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.

Behaving on the Sidelines: Finding Ways to Engage with Our Young Athletes

It’s that time of year again. The trees are turning and it is time for fall sports to begin. For my family, that means soccer. For you, it may mean football, volleyball, fall baseball, or a combination of activities.

Our family is ready. We’ve washed last season’s sweat stains from the shin guards, found the correct size soccer balls, and purchased snacks for the team. Several weeks ago, my family started the countdown, as we all get excited for the season to commence. Because crisp fall mornings on the fields watching kids work hard and do something they love is fun, most of the time.

As adults, we hold a significant role when it comes to children’s athletics. The few and bravest of us will volunteer to coach. To you, I say “thank you.” The repeated pleas for more coaches were hard to read but I honestly just didn’t want to do it. Someone had to, so thank you for answering the call.

For the rest of us…the leftover parents, the grandparents, the aunts, uncles, and occasional neighbors, teachers, pastors, and neighbors who sit along the sidelines watching the games…we, too, have a great responsibility.

As I have sat along the sidelines for many seasons now, I have learned a few things about myself, about the players, and about our tendencies as spectators. I have some thoughts for all of us…

Let us remember who the coach is. Honor them by letting them coach. Remember that they answered the call to step in and we did not. Thank them for their time. Recognize that no matter how organized and assertive they are, some practices may still resemble herding cats. Give them grace when they forget to rotate players in a fashion that allows each player to have the same amount of playing time. Notice that they are doing something risky but beneficial when they allow a player to try their hand in the goalie box for the first time because the child had bravely shared that they’d like the chance to give it a go. Remember that they are trying to stay focused on introducing your child to the sport while nurturing their interest and eventual love of the game. Encourage them by telling them what they are doing well. If there are legitimate concerns, go to them privately and express them in an adult manner with a foundation of respect. Much of the same can be said for how we honor the officials. Keep in mind that kids watch how we interact with and respond to authority. Our children see how we treat the officials…whether we question, argue, or consider their calls ridiculous.

Let us remember that the players are kids. They are not college athletes and they are certainly not professionals. I have been watching my kids play soccer for years now, and I still get confused when we talk about “off-sides”. I’m getting closer, but people, let me tell you that it has taken a while for my mind to make sense of it. And if my “developed brain” has struggled to catch on to this rule, can we agree that our kids are working really hard to soak in a lot of new concepts. They are consistently being introduced to new skills and rules each time they are on the field. Cognitively, a child’s brain functions in a highly concrete manner of reasoning until reaching adolescence where they grow in their ability to think logically about possible scenarios and abstract ideas. We, the adult spectators, can not only quite literally view more of the field than the players on it, but we are also thinking with adult reasoning brains, therefore again viewing the field and the possibilities from a different perspective.

Let us resist talking negatively about our own children or another person’s child. Just don’t do it. Don’t talk about how clumsy they are because their body hasn’t caught up with the size of their feet. Don’t talk about how they are too slow or lazy on the field. Don’t talk about how they should have made the goal after they obviously didn’t make it. Don’t talk about how they should have stopped the goal that obviously went between their legs. Don’t talk about how your team would have won if so and so had done their job. DO intentionally look for specific ways to encourage and affirm them. Look for ways that demonstrate that they are enjoying the game, focusing hard, making steps towards mastering a skill, or treating their team and coach with respect and kindness.

Let us find ways to interact well with our kids immediately following their game. When your child runs up to you after their game, pause your adult conversations and engage with your child. Be ready to do this because it is really important to them. They may have been waiting patiently through the entire game to see how you will respond to them. Don’t worry about having too many words at this time. Let them know with your eyes and your smile that you are proud they are your child no matter how they played. Hug them. Kids always want to know that their people are proud of them. Heck, adults like to know this too…but that’s a topic for another time.

Consider the conversation in the car ride home. Be balanced. Resist pointing out all of the ways that they could have worked harder or played better. Choose your words wisely because they’re really only going to take in a portion of them. Better yet, draw thoughts out of them by asking good questions. Ask them what they learned today as they played. Ask them what was most fun. Ask them how they noticed their team working together. Ask them if anything was hard for them today. But in this process, we must remember that they will clue us in when they are done talking and we must try to honor this. Bulldozing past their desire to move on to a different conversation is usually more about our need to “coach more and make them better” than actually wanting to engage in a meaningful way. My boys tend to give us fairly bold cues that they are ready for a shift in topic…generally it has something to do with what we are going to eat for lunch or what are plans are for the rest of the day.

Lastly, try not to take it all too seriously.Let your kids see you cheer, laugh, and enjoy the process. Think about letting them coach you at home by teaching you what they are learning. Quite literally…grab the ball and ask them to teach you a skill they are attempting to master. Let go of control. Resist correcting them as they coach you. (Hint: If there is arguing, it may be that you may need to resist correcting even more.) Demonstrate how to listen, respond, and engage in the process with eagerness and a willing mind. They’ll be grateful you did…and your relationship will be grateful too.

Why We Tell Our Children our Love Story

My husband and I are big on traditions. I knew early on in our marriage that creating traditions unique to our family was something I desired and wanted to pursue. It took very little coaxing for David to jump on board. And if you were to ask about the traditions we have since established, they are equal parts him and equal parts me. Most of the traditions are very simple and yet perfectly beautiful in our eyes.

Some of our favorite traditions involve telling our boys our LOVE STORY. We’ve been doing this for years, way before they even seemed to care. There are three primary times during the year that the boys hear the most details of our love story: the anniversary of our 1st date, the anniversary of our second 1st date (yep, there’s a saga that obviously goes along with that one), and our wedding anniversary. Of course, there are times outside of these celebratory dates that we share pieces of our love story with them, but the traditions tied to these dates includes giving the boys a much closer picture into our early life together.

David and I are fortunate enough to live a short diving distance from Taylor University, where we met. Every year on our wedding anniversary, we return to the university with our boys. We revisit the literal place where we first met. We revisit the spots where we first really noticed each other. We walk paths that we traveled together. We point out where we each lived. We return to the restaurant where we had our first date. We even order the same specialty strawberry lemonade that we shared that first night.

Throughout the evening…during the drive to the university, as we walk about campus, and during our dinner at the cute diner/ice cream shop as we drink the same strawberry lemonade we had many moons ago…we talk about details of our love story with our boys.

As the years progress and as our boys age, their attention span and desire to engage in the discussion has grown. Early on, the trips down memory lane consisted more of pointing out the physical structures where we spent time together. At that point, those were the details to which they could attach. The process has since morphed into something much more.

As we return to those places now, we talk about what drew us to one another. I talk about how their father made me laugh and about my respect for his love of Jesus and people. Their father tells them about his reaction to seeing me for the first time and how he knew he wanted to pursue something deeper. We tell them about the days of getting to know each other…the walks, the bike rides, finding ways to cross paths even when it meant going out of the way between classes. We tell them about meaningful conversations we had about life and God and music and our dreams for the future.

AND, we tell them about some of the heartache. How figuring out relationships can be messy and take commitment and work. We tell them about the 15-month break-up and the hard lessons we learned about love and life and our identity. We tell them how really good things can come from unpopular decisions. And we tell them about our process of returning to one another and our decision to shortly thereafter move towards marriage.

We tell our boys about our love story because it matters to us.

We want them to know that being attracted to someone because they make you laugh and because you admire the way they love God and others are pretty great reasons.

We want them to see that human love is not perfect.

We want them to see that journeying together takes patience and gentleness and forgiveness.

We want them to know that bike rides and walks and ice cream shops were our favorite dates then AND our favorite dates now.

We want them to know that their parents have chosen to love each other even after hurting one another.

And while we share our love story for all of these reasons, I am recognizing a more precious product that emerges from the experience…

Each time David and I talk about our early life together, we return to seeing each other through the innocent eyes of a new and exciting relationship.

We remember how we have traveled up mountains and down valleys together.

We are reminded of what it means to choose to love one another even when we have been hurt.

And we are reminded of the reasons we chose one another in the first place.

Increasing My Capacity to Love Through My Willingness to Be Uncomfortable

Just like you, I have watched the news clips and I have read the articles. I have felt the anger and I have even felt moments of fear. I have felt deep sadness as I have watched the events unfold. Human fighting human. Hate lashing out. Fear lashing out. Darkness being revealed.

I want to love deeper because Jesus requests this of me.

I’ve called on Jesus to transform my heart and have asked Him to reveal the ways I have bought into hate, bought into fear.

I’ve written my post encouraging us towards more.

I attended an event declaring hope for love and unity and I lit my candle with all of the others in attendance.

But it doesn’t seem like enough.

Because I face this dilemma…

A dilemma that I am not proud to admit.

But nonetheless, here it is…

I realize that I am just a few steps away from fading back into the world of pretending that there is not a human against human problem. A problem that leads to humans beating other humans with flags and torches and fists. A problem that leads to humans spraying fire from aerosol cans, and throwing rocks and punches. A problem that leads to cars being driven into crowds with the intention of devastation.

I watched these horrific images as they were occurring two short weeks ago. I saw similar images in the days that followed. They continue. The stories haven’t gone away.  And yet…I am just steps away from slipping back into my alternate reality where it didn’t really happen…where it’s not still happening. And I recognize that this is not okay.

If I actually believe that love is necessary to change this human against human problem, I genuinely MUST be willing to increase my capacity to love. Like our physical bodies that do not become stronger unless they are pushed out past their limits, my capacity to love is increased through my stretching and moving beyond what is comfortable for me today.

I must ask myself who I am uncomfortable loving. Ugh. I know…I really just said that.

And because today I am referring to the type of love that is demonstrated through my actions, I am asking the deeper question of who I am uncomfortable interacting with. I am asking this question because it leads me to a deeper truth about myself. I am asking this question because I actually have answers. When I ask myself who I am uncomfortable interacting with, I find out who I struggle to love.

I am far from proud to admit this, but there are people groups that I avoid. I avoid them with my presence. I avoid them with my words. I avoid them with my eyes. And this is not love.

I am grieved by the way my avoidance adds to this human against human problem.

And so today, I commit to stretch my capacity to love. I commit to make myself uncomfortable so that what is uncomfortable today may become comfortable tomorrow.

I will lift up my head and stop avoiding with my presence, with my words and with my eyes.

I will choose to say hello. I will choose to smile. I will choose to wave. I will choose to ask, “How are you?” and wait patiently for a response. I will choose to do this especially when I know I am uncomfortable. How can I live out Jesus’ command to love my neighbors if I keep pretending that some of them aren’t even there?

I know that these actions may seem small and insignificant to some. That’s okay.

For me and for any of the rest of us knowingly a few steps away from slipping back into the alternate reality that everything is just fine, would you consider another option?

Ask yourself the hard question…who do you struggle to love?

Take an uncomfortable step…say hello. Wave. Ask them about their day. Listen.

Know that these steps are good. Simple as they may sound.

Despite the awkward.

Despite the discomfort. 

Change occurs through the awkward.

Change occurs through the discomfort. 

When Your Mind and Your Body are Failing You

I know it’s hard and you may resist believing me, but there’s something really important I want to tell you…

I know your physical strength is waning. I know you don’t like needing help to lift and move things that, at one time, would have been a breeze. I know you feel weak and fragile. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember playing ball in the driveway and wrestling in the living room. I will remember the piggy back rides and I will remember your strength that always protected me.  And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know you walk more slowly than you used to and you just can’t get your legs to go any faster. I know you are concerned that you are making us late for wherever it is we are going. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember how we’d play chase and run through the fields together. I’ll remember when I was the one that couldn’t keep up with you. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know that you struggle to tie your shoes. It’s hard to grip the laces and you grow tired during the process. I know it frustrates you that your fingers don’t work the way you want them to. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember it was you that sat patiently with me as I learned to tie mine. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know you can’t hear as well and you have to ask me to repeat myself several times. I know you feel embarrassed when you just can’t understand what others are saying to you. But know THIS is true…

I’ll remember when you would sit and listen to me tell you stories. I’ll remember how your ears were always open and ready to hear my heart. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know that your vision is no longer what it used to be. I know you struggle to see the pages and ask me to read the words to you. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember how we would cuddle up on the couch and you would read my favorite stories to me. I will remember how you taught me to see the details of my surroundings as we would drive the countryside together. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know that you wish I didn’t have to feed you, wash your face, and comb your hair. I know that it’s uncomfortable to let me care for these basic needs. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember the times that you took care of me. The times you fed me, bandaged me, and cared for me when I was sick. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know you are scared and you startle at the slightest noises. I know that you feel embarrassed when you don’t recognize your surroundings. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember how you would calm me when I was the one who was frightened. How you would make me feel safe when I was the one who was scared. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know that you cry more than you’d like and you worry that you are burdening those around you. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember the many times you wiped away my tears and helped mend my broken heart. I will remember all of the burdens you carried for me. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know there are times you struggle to say my name. I know that you wish you could find a way to make your mouth say what you are thinking. But please, know THIS is true…

I will remember the many times you said my name with the deepest joy and the biggest smile. I will remember how proudly you would speak of me every chance you’d get. And with THESE memories, I will honor you.

I know that you think you are less than you used to be. You believe that because your body and mind do not function the way they did when you were young, you are less valuable or less lovable.

But know THIS is true…

Your value and your worth go deeper than what your mind and what your body can do. Your value and your worth are steady and never-changing. God declared that long ago.

AND WITH THIS KNOWLEDGE, I WILL HONOR YOU.

 

 

**This piece was written in honor of my father, Jerry V. Saylor, who lived his last years on earth struggling through the physical and cognitive effects associated with Lewy Body Dementia. He lived and loved well from 6/14/1947 – 8/19/2016. I also write this in honor of the many others who struggle to believe that their value and worth are never-changing in spite of the reality that their mind and body are.

 

Stop Believing that Grief Doesn’t Change You

I have experienced deep loss. I have mourned alongside friends, family and clients who have also experienced deep loss.

Through the journey, I have heard these words repeatedly…

“I just feel like I am so different than I was before my loss.”

I have heard these words pour from the mouths of friends, and I have heard these words pour from my own mouth.

For those of you that have walked your own grief journey, you know that these words can often be laced with shame and the idea that we need to get back to the person we were before our world was shaken.

No one should be expected to rise up out of the ashes looking the same as they did before the fire.

And yet, we often place that expectation on ourselves.

When we struggle to accept that grief changes us, we can often go into emotional or physical hiding, believing that the changes are unacceptable to us and assuming they will be unacceptable to others. We may believe that our people will not love us with our bumps and bruises or that they will grow weary of our tears.

Buying into these beliefs typically lead to emotional numbing, hopelessness, deep depression, or prolonged isolation from others.

I remember many years ago, following the loss of my daughter, I began to hesitantly express to friends that I felt like a different person since her death. I was scared to tell them…maybe I assumed they’d agree and point out all of the flawed ways I had in fact changed.

Of course, they didn’t.

The reality is…my people are good. They are loving. They saw my heart. They saw my pain. And they knew that I was rising up out of the ashes. They actually didn’t expect me to be the same as before her death.

They told me that I was okay…

needing more alone time.

being less productive.

needing more sleep.

crying at random times.

excusing myself from overwhelming conversations and situations.

feeling things that they didn’t understand.

They helped give me permission to accept that grief was messy and that this was okay. They helped me believe that finding my “new normal” didn’t need to be a smooth process. They helped me trust that I didn’t need to hide the scars of my loss.

And the more I believed this, the more grace I extended to myself as I continued to walk the journey. The more I accepted the grace available along the journey, the more I could find the strength to keep leaning into the healing offered and the more I could trust that something good and acceptable could emerge from the ashes.

If you are the mourner and you have yet to take the risk of sharing with your people the ways loss is changing you, I encourage you to consider that your people might want to know you, bumps, bruises, scars and all.

When we let our people see us, we allow our people to love us.

A Letter to the Educators Returning to School After Your 8-Week Summer Vacation

Well, another summer break is ending and you’re making your last minute preparations to jump back into the classroom. You’re tidying up your lesson plans and scouring over your schedule and student lists. You’re taking deep breaths every day and giving yourself pep talks about the adventures of the upcoming year. For some, you may be feeling those first day of school excitement jitters like the night before Christmas.

Before I go much further, I have some confessions to make…

In the past, I know that I have been more than guilty of thinking, “It must be nice. What I wouldn’t give for 8 weeks off in the summer!”

I must tell you that those thoughts were from a place of not knowing…I mean REALLY not knowing. And I must also tell you that I am so very sorry for not looking and listening close enough to know better.

Over recent years, I have chatted with you at drop-off and pick-up. I have sat with you in my counseling office. I have talked with you at church. I have engaged with you at family gatherings.

I have listened deeper

and

my view has dramatically changed.

I know that many of you have not had the summer that my past-self used to envision. Maybe you’ve spent some days at a pool or on a family vacation…but so have many of the rest of us. Hopefully you have had moments of peace and pure joy and have made some amazing memories with your closest people…and again, hopefully so have many of the rest of us.

But this is what I also know…

This summer, you have sat and read longer with your own children. You have cuddled longer. You have lingered in conversations with them. You have felt more present as you have been less exhausted from the events of the school day.

This summer, you have attempted to disconnect from the difficulties facing your students…the ones that have weighed heavily on your hearts and have disrupted your sleep.

This summer, you have planned new assignments and you have attended hours of classes and trainings to educate our children in the most up-to-date and relevant ways.

This summer, you have sat in limbo and have wondered about the security of your teaching future. You have watched as national, state, and local changes have been proposed and initiated.

This summer, you have taken on extra jobs and have launched new businesses to support your growing family and your growing expenses.

This summer, you have set and taken on personal goals of self-care. You have found time and space to follow your creative spirit and express some of those ideas that have been stirring in your mind for months.

This summer, you have tackled the ever-accumulating home to-do-list. You have raced to cross as many items off the list as possible and you have decided that the rest will now just have to wait until “the next break”.

This summer, you have crammed in medical and dental appointments and procedures for you and all of your family members because fitting those into a teaching schedule can be more than challenging.

This summer, you or a family member has received a diagnosis that has devastated you. You have consulted with doctors and have scoured over the internet looking for treatment options. You have searched to find your new normal.

This summer, you have cared for your aging parents. You have made arrangements to transition them into facilities that will care for them in their declining physical and mental state.

This summer, your heart has been ripped open in unimaginable ways. You have planned funerals. You have said goodbye to loved ones way too soon. You have grieved and you have sought out ways to breathe again.

This summer, you have fought for your marriage. You have fought for your children. You have fought for your grandchildren. Some of the battles have been won and some have not.

As you return to the classroom, know that some of us just don’t really know.

Know that it is possible that we may act as if you have been carefree and completely unburdened for the past 8 weeks.

Know that I…we…are sorry for the ways we do not see you and for overlooking important parts of who you are.

Thank you for showing up day after day after day. 

My prayer is that you would confidently rest in knowing that you matter.

That you matter to your family.

That you matter to our schools.

That you matter to our children.

That you matter to us.

Stuff That Happens When You Ask a Child about Their Love Life

Like many kids, my boys began attending preschool when they were 3 years old. Within weeks of starting school, the strangest thing began happening…I KID YOU NOT…the most well-intentioned adults began asking my boys if they had found a girlfriend yet. I don’t know if it had to do with the fact that their “ocean” had just expanded or what…but I was perplexed by their line of questioning.

Over the past several years since those initial encounters, I have spent many moments considering the implications of asking our children about their love life. While my initial ponderings began as a result of hearing people inquire about my very young sons’ love interests, my ponderings have continued as I have walked through elementary school with my boys and their friends, sat in conversations with my own friends traveling the same road and as I have sat in sessions with preteen and teenaged clients.

As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, I fully believe that the folks asking my boys if they had girlfriends were well-meaning and intended no harm. Most often, these questions come in the form of teasing and ‘good ole’ fashioned fun’. Other times, the questions may simply come from an innocent place of wanting to know more about the child’s life.

But can we talk for a moment about what’s happening under the surface when these questions are repeated over and over to our children?

We establish the thing to strive for and establish indicators of our children’s personal worth.

Significant other = mission accomplished.

Significant other = personal value established.

Significant other = people are proud of me.

I have watched this equation play out in my own life. Between the ages of 10-15, I cried a sea of tears thinking I was less than my friends because I didn’t have a boyfriend. Well-meaning peers would console me by telling me that someday someone would like me in that way. But until then, I questioned my value…I had not accomplished the mission.

I have watched this equation play out in the lives of my children’s schoolmates. My sons have told me the stories of wedding ceremonies and kisses on the playground. They’ve told me about the boys that have multiple girlfriends and the girls that pester them about being their boyfriend. (Remember…my boys are only 8 and 10).

I have watched this equation play out in the lives of young clients in my counseling office. I have worked to help mend the identity of several teens that question their value because their partner broke up with them and have moved on to someone else. They have interpreted the loss of their significant other as the loss of their value.

If we came from the perspective that the words we speak hold significant weight as our children seek to understand their value, we would trust that even innocent teasing and ‘good ole’ fashioned fun’ have the power to influence the path a child may follow.

Here is the reality…children will believe that their value comes from the topics that are most often brought to the table. This refers to their activities, their performance, their grades, their boyfriend/girlfriend, their appearance, their failures…

BUT OH-SO-FORTUNATELY, the list does not stop there.

My husband often says one of his biggest annoyances is when someone points out the problem but offers no alternatives. I never want to be guilty of that in my writing.

So, I want to offer some other options. Questions we can ask our children that communicate value of who they are from the inside. Questions that call out their uniqueness. Questions that indicate that THEY matter just as they are…not because of how they perform, what they have accomplished, or who they are with.

As a place to start, here are a few alternatives…

What things make you happy?

Tell me something you have learned recently?

Tell me about your dreams?

What’s something that has made you laugh lately?

What’s something you are excited about?

What’s your favorite color and what do you love about it?

Describe your best day ever?

Then, allow your kids to see your eyes light up as they respond…

Together, let’s seek to hear the hearts of our children and let’s seek to demonstrate that there is value in who they uniquely are.

When Your Child Sees the Way You Look at Yourself

Recently, I published an article about the influence adults have over children in regards to how children learn to talk to themselves. You can read more about it here: https://frommychair.blog/2017/07/14/our-influence-on-our-childrens-internal-dialogue/.

After reading this article, a dear friend contacted me and vulnerably shared that her adult daughter had recently asked her why she was never happy with her body. My friend’s daughter expressed that her mother’s unhappiness with her physical-self caused her to feel like she, too, should be ashamed of her body. It hit my friend hard. Although my friend knew she didn’t see her body in a positive light, she thought she had kept her thoughts fairly hidden. The conversation led my friend to consider how she had unknowingly influenced the way her daughter thinks about her own body.

I have to tell you, in spite of the story that you just read, I think my friend is a really great mom. Here is why. She raised a daughter who had the courage to talk to her about this vulnerable aspect of her life. Her daughter felt safe and confident enough to know that she could trust her mother’s response…one that humbly sought her daughter’s forgiveness.

Oh that I might always be that kind of mom. The kind that my children can confidently approach with the hard stuff. The kind of mom that will admit my wrongs. The kind that will humbly seek their forgiveness.

My friend’s story got me thinking more deeply about how we influence our children’s inner dialogue specifically about our bodies. If we are really going to lean into this matter and teach those within our influence to love themselves better, we have to take the humble approach like my friend and think about more than just the way we speak about our bodies.

If you are like me, you have (mostly) mastered the art of self-control over allowing self-disparaging comments to roll off of your tongue when kids are listening. However, our children are not fooled by our silence…at least not when our actions tell their own story.

Like…

What about the way we look at ourselves in the mirror? Do we smile when we are getting ready or do we let out an exhausted grunt when we assess our finished appearance, demonstrating a slightly disgusted glance?

What about the way we respond to compliments? Do we genuinely accept them or do we list 3 negatives and shove the compliment right back in the giver’s face?

What about our responses when shopping for clothes with our children? Do we dread the experience because “nothing fits quite right” and make those aforementioned disgusted grunts every time we look at our self in the dressing room mirror?

What about when we’re watching movies, looking at pictures, or browsing magazines? Do we verbalize a running narrative about the physical appearance of the people we see? Are we giving it more attention than it deserves?

If we are going to walk towards healing together, I have to talk about the tough-to-hear truths…These reminders of our behaviors are not about creating a list of don’ts so that you can simply pretend to value yourself. The change has to happen at a heart, mind and behavior level.

But let us not forget, there is always good news.

A course can always be redirected.

There is this supercool thing related to our brains called neuroplasticity that simply put, means we can retrain our brains…that means we can retrain the way we respond to ourselves and retrain the way the little ones watching and listening respond to themselves.

How about together, we take one step that begins to shift our course and potentially the course of the little eyes that are watching and listening?

Start with the heart, mind, or behavior. You choose. Just start somewhere.

How about we start here…

 Let’s smile at our reflection.

 Let’s assume a compliment was meant to be accepted.

 Let’s teach our children to look more deeply for beauty.

 Let’s find ways to compliment others based on their character and what we see looking into their eyes.

If only we could see ourselves through eyes that are full of grace and kindness and are certain of the beauty that lies beneath the surface. Let this be the course we pursue.

If only we could keep the perspective of another dear friend’s wise daughter, Soren (age 8) who sweetly wrote these words, “Thank you soul for choosing me to be your cover.”

Ahhh….let that be our course.