the hard and unexpected –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who mothers those not bound by blood or document –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who wonders if she could have done more –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

To the mother who never imagined it would be this hard –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

There is One who promises to never leave you,

who promises to forgive,

who sees you completely and chooses to love you,

who would walk through a million fires to rescue you,

who sees you as significant,

who longs to hear your heart,

who is ready to comfort you,

who cares about every pain, every tear, every longing.

To the mother who is still wondering –

         You are loved and you are not alone.

End of the School Year Encouragement

My oldest son began school 6 years ago. Yet somehow, every year around this time, my emotions get stuck somewhere between the disbelief of “how are we already in this last month of school”, the frantic “how are we going to make it through this last month of school”, and the sentimental “how are my babies almost another grade older?”

Here we are. We’re in the homestretch.

Can you feel it?

Keep breathing cause you’re almost to the end.

Welcome to the last month of school.

We are all a little tired.

We are all a little emotional.

We are all a little scattered.

We are all a little anxious that next school year’s to-do list is going to look a whole lot similar to the one we put together at the beginning of this year…because… well…life.

We are all trying to work some serious calendar magic to fit in all of the year-end field trips, spring concerts, living wax museums, class parties, and sporting events.

Remember the start of the year? You determined that you’d surprise your kiddo for more lunches, you’d volunteer in the library, chaperone every field trip, and write encouragement notes regularly to your school staff.

Well again…life.

So you fell short. Forgive yourself and move on. Holding disappointment against yourself only means it’s more likely you’ll look for things to hold against others.

Can we please make a pact? Can we agree to see each other with compassion especially as our raggedness reveals even more of our imperfections? Can we agree to be quick to offer grace and slow to offer judgment?

Instead of judging the parent whose child stumbles out of their car still nibbling on a cold pop tart with untied shoes and an unzipped backpack, can we first remember that it’s the last month and applaud their effort to get to school?

Instead of wondering how another parent could send their child to school in pants that are two inches too short and a shirt that’s inside out, can we remember the stuff that really matters?

Can we make eye contact with those parents and smile with a smile that kindly acknowledges how we’ve been there too?

Instead of being angry at your child’s teacher for making a mistake on the graded schoolwork that was sent home, can we agree to take a breath and think of all the correctly graded papers sent home before this one? Can we remember that for every paper that comes home in our child’s folder, there are 25 other folders with those same graded papers?

Can we heap grace on the teachers who have lost the pep in their step and need four cups of coffee instead of their normal two to get through the day? And can we remember how challenging the previous part of their race has been?

Instead of denying your child the opportunity to spend the evening playing outside with friends, can we just skip the AR reading for the night and let them have a little freedom? It is the last month of school.

My kids are whining more. They are tired. They’ve had tests, and projects, and experiments, and standards to meet. They consistently wake up before the sun. They desperately want a string of days to sleep in. AND honestly, so do I.

Can we remember that the teachers, administrators, parents, and students are all working really hard to cross the finish line? And can we remember that we are all on the same team as we move toward that finish line? Teachers, administrators, parents, students.

Track meets may be one of my favorite sports to watch. It feels like there is little attention on who you are “against”. Whether you are the one coaching, the one running, or the spectator, your focus is on your team. You spend your energy doing what you can to see that your team crosses the finish line. Teammates cheer for one another. They encourage. They remind each other that they are proud of them.

My niece runs like a gazelle. It’s beautiful irony that she was actually born in Kenya. It is a joy to watch her run. She is very specific about what motivates her when she is running. She wants people to shout things like “you are awesome”, “you are doing great”, and “I am so proud of you”. She gets extra motivation when we shout “I love you, Hannah.” When she is in the race and focused on getting across the finish line, she wants to know that we see her efforts and are proud of how hard she is working.

Aren’t most of us like that? Especially when we are frayed and weary and just trying to cross the finish line. I know I am.

It’s the final month.

You are in the homestretch.

You are doing great!

I see your effort and know that you are working hard to cross the line.

You’re almost there…

Now, go find your teammates. They need you as much as you need them.

Are You in Need of Spring?

I love the spring.

I have lived all my life in the Midwest. Summer, fall, winter, spring. Summer, fall, winter, spring. Seasons are distinct. I am grateful for the contrast between them.

Winter is cold, snowy, sometimes muddy, and often grey. Generally by the end of winter, my body, mind and spirit are longing for the first signs of spring.

There is a patch of landscaping twenty feet outside my front door that is packed full of perennials. As the temperatures rise and as the sun begins to consistently show itself, my eyes are drawn to that patch of landscape when I walk past it. I scan the dirt, looking for spikes of green to poke up through the ground. I have confidence that it will come. The new life will eventually emerge, I am certain. It always does.

But as I look for sign of new life, I do not know when it will appear…I just know that it will. It eventually does…after every winter. So I keep looking. And the first time I spot the tiniest spike of green, I am grateful. It’s like the weight of the winter begins to fade at the sight of spring as I take in the hope of what’s to come.

I have experienced many winters in my life. Literal winters. Figurative ones. Times where all I can see is the cold, the muddy, the mess, and the grey. Experiences that have felt lonely, dark, filled with sadness and crushed hope.

I have friends and family who are currently feeling the impact of winter. They have experienced death. They have experienced loss. Disease has stolen from them. Broken promises have left their hearts shattered. They’re experiencing uncertainty. They are weary of the grey. Their energy is gone. They are tired but they can’t rest.  

They are in desperate need of spring.

It’s okay to hope for spring. It’s okay to look for it’s signs. In the dead of winter, we may feel as if the grey will never end. That the bitter cold will linger and linger and linger. But of this I am certain…the winter will not last forever. It never has.

Recently, God has been reminding me that he doesn’t waste a thing.

Not one tear.

Not one hurt.

Not one winter in my life.

And with that knowledge, I am looking for the signs of spring. I am looking for new life. I am looking for the sun to shine. I am trusting that the God who makes the green things grow, does not desire to leave us abandoned in the greyness of winter. I am trusting that the God who makes beautiful things out of dust and pulls us up out of the ashes, is more than able to do it over and over again in all of our lives.  

 

‘I give you all the credit, God – you got me out of that mess, you didn’t let my foes gloat. God, my God, I yelled for help and you put me together. God, you pulled me out of the grave, gave me another chance at life when I was down-and-out. God, my God, I yelled for help and you put me together. you did it; you changed wild lament into whirling dance; You ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers. I’m about to burst with song; I can’t keep quiet about you. God, my God, I can’t thank you enough.’ Psalm 30:1-3, 11-12 (MSG)

A Message to Teachers at Christmas Break

Oh Dear Teachers –

You are almost there. We know you are weary. You have every reason to be. Keep hanging on. We see you and recognize there are a million and one reasons these days before break probably each feel like their own marathon. Know that there are so many of us cheering for you.

As I have engaged with more and more teachers over the years, I have only grown increasingly fond of you…as individuals and as a collective group. You have much to be proud of. You are shaping the minds of our future generations. Educating our future world changers. Planting seeds. Shaping dreams and paths of life. You are calling forth what is good and valuable in our children and encouraging those things to shine. You are modeling relationships and teaching about love and tolerance and forgiveness. You are providing a place that is safe and consistent. It is like a second home to our children.

You are like a mother, like a father, like another family to them. Your hearts are for them. All. Of. Them.

I see the way you want to provide the best for your students. You are fighting on their behalf. All of the budgeting of resources, of time, of money is for their benefit. A constant quest for what is best for them. A longing to ignite their minds while caring for their physical and emotional being.

I see the way you carry the worries of your students. While I know the struggles of one of your students (my own) and a handful of others, you know the struggles of an entire classroom and sometimes a good portion of the school. It must feel so heavy at times.

You’ve heard about mom’s illness. You’re pretty sure the cancer has come back with a vengeance. You make special efforts to make eye contact with your student and remind them that they are not alone.

You’ve heard about the yelling and fighting. You’ve learned that your student is staying with grandma “for a few days”. One of their siblings is with another family member. You greet them by name every time they comes into your room and remind them that the class just wouldn’t be the same without them.

You know about all of the appointments. All of the tests. You make arrangements to gather the assignments and help your student understand what they may be missing when they are gone. You wonder and wait for answers as to why the symptoms keep coming back. You do what you can to help them feel like a part of your class even though they are gone so often.

You see the little guy who walks into the classroom late most mornings. You know there are reasons. It disrupts the flow of your routine. You see him staring at the ground when he walks in. You know he is embarrassed and wished he could be on time like everyone else. You resist showing your frustration because you know that there are a multitude of factors outside of his control. You smile at him and tell him you’re glad he’s joined you.

You’ve read about the factory closing in town. The little guy whose dad works there sits in your front row. He tells you he’s sad because his dad no longer has a job and his mom is worried about their bills. You tell him that you’re sorry and attempt to convince him that parents always have a way of figuring things out.

You see the little gal whose joy has turned to sadness. You know how she used to practically dance as she walked down your hallways. You know something has changed but no one has shared with you the why. You wonder. You share jokes with her here and there in a quest to bring out the laughter you once heard from her.

You are teachers. You chose this profession years ago because you wanted to change the world…one child at a time. You are doing it. And sometimes changing the world in the ways you do, must feel really hard.

We see your hearts. You have loved them well. Thank you doesn’t seem quite adequate.

Now rest. It’s okay to let it go. To release the worries that you have carried for these children that you have poured into day after day. It’s okay to release yourself from their struggles. It means no less of the compassion you hold for them. As you leave for the holidays, it is okay to close the door to your classroom….literally and figuratively.

That you might be able to let go.

And. Find. Rest.

And. Seek. Peace.

In the stillness of the morning.

In the laughter o your home.

In the beauty of the snowfall.

In the familiar melodies.

In the connection with those you love.

In the story we celebrate.

And in the quiet of the night.

A Lesson from the White-Haired Couple at the Gym

This morning, I ended up with some unexpected time to walk the track at my local gym. This image was what I had the privilege of witnessing. A man and a woman caring deeply for one another. I walked for a long time. And so did they.

They gently held one another’s hand as they circled around and around the track. At one point, the husband had to let go of his wife’s hand to shed his sweatshirt since he had started to heat up a bit. And you know what he did once he put down his sweatshirt?

He reached right back out and held her hand again.

I’ll admit, my eyes filled with tears multiple times as I wondered about their journey together. Neither appeared as strong or as upright as I imagine they once were. I could see that their hands were gripping one another’s, but likely not as firmly as they once had because of their now tight and achy joints. Their pace was likely not as fast as it once was. Their gait was likely not as fluid. They leaned into one another to share thoughts as it seemed that their hearing also was not what it once was.

It was BEAUTIFUL, people.

At one point, I walked beside the couple and shared that I was blessed by observing their interactions with one another. They both smiled and the wife said, “We hold one another up to keep from falling. We exchanged a few more words and I affirmed that their kindness and gentleness toward one another was inspiring.

Then, I walked away and my eyes began to fill again.

Maybe she had just shared with me her key to a strong partnership. Maybe she had just spoken truth about how we are to act toward one another.

Their message will stay with me.

The message from our brief verbal exchange, but even more so, the message from witnessing their gentle, protective, loving, compassion for one another.

“We hold one another up to keep from falling”.

Beauty.

True Beauty.

I am so grateful my eyes were open to see this beauty displayed right in front of me today.

May my eyes and ears remain open…looking…listening.

And may we heed the wisdom from this lovely lady and all find ways to hold one another up to keep from falling.

 

Empty Chairs at the Holidays

My all-time favorite musical is Les Miserables. And while Hamilton has entered the race for the top, Les Mis continues to be in the lead. Repeatedly, I am moved to tears as I watch the story of pain and redemption and longing and fulfillment unfold in this incredibly beautiful narrative.

At one critical moment in the musical, the French Revolution leader, Marius visits the café where just days before, he sat with his closest friends passionately discussing what mattered most to them. But on this day, Marius’ heart is burdened and broken. He stands now in the empty café with physical and emotional wounds, tearfully singing to and about his friends who had died just days earlier. Alone and overcome with grief, Marius sings these words:

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.

There’s a pain goes on and on.

Empty chairs at empty tables

Now my friends are dead and gone.

 

Here they talked of revolution.

Here it was they lit the flame.

Here they sang about tomorrow and tomorrow never came.

 

Phantom faces at the window.

Phantom shadows on the floor.

Empty chairs at empty tables where my friends will meet no more.

                                                            -Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Eddie Redmayne

 

Empty chairs….

The empty chairs at the place where Marius would gather with his community reminded him of what he had lost. His heart ached for another opportunity to sit and dream and connect with his people.

Conversations with friends and clients remind me that many of us have our own empty chairs. Holiday gatherings tend to shine a spotlight on them. For my family, there are the literal chairs where most of us can envision my aunt, my grandfather and my father sitting.

My aunt would stroll in with her veggie pizza, homemade potato salad, and cream cheese-filled pumpkin rolls. She’d talk about her excitement for Christmas decorations and Christmas movies. I can imagine the spot she’d most often choose to be. She’d sit there and tell stories about her most recent surgery, about the drama at work, or about her plan of attack for Black Friday shopping. There was often laughter coming from the area where she’d be stationed for the day.

My grandpa would show up with his store bought can of cranberry jelly. It was his favorite turkey topping and everyone knew this. He’d sit at the kitchen table most of the day. He wouldn’t say a whole lot and would eventually doze off. Inevitably, we’d eventually see him jump, awakened by his own sleep-snort-snore. He had a habit of getting up and heading home without really announcing that he was leaving. At some point, it all became a little endearing.

My dad would be carving the turkey when everyone arrived. He and my mom made it a joint effort most years. He’d always pull out summer sausage and jerky from the deer he had shot that season. Looking back now, I think he felt great pride in being able to offer it to our family. He’d sit in the living room where most of the family would gather. There was a specific green chair that most often was claimed as his. He loved listening to the conversations around him and throwing in jokes every now and then. Some of the jokes made us laugh and others made us wonder what he was even talking about. At some point, the football games would be turned on and he’d be right there cheering.

 Most of us have our own empty chairs. Maybe they are newly abandoned or maybe they have been empty for decades. Faces and memories flash through our minds as we prepare for the celebrations. Sometimes we just don’t know what to do with the emotions that accompany it all. And so we may be tempted to stuff it down, ignore it completely, or absolutely pretend.

 Please know that you have permission to feel. Find a safe way to do so. Let someone in. Allow others to share in the memories with you. Give them permission to feel just as you are giving it to yourself. Ask others to pray for you. Let them in. Allow them to carry the burden with you.

 Create space to remember. Before rushing from one engagement to the next to the next, sit and be still. Think about what it was like to have them there. Think about what they contributed to the celebration. Think about how they added laughter. Think about how they served in the seen and unseen ways.

Think about the others that will be gathered with you who have loved and lost as well. Know that the clumsy and awkward grief journey you are on, likely feels clumsy and awkward for them as well. Know that you’re on the journey together even though at times it may not feel so.

 Give yourself grace for the waves that may come crashing in. Remember that grief is like the ocean…and sometimes the waves are shallow and sometimes they feel intense. It’s normal even though it may feel a bit uncomfortable when it hits. Speak kindly to yourself…avoid wondering what is wrong with you or what others must be thinking. Grief should not be allowed to fuel shame.

Know that the empty chairs do not feel less empty when we pretend they do not exist. In fact, for most, this only makes the chairs feel more empty. It’s okay to acknowledge what was once there.

 Stop. Pause. Remember.

 May you be blessed as you do.

 

 

When Feeling Better Feels Scary

Recently, a woman sat across from me. I’ve known her off and on throughout her life. She’s traveled a difficult road. Like usual, I asked her how things were going in a particular area of difficulty in her life. In all honesty, I expected an answer like I had received many times in the past…something in the camp of “so so”, “not good”, or “the same”. But for the first time in a very long time, she answered with this word…“great”. I noticed. And she knew I had noticed. I could see it all over her face…shades of discomfort, embarrassment, and “Oh no, did I just say that?!”

Something had shifted. It wasn’t that her life had magically become easier. It wasn’t that the struggles had disappeared. The shift was one towards hope. Her answer was “great” because she had grabbed a hold of the possibility of something different. Having walked so much of the difficult road with this individual, I found myself fighting back a flood of tears watching her so bravely step into something unfamiliar to her. But at the same time as I was fighting back tears, I was also suppressing my urge to jump around the room in excitement. Knowing how vulnerable she felt, I chose to temper my reactions just a bit and landed somewhere between the two.

She was scared.

She had just stepped into a new territory of possibilities of good and hope and healing and being “great”. And while for some of us, that territory is the norm, for others it can feel as unsettling as standing in front of a crowd of people in your underwear.

Change is uncomfortable. Change means to make or become different. It is removing yourself from what you have most often known…from what has become familiar.

I see my friend moving into the “uncomfortable.” She’s stepping into change. She’s not getting a new job, moving into a new neighborhood or going back to school. But she’s doing something that takes just as much, if not more, courage.

And she’s scared.

She’s wondering what people will think of her if she smiles more, laughs more, holds her head up more, talks more or tells them she is ‘good’ instead of just ‘alright’.

She wants to walk in the light and no longer hide in the shadows. She is afraid of looking clumsy and awkward. She’s seen much of life through sadness and disappointment and controlling fear. Feeling good and the actions and words that accompany it do not feel natural to her. They cause her to feel that she is on display.

She wants to celebrate the change, but she feels timid. She wonders what people will expect from the her that is taking hold of the possibility of good and taking hold of the hope. She is afraid that she will disappoint and fall again.

She has grown familiar with assuming that her identity is her struggle. Without it, she is concerned that she will not know who she is. She is afraid that others will not accept or believe the changes in her…even when they are good. She wonders if there’s grace if some days aren’t quite “great”.

Tired. Grieving. Depressed. Lonely. Disappointed. Hurting. Sick. Broken-hearted.

Many of us have been there. We know what it’s like to feel stuck in it. We know what it’s like to walk around assuming these labels are plastered to our forehead. We can lose sight of the truth that the struggles do not equal who we are…even when we have grown oh-so-familiar with them.

Change is one of the bravest things I have witnessed. Embracing a new way of thinking and behaving and feeling takes audacity. Finding ways to express that you are walking in a new direction takes boldness. Experimenting with new language communicating hope and expectancy takes guts.

It may feel vulnerable.

It may feel awkward.

It may seem clumsy.

It may feel scary.

It’s okay. Just take one step at a time towards the change. And if you find that you feel like running towards it…go for it. 

Even though you may not believe it now…you are brave.

You are seen and you are loved and you are not alone.

Many are on a similar journey.  And we are cheering for you…

Being Present in Your Child’s Pain

When I was a 10 year-old girl, I lost a battle with a pot of boiling oil. In an attempt to make homemade corndogs, things went horribly awry and I ended up in a fight with an exploding grease fire. While it was incredibly scary to me at the time, I have grown to understand that the damage could have been exponentially worse.

My parents were at work. They were likely assuming their girls were enjoying the day off of school, the always-welcomed benefit of harsh Midwest winters. I am sure they didn’t expect the call from their frantic daughters who were at that point uncertain of the extent of the damage.

My parents rushed home, breezed past the lingering smoke, blackened ceilings and shriveled kitchen curtains, and found me with my hands submerged in water in the bathroom sink. After quickly assessing the situation, we jumped into the car and sped our way to our family doctor. I left the office knowing that the fire had miraculously missed my face while singeing my eyebrows, eyelashes, and bangs. About 40% of the top of my right hand received 2nd and 3rd degree burns. There were some additional spots up my arms but the major damage was to my right hand.

The next few weeks were full of pain and tears. My dad took on the job of changing my bandages. He had been a factory worker all of his adult life and had helped mend lots of minor cuts and burns throughout his time there. So it made sense for the task to land on him.

Since my father died in August of 2016, it seems that one of the strongest memories of my father is how he cared for me during those days following the grease fire. I remember day after day sitting on the couch with him. I’d cry and at times, I’d scream. He’d tell me he was sorry for the pain as he pulled away the gauze that seemed to be almost glued to the raw burned surface of my hand. He would blow cool air on my skin to ease the pain. He knew that the process was hurting me but he sat with me and cared for me nonetheless. I remember that he had to remove the bandage, allow it to air out for 20-30 minutes, apply the prescribed salve, and rewrap my hand. Over those 3-4 weeks, my father spent a lot of time focused on taking care of me and comforting me. I later learned how hard those days were for my dad and how many tears he fought back through the process.

Other vivid childhood memories with my father include times when he entered into the pain of my disappointment after not being chosen for a high school team…and when he entered into the pain of my sadness when some longtime friends started playing pranks on me that they thought were funny but I did not…and when he entered into the pain of my loneliness during the downward spiral of my first significant relationship.

My dad wasn’t a man of lots of words. His gift was always his presence. He showed up time and time again. He showed up for the exciting times…when I had lead roles or received awards. But he also and maybe more importantly showed up for the hard times…when my hands were burned…when my heart was broken…and when I needed to feel safe. He didn’t say much. Not that I recall. I just remember knowing that he was there when I was hurting.

These memories have impacted my parenting. They’ve caused me to consider what matters most to my own children.

As parents, I imagine that a lot of us at one time or another have assumed it is our responsibility to keep our children from pain. While, inarguably, I do believe we have a great responsibility to protect our children and provide safety and security for them, pain will inevitably enter the picture at some point. No one seems to be immune to pain. Maybe you have seen pain enter your child’s world through an unwelcomed diagnosis, through peer conflict, through a parent’s illness, through academic struggles, or through negative comments directed their way.

As parents, we can have the tendency to obsess about the ways we are falling short. Sometimes, we may even interpret our children’s pain as a result of our failure. Getting stuck in these beliefs will most likely lead you to being lost in your own shame and emotionally unavailable for your children.

Your child does not need your perfect words. They do not need your perfect answers. They do not need your perfect solutions. They do not live in a perfect world…and I am coming to learn more and more that the expectation of perfect words, perfect answers, and perfect solutions distracts us from what they do actually need from us…presence.

What I remember most about my dad are the times that he entered into my pain. I am grateful that he didn’t pretend that the pain didn’t exist. That he didn’t excuse the pain away as “not all that bad”. That he didn’t offer quick solutions. That he didn’t say a lot of “You should of’s”. What I remember most was his presence, and the comfort I felt from being seen in times of celebration and in times of heartache.

What I am saying is this…my dad was enough. He wasn’t perfect but his steady presence in the face of my emotional pain was enough. It was actually all I needed from him in those times. They are the memories I cling to now that he is gone.

The good news for us is this: What you have to offer your children is enough. You are enough. You will not keep them from the experiences of pain but you can offer them a place where they are seen and known and loved regardless of the bumps and bruises they display. Being a safe place when they experience pain today, means that they will grow in the confidence of knowing that you will be a safe place for them in the future. Once you find a safe place, don’t you always want to go back?

 

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Increasing the Atmosphere of Belonging in Your Home: What Your Teens Long For

In my time as a therapist, some of my most enjoyable and at times, most frustrating clients, have been teenagers. Sometimes they enter my office so deeply guarded. They are afraid to be open, afraid to disappoint, afraid to express emotions that they have worked so hard to bury. And then there is this beautiful transformation that can happen as they learn to trust the relationship and trust the process.

I will quickly admit that these teens have taught me immeasurable lessons as I have sat with them and as they have vulnerably shared their hearts and stories with me. While the teens may come from different backgrounds and have likely been dragged into my office for differing reasons, the lessons they teach me are often similar. Their sadness has similar roots. Their needs have similar themes. As a way of honoring their stories, I want to share some of the lessons they have taught me… 

Teenagers want a place to belong.

Without exception, every teenager that has sat in my counseling office wants that place to be their literal home. Yet, I have talked to many teens who struggle to feel like they actually belong at home. When this doubt exists, teens search for an alternative place where their need for belonging will be met. I have seen teens search to fulfill their belonging needs through sports, through good grades, through questionable peer groups, through premature romantic relationships, through social media, and more. While I am not saying engagement in all of these areas is negative, I am saying a teen’s effort to fulfill their core belonging needs through these means often leaves them hungry and longing for something deeper.

I have sat with high achieving teens that have struggled with classes and have wondered if they will still be accepted in their family. I have sat with teens that have experienced the fracture of friendships or romantic relationships and believe that no one else will ever want them. I have sat with teens that no longer feel the drive to continue with the sport to which they have dedicated much of their life, and they wonder if they have any other contributions for this world.

When your teen feels like their world is crumbling, my hope is that they will know that home is awaiting them…a home that feels safe and a home where they know they are undeniably loved. This is their hope. And I am confident that it is your hope as well.

I do not take lightly the open view I am given into the hearts and minds of the teens that venture into therapy. They are so brave and have such wisdom to offer. They have spoken to and have influenced this momma’s heart without even knowing it. There are needs they wish they could express and messages they wish they could speak. I want to give a voice to them…because they matter…because I want you to possibly benefit from their wisdom as much as I have.

 Here is some of what they are sharing. And in my opinion, some of the keys to creating an atmosphere of belonging.

Teens want to know that you want them around. They want to know that you are willing to be distracted from what is in front of you to engage with them. They crave your smile. They still want to see that look in your eyes when you see them come into the house…the one that says, “It is so good to see you.” They want to know that their stories make you laugh and smile more than an article, group text or Facebook post.

Teens want to know that you are not only willing, but also desire to enter their world. They want you to listen to their music without it always producing your opinion or your judgment. They want you to watch their shows without the obvious signs that you’d rather be doing something more productive. They want you to ask about their latest sketches, doodles, unfinished poems, and daydreams.

Teens want to know that you care about their hearts and their dreams and not primarily about their accomplishments. They don’t want to primarily talk about their “future self”…you know, the “future self” when they are a college athlete (on a full/partial scholarship), the “future self” when they are living the dream of a successful career, or the “future self” when they are making lots of money so that they can return the favor and send you on extraordinary vacations. Make sure your teen knows you are proud of who they are today. Some teens mistaken your excitement for the future as delaying approval for who they are today. Be mindful that your words do not imply that you will be more proud of them once they get that scholarship, that perfect pass, that outstanding grade, or that dream job.

Teens want to have confidence that imperfection is acceptable. They want to tell you about their shortcomings and mistakes without feeling the disappointing glare that many of us are pros at demonstrating. Even more, they want to tell you about their shortcomings and know that even still, you are proud of them.

They want to know that you know you are not perfect. Truth be told…the teens I talk to are aware that their parents aren’t perfect. However, conflict arises most often with the teens that tell me their parents think they are perfect. So again, teens want to know that YOU KNOW you are not perfect. In appropriate ways, tell them about your mistakes. Tell them when you were late for a meeting, how you got lost on your way to a friend’s house, or how you became impatient in the store. Take ownership for your own shortcomings without blaming it on the person who distracted you on the way to the meeting, incorrect GPS directions, or a slow cashier. Demonstrate through your words that we are all growing and learning…and imperfect.

Teens know when their environment is tense. They know when their home is unsettled. When they lack the confidence that the tension will resolve, many teens find ways to disconnect or escape emotionally or physically. While, just like we individually are not perfect, we cannot expect our most intimate relationships to be free of conflict. However, I want you to know that your teens (and children for that matter) are observing if/how the conflict will resolve. They can tell when you are pretending even if you think you are a master at doing so. They pick up on the glares, the irritated tones, and the times you are ignoring your partner. But even more importantly, they also pick up on the smiles, the hugs, the genuine “I’m sorries”, and the “I Love You’s” that are also exchanged with your partner following conflict. When you demonstrate an atmosphere of resolution, grace, forgiveness and connection with your partner, this atmosphere infuses the home, creating a space where teens are more likely to believe they belong.

Teens LOVE to see their parents laugh. They LOVE to laugh with you. They LOVE when the entire family unit is a part of it. I learned long ago that LAUGHING together releases Oxytocin. Oxytocin is the same hormone that is released when a mother nurses her infant and through the process of being released, it creates a bond between the mother and infant. HOW AMAZING IS THAT!!! The same hormone that produces the bond established during the nursing process is also released in humans when they laugh!! When families share laughter, they create a connection. Genuine connection creates a sense of belonging and a sense of safety. Dance together, read jokes together, watch funny animals videos on YouTube together, Hula Hoop together, play charades, sing at the top of your lungs. P.S. That same hormone is also released during hugs.

As I consider the insights that I have gained from the teens in my office, I am full of hope. Full of hope for them and full of hope for you. They are giving us ways to grow, ways to respond, ways to succeed. Most of the wants they express are within our scope of control. We can effect the change they are looking for. They want what we want. They want the same connection, emotional safety, and acceptance that we desire for ourselves and for them. Be encouraged. Small changes today can lead to significant impact tomorrow. 

When I Chose to Stop Giving God the Silent Treatment: A lesson I learned after losing my daughter

Several years ago, I had a fight with God. There were turned backs, words, tears, crossed arms and clenched fists. It was raw and not what I wanted to do. In the end, the fight changed me. Vulnerably, I am choosing to share a part of my story. I do not pretend to know the journey you are on, and while it likely looks different than mine, maybe you’ll connect on some level.

 Twelve years ago, I gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Zoe Dawn Smith. She was my first. Through years of infertility, we had dreamed, hoped, and prayed for that day. She had brown wavy hair like mine and deep blue eyes like her daddy. Her skin was soft and 100% kissable. She had 10 fingers, 10 toes, thin lips, a cute button nose and squishy ears. She squeezed my fingers and we looked into each other’s eyes like you only do with those that completely know you. She’d regularly reach her tiny arms out in front of her in a manner that looked like she was trying to fly. When she’d do that, daddy and I would refer to her as “Super Zoe”.

 At 17 weeks gestation, David and I learned that Zoe had a genetic condition called Trisomy 13. If you are unaware of this condition, know that “severe physical abnormalities and mental abnormalities” and “incompatible with life” were some of the words the doctor used to help us understand the diagnosis.

 For the 18 weeks that remained in my pregnancy following this news, I spent most of my days holding my breath…unable to process the weight of her diagnosis. At times, fear would violently pull me out of my avoidant breath-holding state. We’d attend OB appointments every week. Sometimes we’d receive positive feedback of organs developing and water decreasing from her brain. These moments were what allowed me to come up for air just long enough to go back to holding my breath again.

 In all honesty, through the remainder of my pregnancy, I was a shell…only sustained by God’s grace, faithful prayers of friends, and hope that at some point, I would have the chance to touch my daughter.

On September 13, 2005, I DID get to touch Zoe. Seeing her and touching her were as precious as I had imagined. Her physical presence awakened me and for a time, I breathed again.

 Three days following Zoe’s entrance into this world, I prayed over, sang over, and held my baby girl as she took her final breaths. David and I wept over her, cradled her, kissed her, changed her diaper and clothing and eventually called for the doctor to roll her and her bassinette to wherever it is they take the babies that have forever left their mark on their parent’s hearts in this devastating way.

And then, I went back to holding my breath.

 Life went on.

Nightmares and sleeplessness.

Unanticipated tearful breakdowns in public places.

Blank stares in the middle of conversations with friends.

And attempts to pick up the remaining pieces in an effort to move forward.

We’d go to work. David a pastor. Me a counselor. Somehow trying to pastor and somehow trying to counsel. Because life goes on and the work of grief and the work that pays the bills often have to happen at the same time. Emptied of ourselves, I humbly hope that people still grew under our care.

 The years following Zoe’s death were filled with ups and downs. Grief changed me. For quite a while, I felt significant numbness. At times, numbness seemed like my method of conserving the remaining energy left due to the toll loss had taken on me. My husband, friends and family were left with remnants of me.

I’ve been a Jesus girl for a lot of my life. Praying, reading scripture, singing and looking to His life as the example. But let me tell you…there was a definite coldness between me and God for quite some time following my daughter’s death. However, because I’m also a bit of a rule follower, I kept pushing through the “good Jesus girl” motions as best as I could. I eventually learned that reluctantly doing the “right things” with my arms crossed was not connecting me to my creator.

 For as long as I can remember, I have always trusted in God’s sovereignty, believing that He has authority over all things. At some point, along the way, I applied this by thinking “Who am I to question God!?”  I mean, if God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever-present, “Who am I to question Him?!”

 In my grief, my response to that self-shaming question was this…

Just keep pretending that you are “okay” with how everything is going down.

Do the good things.

Smile when possible.

Trust in His sovereignty and move on. 

 But here was one of the major problems. I wasn’t actually trusting in His sovereignty. I was just pretending to trust because that’s what I thought a “good Jesus girl” was supposed to do.

 It wasn’t until years after Zoe’s death that I realized what I had been doing. I was sometimes crossing my arms in anger afraid to question Him. And I was sometimes hanging my head in discouragement because I started to believe I was no longer a “good-enough-Jesus-girl” to figure out a way to feel okay after the pain. Truth is, I was a broken-hearted daughter who had some unanswered questions for her Father. I needed to uncross my arms and open up about my coldness. I realized that unless I stopped being controlled by the “who am I to question God” belief, I was going to remain stuck between the disconnected anger and the self-shaming discouragement.

 There were lots of conversations that followed, but I want to tell you about the one that stopped me in my tracks. The one that finally caused me to uncross my arms and lean in close enough to listen.

 It was her birthday…a day that usually involves deeper aches and more tears. This would have been her 5th. I was sitting in the chair in my bedroom. As I write these words and remember that day, I can feel my lips tightening like they do when there is something you really want to say but you don’t think you should and the only way to keep from saying it is to literally clench your jaw and press your lips together so that the sound doesn’t accidently slip out. Yep, that’s what it was like on that day.

Sitting in my chair…

Clenching my jaw…

But then, I opened my mouth and said it…OUT LOUD.

 (Arms crossed.) “God, how could you let this happen?”

Silence.

(Louder.) “God, HOW could you let this happen?”

 And then I heard Him. As clear as you hear these words in your head as you read this article…I heard Him…full of compassion…full of love…free of frustration…free of judgment.

I know what is best.

(Arms crossed tighter.) “God, HOW can Zoe dying be ‘what’s best’?!” 

I know what is best.

(Fists in the air.) “God, HOW can Zoe dying possibly be what’s best for me?! Don’t you see how hard this has been?!”

I know what is best for her. 

I Know What Is Best For Her.

Ugh. That’s when I paused. That’s when my arms fell down to my sides. That’s when I started to weep. That’s when I imagined Zoe safe in the arms of Jesus. That’s when I imagined Him caring for her in all of the ways that are best for her. That’s when I felt Him calming this mama’s heart. That’s when I actually began trusting Him again. That’s when I believed that He does know what He is doing and He does know what is best for her. That’s when I realized that the pain I experience in this life does not equal a God who doesn’t care. That’s when I realized that believing I have no right to question God only kept me distant from knowing His comfort. And while my heart still aches at times, I do have a solid peace that has led me back to trusting Him. As I have released other loved ones into the arms of Jesus, I am reminded of those words that He whispered to my heart that day and I can rest in trusting that He does know what is best for them.

My standoff with God could have continued. I felt like I had every right in the world to be mad. You might feel that way too. I didn’t realize giving Him my anger and my questions would actually allow me to connect deeper with His love for me. But it did.